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Readings: 9th Sunday after Trinity

08 August 2014


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

Almighty God, who sent your Holy Spirit to be the life and light of your Church: open our hearts to the riches of your grace, that we may bring forth the fruit of the Spirit in love and joy and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

ISAIAH had words of hope and promise for foreigners who, barred from the Inner Temple, nevertheless, in the lovely way he described, joined themselves to the Lord. Specifically and radically, he mentioned outcasts. Centuries later, Paul, writing to a church that was struggling with Jewish-Gentile relationship, emphasised God's mercy to all peoples.

With this background, it is shocking that Jesus turns away a Gentile Canaanite woman: a classic outcast. The affront is all the more pointed because Matthew has placed Canaanite women in Jesus's genealogy (Matthew 1.3-5). So all may not be as clear-cut as it seems.

Although Matthew repeatedly shows Jesus as the fulfilment of the law and the prophets, with a mission priority to the Jews, and sending his disciples only to Jews, this did not prevent his scathing critique of empty religious tradition.

His Gospel was more radical than most of his fellow Jews could tolerate: God purposed, through blessing them, to bless the world. This had been envisaged in God's promise to Abram (Genesis 12.3), and was a theme developed in the latter chapters of Isaiah. That worldwide mission and blessing took full shape after Jesus's resurrection.

Probably to escape pressure after his confrontational teaching, Jesus went to Gentile territory, which most Jews avoided. There, he was confronted by a Canaanite woman, who was unclean in Jewish religious terms. But what came out of her mouth was faith-filled, and thus she forced him to embody in his ministry what he had just taught about cleanness and uncleanness.

Rabbis did not talk to women in public. Jesus was silent while the disciples reiterated their mantra: "Send the problem away" (Matthew 14.15). But the woman knelt before him, called him by a Jewish title, and, a loving mother at her wits' end, pleaded: "Lord, have mercy on me." Matthew places mercy at the heart of Jesus's message (Matthew 9.13, 12.7); so surely she was pushing at an open door?

Jesus's answer was offensive. Jews called Gentiles "dogs"'. Perhaps inured to abuse, she accepted the insult, but also retaliated. By saying "Even foreigners can grab the crumbs that Jews reject," she put Jesus, who had recently had 12 baskets of crumbs on his hands, on the spot by demanding some of them.

By positioning the story as he did, Matthew made more connections than those with crumbs. He contrasted her with the Jewish leaders who had just rejected Jesus (Matthew 15.1-9), and used this story to put flesh on the bones of Jesus's recent teaching.

Kenneth Bailey (in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, SPCK, 2008) suggests that Jesus was deliberately teaching the disciples, and began by voicing and appearing to share their beliefs as faithful Jews. Playing along with deeply embedded prejudices about Gentiles, ultimately, he turned the tables, and commended her at their expense. "Woman, great is your faith," was in stark contrast to: "Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?" so recently addressed to Peter (Matthew 14.31).

This is the only recorded time which someone took Jesus to task and emerged victorious. That person was neither a disciple nor a Jew, but a Gentile woman. In that social climate, she was a classic example of Isaiah's outcasts. The Church, facing the divisions to which Paul referred in his letter written about 30 years before the Gospel, had to grasp that the mission to the Gentiles began in the mission of Jesus. This gospel is for all nations, as Isaiah radically foresaw. Our inclusion in the Church is a product of this encounter.

The woman challenged Jesus. She challenges us, too, about how we view interruptions in life. If, like the disciples, we want to send them away, we may miss out on what God is doing to bring health and hope in the world. She also challenges us about persisting with God in the face of all-consuming, unmet need. Perhaps Jesus had her in mind when telling his parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge.

The woman got more than she wanted: not just her daughter's healing, but mercy for herself, and public praise for her great faith. Some of the greatest answers to prayer have a life-changing effect, far beyond the actual thing for which we have asked.

There is, indeed, "a wideness in God's mercy". So we pray: "Open our hearts to the riches of your grace."

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