Theme(s): God's mercy / our faith / a simple cry for help / God saves both Jews and Gentiles
Sentence: O the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! (Romans 11:33)
teach us to be open with you about our needs,
to seek your support in our trials,
to admit before you our sins,
and to thank you for all your goodness. Amen.
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
As we come to the gospel reading today to consider a story in the mission of Jesus in which he claims that his mission is to Israel alone, we hear this reading as a reminder that God's mission was never to Israel alone, but always included in its vision the wider world.
Thus this reading forms background to the gospel story in which a Gentile woman seeks help from Jesus and leads us to wonder if Jesus was making a teasing comment about the focus of his mission rather than a definitive or absolute statement.
The psalmist shares in God's global vision. The expectation of this psalm is that 'all nations' will know who God is, what God's saving power is all about, and respond with joyful worship.
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
This choice of verses is very poor on the part of the lectionary compilers! By stopping the first part with the words 'God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew' the sense is given that 'Israel is fine (fullstop)' when, in fact, the next few verses (2b-5) go on to make the point that God's not-rejecting-Israel is exemplified by the recurring presence of a 'remnant' (5). It is not exemplified by a 'get out of judgment' card for ALL Israel.
In the second part of the reading, it is just as unfortunate that the choice of verses does not front up to the confrontational verse 28,
'As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors'.
What is Paul saying in these latter verses? He is saying something he expresses throughout the chapter (see verses 11 and 12) that in some way, Israel being disobedient to God has opened up the way for God to expand his covenant of love to include those outside Israel, that is, to the Gentiles. Jewish loss (of obedience) is Gentiles' gain (of blessing). But verse 31 suggests a kind of virtuous circle: as the blessing of God moves on from disobedient Israel to the Gentiles, so it will move on again, moving back to Israel, that it might also be shown mercy.
This likely seems odd to our way of thinking, especially those of us who are Gentile Christians, steeped in a strong sense of the inclusive, wide-ranging love of God. We need to think about what revolution had been going on in Paul's life: an Israelite nationalist and Jewish zealot, his view of the sphere of God's operation was extremely limited. Israel alone! Now that his tiny worldview has been shattered by his conversional encounter with the risen Christ, he is setting out an understanding of what his new worldview looks like, in relation to his previous one.
But there are more difficulties in Romans 11 and the lectionary choice generously drives us past them, leaving them unattended on the side of the exegetical road! What, for example, does Paul mean when he says, 'And so all Israel will be saved' (26a)?
Whatever he means, taking the chapter as a whole, including the three chapters it is grouped with, 9-11, as well as the whole letter to the Romans, it is difficult to get past the fact that Paul is committed to an understanding of salvation in which our belief determines where we stand in relation to God. ("Belief" here meaning our personal commitment to Christ as a response to hearing the gospel.)
'And even those of Israel, if they do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again.'
Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28
15:10-20: It is likely too much to preach a moderate length sermon on the whole of 15:10-28! But 10-20 serve as background to 21-28 for there Jesus converses with a Canaanite, a defiled person, so to speak, and thus verses 10-20, about what actually defiles a person is of direct relevance to verses 21-28.
The summary of 10-20 is: 'But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles' (18).
By verse 28 we will find that what comes out of the Canaanite woman are words of faith: she is no longer 'defiled'. Jesus has prepared the way for her to be included in the 'new Israel' or kingdom of God because in verses 10-20 he has upended the role of the law in guarding the boundaries of Judaism. If what defiles a person are not external actions (hand washing, which foods go into the mouth) but internal attitudes and intentions, then the basis of distinction between Jew and Gentile is radically undermined.
15:21-28: Matthew tells this story with some variations from Mark's version (Mark 7:24-30). In Mark's version the woman's Gentile status and character is spelled out as 'a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth' (7:26) but Matthew revises this to 'Canaanite' (Matthew 15:22). Either way, this woman is a Gentile, someone who does not belong to Israel, a point made with particular intensity by Jesus (24).
Matthew's Gospel has a high gearing towards a Jewish Christian readership (note, for example, the beginning in chapter 1 via an 'Israelite' geneaology, the repeated invocation of prophetic texts being fulfilled in Jesus and the engagement with the relationship between Jesus' teaching and Old Testament law in 5:17-20).
