instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The faith of the Gentiles

The story of the Canaanite woman and the story of the centurion make for an interesting comparison.

They start out similarly:
  • Then Jesus went from that place and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, "Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon."
  • When he entered Capernaum, a centurion approached him and appealed to him, saying, "Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, suffering dreadfully."
But then they veer off in completely different directions:
  • But he did not say a word in answer to her.
  • He said to him, "I will come and cure him."
Or... maybe they aren't so different.

St. Matthew writes of "a Canaanite woman" and "a centurion," but of course they were actual, individual human beings, not stock characters in a fable. Jesus doesn't treat them as objects with which to teach His disciples a moral. He treats them as actual individuals, and from his treatment of them as actual individuals His disciples are to draw the general lesson. From the particular, we arrive at the general -- but we can't skip over the particular when we're dealing with other persons.

Maybe the way to put it, then, is that the stories don't really start out all that similarly. "A Canaanite woman with a possessed daughter" and "a Roman centurion with a paralyzed servant" are not identical and interchangeable circumstances, and that's even before we get into the differences between this Canaanite woman and this Roman centurion.

Our wonder shouldn't be that Jesus responded differently to two very different people in different circumstances. More might we have wondered if He had responded identically, like the Divine Vending Machine we're always telling non-believers God is not.

Making no claim to originality, let me propose that Jesus' responses are actually similar, in an important way. They are both ways of testing the faith of the person who has come to ask Jesus for healing. They are, so to speak, both ways of asking, "You call me 'Lord,' but do you truly regard me as Lord, or am I just the closest miracle dispenser to hand?"

That the tests for two very different individuals weren't identical shouldn't be cause for scandal, and the similarities in the responses should reassure us that Jesus knew what He was doing in responding to each:
  • She said, "Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters."
  • The centurion said in reply, "Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed."
Not being children of Israel, they could not prove their faith with filial trust. But a humble admission that they have no claim on Jesus, that they ask not for His justice but for His mercy: that is the faith of the Gentiles which Jesus desires and which He blesses:
  • Then Jesus said to her in reply, "O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed from that hour.
  • And Jesus said to the centurion, "You may go; as you have believed, let it be done for you." And at that very hour his servant was healed.