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When Silence is Not Golden

If I were to ask you what one of the top 10 moral and cultural issues of the last 100 years might be, I wonder what you would say?
Would you agree that racial identity rates highly among the top 100? - Think of the horrified reaction of the world when it was learned that Nazi Germans had killed six million people whose only crime was to be a Jew. Remember the dawning of disgust and the galvanising of action when the world realised that the South African apartheid system discriminated against millions of people simply because of the colour of their skin.

-Think about the racial tensions that exist in the USA between Black Americans, Africans Americans and White Americans as the world witnessed once again last weekend.
- And in our own country the racism that pervades our society especially towards our indigenous brothers and sisters and those coming to live in Australia remains distressing.
As a child growing up I was often told “silence is golden” and many people continue to live by that maxim either because they are fearful of speaking up about controversial issues or because they are apathetic or perhaps do not know what to say. Therein lies a problem. It is silence that allows others to suffer

Because of these and other terrible situations and many more since, working for and speaking out for the equal rights of all human beings has become a major focus of our time. Facebook alerts us to what is happening in the world. Other forms of the media keep us well informed – if we choose to be.
Even for a 21st century hearer, the story we have just heard read from Matthew’s gospel is very confronting. Here is a desperate mother with a sick child being refused help on the grounds she is from the wrong race. Could you imagine the media reports today if they got wind of a story about a doctor or nurse refusing to treat a patient simply because they weren’t from the right family background or weren’t the right colour?
One of the reasons Matthew’s story is hard to hear is because we are confronted with a Jesus that shocks us. His apparent attitude, the words he says, and apparent reluctance to hear and respond to the woman seem so out of character. In fact, there is no nice way to say it, Jesus appears to be racist.

My usual approach to this episode in Matthew’s gospel has been to see it as a pivotal moment in Jesus life when he is forced to change his mind about the tradition in his day that viewed Canaanites as next to vermin, as mangy dogs. Jews and Canaanites despised each other. Add to this dynamic the Canaanite is a woman and you have a story about prejudice and racism. Clearly Matthew had a very important reason for including this story in his narrative despite of, or because of its confrontational nature.
In coming to terms with the story, it helps a little to see where it is placed in the gospel narrative.

This episode with the Canaanite woman occurs at the end of a chapter where Matthew has Jesus teaching about traditions. Jesus is saying traditions can actually take away from God’s laws, not uphold them. He has been very critical of how the teachers of the law have much to say about traditions but show no compassion towards people.
But I wonder what might happen if we take the focus off Jesus in the passage and look at the disciples and their response? I think that if we do that we throw a different light on the story which can touch us more directly.
Let’s look at the story again.

Jesus has finished talking about what defiles a person and the place of traditions. Then comes the story of the Canaanite woman. Notice what happens and we will need to use a bit of imagination here. She rushes up to Jesus pleading for help. “Have mercy on me Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
What follows her agonised plea for help?

Nothing. There is silence. No one wanted to put their foot in it and say something to this person. Everyone is silent – including Jesus. Surely, silence is not always golden? Why did Jesus not speak? ……
Let me suggest that he is waiting….. Yes, he could be making up his mind what to do as some suggest – but is he waiting and hoping that his disciples might respond in a way that would indicate that he has actually gotten through to them? That they have actually begun to hear all that he has been saying and doing and teaching, especially about traditions?
So who breaks the silence first? They do. They finally break the silence angrily, hatefully. “Please send her away!” they say. “She’s shouting after us.” We don’t want her around. She is unclean. She is a foreigner. She is a woman. Get rid of her. What kind of words are coming out of their mouths?

Go home. Go back where you came from. You are not one of us. Your kind is not welcome in our country.
They are words that reflect the traditional attitudes of the day - traditional attitudes that are offensive and racist and exclusivist and far from the kingdom of God.
When Jesus speaks he seems to support their attitude. He says he has come only to Israel. When she pleads with Jesus, he uses traditional language by referring to her as a dog. “It isn’t right’, replied Jesus, ‘to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’ The children here being the children of Israel.
Ignoring this unseemly and shocking response from Jesus, the woman responds passionately and in humility. “Yes Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
At this point, I imagine there was probably another long, unsettled silence.

