Next week's readings: 12th Sunday after Trinity

by
02 November 2006

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Proper 15:
Genesis 45.1-15 
or Isaiah 56.1, 6-8
Romans 11.1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15.[10-20] 21-28

WHAT BLESSING will God extend, at the last times, to the Gentiles - and on what conditions? For one answer, current in Paul's day, we naturally look to the "Judaising" mission that was so vehemently opposed to Paul's own. Surely those Judaisers represented one widespread view: Gentiles were and would always be admitted to God's people on their undertaking to obey the Law as any Jew was obliged and privileged to obey it.

But other views were possible. In this week's Old Testament reading, Isaiah' s God orders his people to "keep justice; blessed is the man who does this, who keeps the Sabbath and keeps his hand from doing evil" (from Isaiah 56.1-2). Clearly embraced by this blessing were the righteous members of the present worshipping assembly of the Jews.

From this assembly, eunuchs were excluded (Deuteronomy 23.2-7). But Isaiah's God overrules such exclusion: eunuchs and Gentiles, he promises, will be blessed as well (Isaiah 56.3-8). Gentiles can, of course, come to observe the Law; but eunuchs cannot be made whole again. The eunuchs will be blessed as they are; and so, we might conclude, will Gentiles, too - as uncircumcised Gentiles.

Paul was concerned not only with the admission of Gentiles, but also with the timing of that admission. Isaiah spoke of God purifying Jerusalem of all evil (Isaiah 1.24-27). And then "in the last days," said Isaiah, "the nations shall say, 'Let us go up the house of the God of Israel, and he will announce his way to us'" (from Isaiah 2.2-3).

But the majority of Jews were rejecting Paul's gospel. It was among Gentiles that the gospel was taking hold. So Paul reveals a "mystery": God has hardened the hearts of the Jews until the Gentiles have first been converted. Once more, Paul can (just) find a basis for his claim in Isaiah. The prophet had foretold: "They shall fear the Lord's name from the west, and his glory from the rising of the sun." And then "he will come to Zion as Redeemer" (from Isaiah 59.19-20). First the nations will acknowledge God's glory - and only then, the Jews themselves.

Paul is going against the grain of scripture here; he must make the best of a difficult job. He resorts to fervent rhetoric: "O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!" (Romans 11.33).

Paul encouraged Gentiles to see themselves as part of God's people. Matthew, 30 years later, was confronted by Gentiles eager to do so. They were unsettling conservative, Jewish-Christian churches.

We miss the point of Matthew's Gospel, if we look there for a single view on Gentiles. On the one hand, Jesus is first acknowledged by the Gentile Magi (Matthew 2.1-12); and the foreign centurion shows faith such as Jesus has found in nobody in Israel (Matthew 8.5-13). On the other hand, Jesus tells the Twelve to avoid any Gentile or Samaritan territory in their first mission: "Go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matthew 10.5).

This command of Jesus was clearly well known. Matthew inherits from Mark the story of the Gentile woman with the sick child (Mark 7.24-30, Matthew 15.21-28). Matthew's Jesus is frankly brutal. There is the woman, yelling after Jesus. Here is Jesus, not deigning to speak to her at all. "I have been sent out", he says to his disciples, "to no one except the lost sheep of the house of Israel."

Matthew's Jesus is endorsing the insistence of conservative leaders within Matthew's churches: all that the good news brings, it brings only to the Jews. "It's not right", says Jesus, "to take the children's food and give it to the dogs."

The woman persists: "That's right, sir, but the dogs do eat from the scraps that fall from the masters' table." There is a pause. The tables are turning. This woman is confident that this Jewish "Son of David" has more to offer than the Jews themselves will eat.

Jesus answers: "Woman, you've got great faith. Be it done for you as you want." The woman's trust is greater than any rules; in its effect on Matthew's Jesus, it overcomes even Jesus's own commission.

As in Jesus's day, so in Matthew's. Even the most conservative of Matthew's contemporaries must by the end of the Gospel be ready to hear and accept the final commandment of their risen Lord: "So go, make pupils of all Gentiles, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28.19).

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