Pentecost 11A 20
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
This week we come to one of the most difficult, if not the most difficult passage that concerns Jesus. I am so glad that the related Old Testament passage from Isaiah and Psalm have the capacity to help us understand this passage. It is at first glance a story of Jesus being very rude and having his mind changed by a persistent, strong feisty woman. I once, in Grace Cathedral San Fransisco, heard a fine woman preacher talk about it from that kind of perspective- Jesus was inconsiderate and she fixed him by making God change God’s mind. And certainly, you can go there. The problem for me is that it doesn’t sound like the Jesus of the rest of the gospels, nor the God of inclusion that we meet in Isaiah and Psalms today.
So, let me begin by putting this passage into context. Matthew shows Jesus teaching and then healing and we have been following this through the season of Pentecost. First, we read a series of parables the main thrust of which is that the Kingdom will surprise you, that from little things big things grow and that we are not to be the judge of who is in the Kingdom. Then Jesus does a whole lot of healing, exhausts himself, and he is grieving as well, he goes off to find some quiet and ends up healing the huge crowd who come to him and then feeding them, through the agency of the disciples. He is now so exhausted that he goes away to pray, walks towards the disciples on the water and God is revealed to them. Matthew is building up a picture of Jesus that is about a God who reveals God’s self, who exhibits power mostly through the business of healing or saving, not forgetting that they are the same verb in Greek. This is a God of inclusion who teaches a generous and abundant grace. This is the same God that we meet in Isaiah, who at the return of the exiles includes foreigners and eunuchs into the group. This is a God who wants to bless the whole world through the agency of Israel. And Matthew is writing to underline the generosity of God into a community who is busy, we think, defining themselves in opposition to others.
Then we have a bit, and we only read the end, verses 10-20, where the Pharisee and the scribes come to Jesus with a list of complaints. Jesus very quickly tells them that they need to be much more self-critical and examine their motives. They must not expect others to keep the letter of the law but rather they must all keep the spirit of the law. And then in vv. 10-20 he makes it clear to the crowd that being undefiled isn’t about keeping laws but rather about having a good heart. And as a side note the heart is the centre of the will in Hebrew, rather than the centre of the emotions, which is why Jesus lists all the things that we can do, willfully, to hurt others. Being unclean, or defiled, prevented you from joining the worshipping community and Jesus wants those who worship God to do it in charity with their neighbour. The pharisees are interested in keeping the unclean out, Jesus wants the unclean healed and brought in.
Jesus as we see in this brief summary is God of abundance, grace and mercy, which sounds like the God that we meet in that wonderful psalm, as well as Isaiah. This is God who wants healing and wholeness for God’s people in the Kingdom.
And then we have this uncomfortable account of the Canaanite woman who come shouting after Jesus asking for healing.
Jesus has gone into foreign territory, in fact it is him who is the outsider at this moment. Now, as a biblical scholar one of the things that fascinates me about this passage is that Matthew changes Mark’s account quite a bit and the first change is that he renames the woman as a Canaanite. Mark says that she is Greek, and specificies Syrophoenician. Matthew says that she is a Canaanite, the ancient brother turned enemy. I have always wondered why and this time, working on this passage I read something that made sense of it for me, and indeed helps with the whole passage.
The disciples see her as wrong- she is a woman for a start, she is a foreigner to them at least, and there is some suggestion that she was of a higher socio economic status. They desperately do not want Jesus to get involved with her. And not only the disciples, Matthew’s listeners would have also thought that this woman was bad news. That she was a woman yelling out to a man in the street is enough on its own and a Canaanite woman, ancient enemy, should certainly be excluded by Jesus. But she does something unexpected. She asks for mercy, and names Jesus as Lord, but more particularly, Son of David, which is a very odd thing for a Canaanite to do as David went around killing Canaanites. Now, if you are an acute reader of Matthew’s gospel, you may well be reminded by her claim of the genealogy right at the beginning of the gospel, ‘an account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham.’ This account of who Jesus is has one extremely odd feature- it lists five women, and all of them either sinners or outsiders, several of them Canaanites. This, I think is the clue. Matthew has this woman echo her foremothers, women who he has included against tradition. I think that Matthew is being very subtle here as he speaks of inclusion not exclusion.
The next bit that Matthew puts in, not in Mark’s account, is that Jesus says, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,’. I think that Matthew has Jesus stating the position that his listeners expect. And the woman kneels before him, saying, ‘Lord help me!’ Jesus replies, ‘it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,’. Now this is so rude and unpleasant that it really doesn’t sound like Jesus, does it? He is expressing again, what his listeners, both the disciples and the auditors of the Gospel are thinking. It isn’t fair for this woman to come demanding healing when Jesus has so many Jewish people to heal that he gets exhausted. I always picture Jesus saying this to her with a self-deprecating smile, so that she knows that he doesn’t mean it. And she gets, what my mother would have described as ‘bold’ or ‘cheeky’, in reply. She isn’t cowed by what he says, which makes me sure that he has encouraged her in some way. ‘Yes Lord,’ she says, ‘yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ I think Jesus clapped his hands with pleasure and grinned at her response. Bravo, well done woman! Matthew has him say, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly the text tells us, another demonstration of God’s mighty power. Jesus has indicated that he sees all the objections but he praises her and heals, which is his great agenda. Matthew is revealing to his listeners that God is above the petty divisions, that God is about inclusion not exclusion.
I think there is also a subtle allusion to the communion. Jesus blesses and breaks bread for the 5,000+, which we read as a eucharistic gesture. Here he talks about the bread on the table. I think the implication is that anyone is welcome at the Lord’s Table.
And do you notice that final comment? This woman has great faith. Peter, as we read, only last week, has little faith, which luckily is enough but the God of abundance recognises abundant faith.
And in doing this healing Jesus is maintaining God’s justice and mercy. He is doing what is right, no matter how wrong his listeners think it is. And he is bringing into the Kingdom all peoples, as Isaiah describes it.
This passage has the ability to challenge us. What are our prejudices? Who are those that we think should be excluded both from the Kingdom and perhaps from our fellowship? Are they people of different ethnicity, colour, creed, gender or sexuality? Are they people who think differently from us? Are they people that we see as sinners, or unclean? In the middle of the pandemic we have developed new ways of thinking of people as clean or unclean, haven’t we?
Do we, like the pharisees only include those who conform to our rules? Do we think that the bread on our table is for only those who we see as clean, and certainly not bold women of Canaan?
This is a challenge to us, just as I think Matthew was challenging his listeners, to examine their own prejudices because our God is a God for everyone.
And may God be gracious to us and bless us, that God’s power may be known on earth, God’s saving power among all nations.
Rev. Roberta Hamilton