Sunday, August 20, 2023
15A – Isaiah 56:1, 6-8, Psalm 67, Romans 11:1-2, 29-32, Matthew 15: 21-28
If you ever thought that Judaism, that the religion of the Old Testament, was “particularistic,” that is, that God’s mercy and provision applied only to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, you might want to rethink that.
Isaiah makes it clear that God is the God of all.
But it was clear before that, too. The story of Ruth illustrates it; the stories of the Exodus do, the admonitions about foreigners who choose to join themselves to Israel are to be welcomed, where immigrants are to be treated exactly the same as those who were Israelites by birth.
Now it is also true that Israel tended to ignore or forget that great good news.
In trouble, in times of famine or war, “outsiders” are all too quickly seen as dangerous, the enemy, people who are outside the care of God.
We know something about that tendency, too.
Nativism, both religious and political, always raises its ugly head to move people from simple identification with their own group, to rejection of anyone different, especially those who seek to be part of it.
And extreme nativism even rejects its own people who are “different” from the norm: the “outcasts of Israel,” Isaiah calls them.
We might call them gay, or trans, or uneasily Christian: baptized, but hesitant to commit to a community that still seems to be racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, bent on control.
And so the prophetic voice has to appear again and again to correct this notion that God chooses only the people that the in-group loves; and that God is obligated to share any prejudice that the group happens to believe is godly.
The Psalmist sings: “Let all the peoples praise you.”
“Let your ways be known upon earth, your saving health among all nations.”
What God did for Israel was intended to be an example, an illustration, a song of deliverance that God’s people were supposed to sing to all the world, not a freedom to hoard for herself.
But that raises another question: Should Israel try to require that others become Jews first, in order to inherit the blessings? Or does God welcome all who look to God regardless of whether or not they keep the Law of Moses?
And that question is answered differently by different authors throughout the Old Testament.
Paul has a good deal to say about this, too, in the New Testament, wrestling with the same question: If the Gentiles are included in the people of God, does that mean that Jews who keep the Mosaic law and do not accept that Jesus is the Messiah are now “out?”
Peter had to deal with the same questions as well.
Do Jewish Christians dare to share meals with Christian Gentiles who are unclean?
Should new Christians, who will enter this Jewish Christian community be required to be circumcised?
What about food sacrificed to idols – (which, in fact, was most of the meat sold in the marketplace?) Can believers eat it?
That question remains a live one even in the 21st century Church.
Who is in? Who is out?
Who draws the boundaries? And if we draw them, is God obligated to honor them?
Today’s gospel story takes a look at this question from Jesus‘ experience, not from his teaching.
Obviously, it seemed to have meant something important to the first believers, or it wouldn’t have been included in our Bible. So what might that be?
Remember the story.
Jesus and his friends have gone away into a region where the population was mixed, there were some Jews, but many who were not. It had a complicated history. There was real hostility and resentment between the children of Israel and the children of Baal. Jews wouldn’t expect a welcome. Gentiles wouldn’t expect to be respected by Jews passing through.
Nevertheless a Gentile, a Canaanite woman came running out from her house, and began to follow Jesus, shouting, “Have mercy on ME, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
At first, Jesus simply ignored her.
His disciples urged him to send the woman away, because they were so clearly embarrassed by her awkward presence, her noisy outburst.
Jesus remarks to them, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
But the woman wasn’t satisfied with that.
She came and fell on her knees in front of him. He couldn’t ignore her or go on his way without stepping around the woman. You know he was bewildered, too.
And she begged him, saying, “Lord, help me.”
So Jesus responds in a way that surprises us – and maybe disconcerts us,
“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Gentiles were definitely “dogs” to the Jews in Jesus‘ day. And for good reason, too. They were outsiders. Unfit. Un-included. And the idol-worshipping Canaanites were all of that.
But what if this is an upside down story in which the needy foreigner is the true prophetic voice?
“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
She doesn’t deny the insult. She doesn‘t argue with him about whether she deserves help or not. She doesn’t denounce his prejudice.
But notice, she had already called him by his true name: “Son of David.” – which suggests, King of Israel. Messiah.
And if he was really the king of Israel, then he is also the one who represents God, the one God of Israel and the whole world, who actually does include the outcasts and the foreigners.
And now she waits. Confident. (And where do you suppose she got that boldness, anyway?)
She knows the disciples are embarrassed and expect her to be. But she isn’t.
She knows her neighbors are gawking, too. And she doesn’t care.
She has crossed absolutely every social boundary and kneels there entirely vulnerable. In expectation.
And she also realizes that Jesus himself doesn’t know what to make of her.
So she answers him, delivering the prophetic word of God to Jesus:
“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.”
(A crumb is as good as a loaf.
That’s how powerful the bread of life really is.
How real a God-bringer you are, Lord.)
She gets it. But does he?
And everybody holds their breath, watching them.
And then it seems as if Jesus really hears her.
Hears the truth of what she says.
Hears God speaking to him through this Canaanite woman: this inappropriate, unreasonable prophetess.
And he shifts gears, and maybe he remembers the stories of other foreign women: Rahab and Ruth: outsiders, women, and yet Israelite heroines, and it seems he comprehends God’s truth about Israel’s vocation – and his own – beneath and beyond his 1st century understanding.
And he realizes something else. This foreign pagan, a desperately needy woman without even a husband or son to speak for her, knows who he is better than his disciples do, and maybe even better than HE did before this very moment : “Son of David” for real.
“Woman, great is your faith!
Let it be done for you as you wish.”
Faith. Trust. From a pagan. It happens.
Again and again we seem to need the prophetic witness by someone we think should be excluded, shining with the wisdom, the healing, the glory of God.
Over and over we need to be reminded that God really is no respecter of persons.
Time and time again the church needs to see that our exclusion of anybody is not from God, and that God will welcome all people, anyway, even if we don‘t.
And we need to make sure that we keep our hearts and doors and minds open to welcome the ones who will also have unexpected, uncomfortable prophetic words to tell us – persons whose presence will invariably change us, even as they embrace what we also have to give.
And if you are feeling a bit outsider-ish yourself, and probably we all do at one time or another, not good enough, not in the inner circle, remember this story.
There IS NO INNER CIRCLE.
Be bold to ask for what you need.
Remember the old proverb in The Lord of the Rings: “The hands of a king are the hands of a healer.”
And remember this, too: nobody, absolutely nobody, is ever going to be left behind.