I think Jesus probably waited again for a response from his disciples. Perhaps he was being deliberately provocative, wanting them to interject and plead on her behalf, to indicate that in some way they have heard the good news of God’s inclusive love and that in fact Jesus own words were in contradiction to his own teaching.
Again, the silence is deafening. Yet it becomes clear no human barrier can stand before God nor before those who call on his name in faith. The good news is that finally, Jesus acts and her daughter is healed.
It seems to me that when you look at the story this way, noting the silences, the focus of the story is not just on Jesus, nor is it entirely on the woman and her faith, but as importantly, or perhaps even more importantly, the spotlight falls on the disciples and by implication, on the response of the hearer.

At the time the Gospel of Matthew was written, the fledgling Christian community was facing a huge moral and cultural issue. They were trying to come to terms with what it meant to have the kind of newcomers in their community they once would have excluded, excluded because traditionally, they were unclean – like the Canaanite woman and her daughter. Perhaps Matthew wanted to shock them out of their comfort zone and into action.
Silence is golden? Is it?

Today’s Christian church is faced with many challenges. One of them has been historical silence in the face of complaints of sexual misconduct and child sexual abuse in institutions run by churches. As survivors speak up pleading for help and healing, the Christian church is having to acknowledge its failure. The silence is being broken and reparation is being made.
ABC journalists Julia Baird and Hayley Gleeson recently wrote an article challenging Christian churches to break their silence on another issue that is devastating, widespread and which has huge lifelong repercussions on the victims and survivors. And that is- domestic violence.

It is a complex issue and as the journalists have suggested, some traditional teachings of the church have contributed to the justification of both perpetrators and victims. Bible verses are quoted - Women are to submit to their husbands and men are the head of the house. These verses speak of a hierarchy of power and obedience that can be abused when taken literally or isolated from the broader teachings of Jesus where loving one’s neighbour as one’s self is akin to loving God.
Failure to acknowledge how Christian teaching has played a role in domestic violence will not bring transformation and hope. The Church also needs to acknowledge its failure to respond properly to the victims of domestic violence. Just as a child is never to be blamed for becoming a victim of sexual abuse, neither is a woman or a man for that matter, to be told it is their fault that they have been cruelly treated by their partner.
In the face of controversy and injustice, what are we to do? Will our response reflect the good news of God’s kingdom? Or in the face of tradition, will we remain silent?

Like the disciples when confronted by the Canaanite women, do we too need to be shocked into action as we come to grips with the moral and ethical issues of our time, in our community, in our country? I hear the gospel reading saying very loudly that silence is not always golden.
May all we do and say be to the glory of God whose mission is to bring healing, hope and acceptance to those in great need. Amen.

Margaret Middleton

The Rev Margaret Middleton is a retired Uniting Church minister. She occasionally provides supply ministry in the wider church but leads worship in TUC regularly. 

Margaret also supports our work by leading several groups of people seeking to grow and deepen their faith. She is a member of the Karralika outreach team and is a member of the Presbytery Pastoral Relations Committee.

Contact Us

P: (02) 6231 0488
F: (02) 6296 3403

Comrie Street
Wanniassa ACT 2903

PO Box 423
Erindale Centre ACT 2903 



About Our Church

Our faith community began in 1975 as a small ecumenical gathering of people who settled in the new Canberra township of Tuggeranong. We have grown with the Tuggeranong Community, and our parish centre is the hub for our work, as a place of worship, of gathering, fellowship and ministry.

We come together for authentic and Christ-centred worship. While we worship in a variety of styles, we share a common focus on faithfully listening for God’s Word and sharing His kindness and compassion with others. We express our love for God and others through a range of ministries, and connections with our community.

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