Isaiah 56.1-8; Psalm 67; Romans 11.1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15.[10-20] 21-28
Let your merciful ears, O Lord, be open to the prayers of your humble servants;
and that they may obtain their petitions make them to ask such things as shall please you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
SUNDAY’s readings face a question that has preoccupied communities working out their relationship with God and their neighbours over millennia: who is eligible to claim God’s promise of salvation?
The final section of the prophecy of Isaiah speaks to Judah about the obedience that should characterise life after their exile. The prophet addresses the people not as a nation state, but as a religious community (R. Coggins, “Isaiah” in The Oxford Bible Commentary OUP, 2001).
Besides standing aside from discrimination within the body of believers — and not, for example, excluding the faithful eunuch on grounds of physical imperfection (Isaiah 56.4-5) — the audience must consider another revision of perspective: foreigners who “join themselves to the Lord” will, in future, share the heritage of the Lord’s chosen and elected people (Isaiah 56.6-8).
The new world that God is bringing into being (Isaiah 11.9) will be founded on faithfulness. God’s covenant with the chosen matters as much as ever; but it is a living and growing covenant, and its welcome extends to all who commit themselves genuinely to the God who lays down its requirements
Paul looks at the subject of salvation from the opposite perspective when he writes to the Roman Christians about God’s dealings with the Jews. He speaks of his own background: “an Israelite” by birth, and “a descendant of Abraham”.
It concerns him, his readers will realise, that the salvation won through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ should include the Jews. Despite their resistance to the news of Christ, it is not God’s intention that they should fall (Romans 11.11).
For a time, this has created a situation in which Gentiles have found faith in God (Romans 11.12), but that is not enough. Israel may have been resistant, but their refusal of Jesus takes nothing away from the antiquity of God’s choice of Israel as the nation who would be distinctively his people. The same mercy that met the Gentiles will be there to welcome the Jews who welcome the message of Christ and do not find it a stumbling-block (Isaiah 28.16, 8.14; Romans 9.32-33, 11.9; Psalm 69.22-23).
Paul concludes this chapter with praise. God’s wisdom is far greater than any human attempts to determine the mind of God. All things, including the gift of salvation, are held within the depth and mystery of the God who cannot be repaid for his generosity, and whose judgements lie beyond human comprehension (Romans 11.33-36, cf. Job 41.11).
Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus in confrontation with the Canaanite woman who begs him to heal her daughter shows him in the very act of revising his understanding of his own mission. The meeting takes place after a sharp attack on the kind of observance of religious law and custom which concentrates on externals (Matthew 15.10-20).
Ritual purity that takes no account of the interior sincerity has little value. It is the heart’s intentions and the poisonous effect of conscious and deliberate actions that damage both self and others, and that require close examination and correction (Matthew 15.19).
After this, Jesus crosses into Gentile territory, in the region of Tyre and Sidon. He is immediately met by a woman who is beside herself with despair and grief over her child, who is “tormented by a demon” (Matthew 15.22).
Greeting Jesus as “Lord, Son of David”, she begs him to heal the child. What happens next displays both the disciples and Jesus in a light that must make readers extremely uncomfortable.
The disciples are embarrassed by the woman’s shouting, and ask Jesus to send her away. Jesus is not so much embarrassed as austere. He simply states that his mission is exclusively to Israel (Matthew 15.23-34).
Then follows the well-known exchange in which Jesus points out that the children’s food must not be given to dogs. The woman, turning his metaphor back on him, counters that even the dogs can eat crumbs from the tables of their masters (Matthew 15.25-26).
Jesus is faced with someone who meets him in humility, kneeling at his feet. She is prepared to endure undeserved humiliation, because she knows that he has the power to heal. She, like the centurion earlier (Matthew 8.5-13), epitomises the individual whose heart harbours only good intentions, and, in her, Jesus must recognise impressive faith and an already well-formed capacity to be the kind of follower he has recently been describing.
Such exemplary characters take nothing away from the covenant promise to the Jews. Rather, they set a pattern for all who will eventually be included in that promise. This is a turning-point, at which Jesus accepts that he is the Messiah for both Jews and Gentiles.