Faith or Humility?

Religion / SOSc

I’ve been turning a thought over and over since last weekend. The Gospel for that Sunday was the story of the Canaanite (outsider) woman who meets Jesus and asks for a healing for her daughter. Jesus initially rejects her request saying that he was sent to the Israelites not the outsiders. She pushed back and Jesus, impressed by her, heals her daughter.

It’s an odd story that doesn’t really fit with the paradigms we use to understand that Gospel story these days. We tend to think (rightly I believe) that God is acting in Jesus to draw all the nations and all people into a new relationship with God. The short hand version name for this paradigm is “Inclusion.” God is inclusive and profligate with Love for all. That’s a hard thing for us as humans to understand.

From that viewpoint, this gospel story is hard to understand. Either Jesus changes his mind (which doesn’t seem to fit with any of the other stories in the gospels), or he’s playing some sort of game with the woman who confronts him (which also doesn’t fit).

But Inclusion wasn’t always the primary paradigm for understanding the Gospel. Right after the Reformation, in the protestant churches at least, the paradigm was Faith. As Martin Luther argued, we’re saved by Faith, not by the actions we take or don’t take. That’s a huge point and an important thing to remember, and a central teaching in St. Paul’s writings. And it’s a bit easier to focus on the outsider woman’s faith that Jesus could heal her daughter in spite of Jesus reaction to her question than it is to put his reaction into a matrix of Inclusion. (So this wasn’t as difficult a story to preach prior to the post-WW2 paradigm shift.)

And prior to Faith, the paradigm of the Church was Humility. We were saved by Jesus and his humility to God, and we were expected to follow suit and be humble as well. To the early Church what was notable about the outsider woman wasn’t her insistent belief that God had room for her in God’s heart, or her faith that Jesus could and would heal her daughter, it was the way she responded humbly to Jesus’ reluctance to heal. She doesn’t become angry, she accepts what he says but continues to push. The early writers commend her humility and say that is what Jesus ultimately commends.

My point is this – there are multiple paradigms that have served the Church in its attempt to understand that actions of God in Jesus’ earthly ministry. But we always tend to look at each story through one set of lenses at a time. It’s rare that we take the time to try all of the various lenses that Church has used over the thousands of years it has wrestled with these texts. I’m thinking that this has impoverished our ability to read the Gospel. All of our understandings of what God is doing in Jesus are partial and incomplete. Like in physics where we need to know when we ought to use classical physics versus when we ought to use quantum physics, perhaps we need to be ready to shift paradigms when a particular story just won’t fit…

I’m thinking of committing myself to discipline of reading the gospel stories through these various paradigmatic lenses this coming year. I want to see what new insights such a practice brings to me as a preacher. There’s an art to knowing which sort of physics to apply to a given situation. I’m wondering if there’s a similar art to knowing which great Gospel paradigm to apply to a given story.

The only way to know is to try it.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. The next question is how to apply faith and humility, a much needed paradigm shift, to the policies and practices of our religious and political institutions today. Jesus was compassionate when the woman was persistent. Being compassionate in the midst of today’s conflicts, and having the faith and humility to care for all people and places would be a remarkable paradigm shift. Thanks for your helpful thought about this inclusive story.

  2. Becky Anderson says

    At least one Biblical scholar (sorry I can’t remember his name) suggested that Jesus made the remark about throwing the children’s food to the dogs as a half-jest, challenging the woman in the style of the rabbis of the time who were fond of debating and playing verbal games. The Canaanite woman responds in the same spirit, taking up Jesus’ challenge when she says “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” It’s a clever and witty answer, and Jesus is obviously impressed with this woman. I’m not sure about her humility, her faith is ultimately, I think, what elicits Jesus final response to her. This is a difficult, but fascinating bit of scripture!

  3. What do you do to relate to the Jewish lens we have in the OT? and in current Jewish studies which overturn traditional Christian ways of reading the NT? The OT is the Shroedinger bird – don’t squeeze it the wrong way 🙂

  4. I am a catholic . my church continues to relate original sin to the story of Adam & Eve even though that is in contradiction to reality as we know it. I would like someone to explain to me why the catholic and other churches still relate original sin to the biblical creation story. I would appreciate a response. Thank you

  5. Dick Carter says

    The request was not selfish for the non-Jewish person making the request. That seems to be a common theme, where there are requests for Jesus to help others. Humility is also a common trait. Total faith is also exhibited, even when it does not fit the paradigm of fitting the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant for the Chosen People. Jesus even chided those that did not comprehend the goodness of the Samaritan traveler. He also told the unbelieving followers that, “Even the Samaritans “Get It” when he preached. Jesus pre-crucifixion efforts were on a tie limit for that imminent required salvation happening. After Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, spiritual Adamic human death was defeated and redemption was accomplished for all people. Then the New Covenant of Grace, The Church Age was started. The new Temple is for Christ to be in us and we, in him. Rebirth is required for that to happen. Rebirth allows humility, faith, etc. Salvation for all believers is possible through Faith.

    • Dick Carter says

      Text Correction = Jesus pre-crucifixion efforts were on a time limit for that imminent required salvation happening.

  6. Joy Twelves says

    So, just out of curiosity, what paradigm, or lens, would Matthew have been using when he wrote this story?

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