Memorial of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross
Then Jesus said to her in reply,
“O woman, great is your faith!” (Matt. 15:28)
How fascinating is this line from today’s gospel. Jesus is always surprising us. Today, to address someone as woman might easily be taken as a negative address. To say “What do you want, woman” rather than using the person’s name would likely be taken as insulting. But it’s clear that Jesus does not intend this as anything but a compliment. It’s not just that he praises her faith in the next breath, but reminds us of Jesus using the exact same term to address his mother at the wedding feast at Cana in John’s Gospel, “Jesus saith unto her, Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come.”
It would be ludicrous to think that Jesus could possibly be insulting toward his mother, And it’s just as mistaken to take this incident in Matthew’s gospel as anything but a compliment. Likewise, in John’s gospel we find the same form of address used by Jesus when he says, “woman, behold your son.” Once again, it’s a very deliberate choice of words, since we might’ve expected him to say mother behold your son in order to maintain a certain parallelism in the text. So there must’ve been a great reason that Jesus chose once again to address his mother as “woman.”
Much has been written about the way Jesus addressed his mother at Cana, many different explanations, but all of them have one thing in common. His addressing Mary as “woman” is a compliment related to her faith and her role in the plan of redemption. Mary, represents the new Eve side of redemption, she is the woman who stands for all women and the close cooperator with her son in the work of redemption and salvation.
It’s quite startling, then, to see this same expression used in the context of a pagan woman who has asked Jesus for a great favor. It almost seems ridiculous to make any comparison at all between Mary and this pagan woman, and yet. Jesus is always full of surprises. It is the very disproportion between his mother and this woman that should make us stop and think. What is Jesus trying to teach us? What was he trying to teach his apostles in this incident?
We don’t know why Jesus had traveled to this pagan territory of Tyre and Sidon, but surely one of the reasons was to encounter this woman, and to let this little drama play out in front of his chosen disciples. She was seeking Jesus, but Jesus, as in the case of the woman at the well in Samaria was also seeking her and her salvation. If Mary represents the whole of redeemed womanhood and the role of woman in the divine plan, perhaps this woman in Samaria might represent women of Gentile roots who would come to Jesus and populate His church. She also reminds me of another woman in John’s gospel, the woman caught in adultery whom Jesus once again surprisingly addresses in the same way, “Then Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?”
How interesting. The Canaanite woman represents perhaps the rare pious Gentiles, similar to the Roman centurion, for she is a woman of faith, just as Mary is the woman of faith. Again, in the case of the Roman Centurion, recall that Jesus once again surprisingly refers to his great faith, “ I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.” So there were pious men and women of faith even among the Gentiles, and Jesus chooses to recognize this openly.
On the other hand, the woman caught in adultery easily represents the unfaithful and sinful people of the covenant. And yet, Jesus saves her from death, and he addresses her also as “woman” and calls her to repentance and salvation. It’s all a wonderful mystery.
And as I said at the beginning, this was no chance encounter, and I believe it was not only for the good of the woman and her daughter, but also for the good of the Church, which one day would grow mainly out of this Gentile world.
The apostles were always learning from the words and deeds of Jesus. This was revelation, and the essential part of their education, and ours. As St. Paul insists, Christ has come down to remove the barrier between Jew and Gentile and unite them both in his holy church. This incident was a prelude to the missionary life of the apostles. They had to understand the full implication of Jesus words in Samaria, “I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.” It was true then, and it is true today. This woman in the Gospel is there to remind us that faith is the very foundation of the command of Jesus, “Go out into the whole world, and make disciples of every nation.”