But at several points Matthew communicates to his readers that Jesus' mission long-term was not to be limited by Christian disciples to Israel alone. This story is one of those points. Here is a Gentile woman seeking help from Jesus (15:25); here is Jesus claiming that he 'was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel' (24). But the woman gets the help she seeks and the conversation between her and Jesus draws out that Gentiles are encompassed within the scope of Jesus' mission:
'even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table' (27).
For many centuries this story has been read as a fascinating story in which Jesus and an unnamed Gentile woman engage in a bit of clever repartee for which the woman is commended as yet another person, indeed another Gentile (see Matthew 8:5-13) who has faith (28).
But in recent years, especially through a feminist critical lens, this story has received quite a 'going over'. Special concerns raised include:
- the attitude of Jesus towards the woman (harsh? unyielding until she gets the better of him?)
- the use of the word 'dogs' to describe the social status in Jewish eyes of a Gentile woman (26)
- yet again Matthew presents a woman, two woman, in fact, the mother and the daughter, without names.
The observation is also pressed by some scholars that the story seems to show Jesus as needing to be taught a lesson by the woman, 'even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table' (27), before he succumbs to her entreaty for help.
In sum: the story has become a centre of scholarly controversy, both in respect of Jesus' attitude to women, to outsiders and in respect of christological reflection as to 'who' the Jesus of this story is.
Can we add a thought or two at this point?
If we compare this story with the comparable (re Gentiles) story in Matthew 8:5-13 we see that there is equal treatment of the centurion and his servant re names, both are unnamed. We also see that the centurion takes a position of extreme humility in relation to Jesus whereas in today's story Matthew (so to speak) permits the woman to be a 'strong woman' with humility ('she came and knelt before him', 24) but is not characterized as a strong woman with extreme humility (since she refuses to take 'No' for an answer).
In each story Jesus commends the Gentile for his or her 'faith' and healing occurs at a distance (i.e. in each case the ill person is not present to Jesus).
Each supplicant demonstrates their great faith in Jesus by a 'smart' verbal exchange:
- the centurion demonstrates his awareness of the authority of Jesus in relation to the authority of God,
- the Canaanite woman demonstrates her awareness of the mercy of Jesus in relation to the mercy of God (which has been demonstrated through the centuries to non-Israelites, e.g. to Naomi & Ruth, to Naaman).
The matter of the use of the term 'dogs' is difficult. It is a deprecatory term for Gentiles. Yet, could we read it as a form of teasing which opens up the possibility of the woman's clever reply which (positively) manipulates the conversation to a point where Jesus has no further reply save to offer 'the crumbs' she seeks (27)?
While at this point (and on this point) we could say that Jesus learns a lesson, even that Jesus is challenged to expand his narrow mission horizon, it is equally possible to say that Jesus himself is manipulating the situation to draw out the faith he senses in the woman, a faith which has brought her to the point of recognising a non-Canaanite as having access to the healing power of God.
Finally, in respect of the christology of the story, Matthew can scarcely be charged with presenting Jesus as some kind of limited human being with a narrow outlook, inconsistent with being divine in status. The woman addresses Jesus as 'Lord' on three occasions (22, 25, 27) and on the first of those occasions connects 'Lord' with the messianic address, 'Son of David.' Does this 'Lord' need to be taught through another human being that God's purposes for the world are greater than his understanding? It is preferable to consider that this Lord is able on his own to work out the global extent of God's plan and thus the comment in verse 24 is a teasing comment rather than a statement of Jesus' then self-understanding with all its implied limitation.
For ourselves, we might read our participation in God's plan via our own needs for assistance, expressed in the simple prayer,
'Lord, help me' (25).
Our confidence in God's help then works its way out from this story as we consider the mercy of God available even to us who may feel far from the centre of God's purpose,
'even the crumbs that fall from their master's table' (27).
ADDENDUM: Ian Paul offers some significant rejoinders, here, to a drift of recent scholarship to characterize this story in terms of Jesus' limitations if not his fallibility.