A Sermon preached on August 17 (Pentecost X) at St. Augustine’s Church, WiesbadenIsaiah 56: 1, 6 – 8, Psalm 67, Romans 11: 1 – 2a, 29 – 32, Matthew 15: 21 – 28
In our Rite I Eucharist, that’s the version using more traditional language, there’s a beautiful prayer called the Prayer of Humble Access that goes all the way back to Thomas Cranmer. It contains the line “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.” The Canaanite woman’s reply in today’s Gospel, as well as the parallel passage in Mark, is a source for that line: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table," she answers. (Matthew 15:27) This is definitely one of the more difficult passages in the New Testament. The words Jesus uses to argue with the Canaanite woman are not ones we expect from his mouth. Comparing someone or in this case a whole group of people with dogs was not polite then, and would not be polite today. We encounter a side of Jesus that offends our modern sensibilities. Not only that, Jesus seems to understand his mission as one exclusive to Israel: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (15:24) How do we reconcile this with our image of Jesus and of God? And we can be pretty sure that we are dealing with an authentic saying of Jesus: the early church, by the time of this Gospel was written down already ethnically mixed, would not have made up a story in which Jesus appears in such a bad light.
The question of whether Israel’s God and religion was inclusive, open to all who, as Isaiah puts it, “join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants,” (56:6) or whether it should be restricted to the people of Israel, is an old one. Both traditions are represented in the Old Testament. We find the exclusive tradition in the books of Joshua and Judges, and Ezra and Nehemiah. All four books describe how, on their return from exile, whether from Egypt or Babylon, the Jewish people sometimes quite literally fight to remove foreign influences and people, and how they strive to keep their faith and people pure and clean. We find these stories disturbing too, especially in light of the more recent history of ethnic cleansing. But then we also have the inclusive or universal tradition of a God and faith for all peoples. In the book of Ruth, a woman and a foreigner is held up as an example of loyalty and faithfulness, and is identified as an ancestor of King David and therefore also of Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father. In the book of Jonah God acknowledges the faithful repentance of the people of Nineveh, an ancient enemy of Israel, and again and again the prophet Isaiah describes a God who gathers all peoples with the help of Israel, a people chosen to be “a light to the nations so that God’s salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)
We find this apparent contradiction, this discrepancy in Matthew’s Gospel too, which describes two different missions. In Matthew chapter 10 (5-6) Jesus sends out the 12 disciples with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,’ the phrase he also uses in his first response to the woman’s shouting. And yet at the end of the Gospel, after the resurrection, Jesus sends the remaining 11 disciples out with the fresh instructions: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” (28:19)
But actually these 2 missions are not meant to be contradictory at all. The goal of the first mission was to tell the Jews that God had sent the promised Messiah, that God was keeping God’s promise, but also to remind the Jews that the promise was not just for their benefit. They are supposed to be the bearers of God’s promise for the world. God had not made a mistake in calling Israel to be God’s special people, and God had not, and has not forgotten them. Otherwise God would not be faithful and trustworthy, and who wants a God who is fickle and unreliable. This is the point Paul is making in his letter to the Romans. “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” (Romans 11:2, 29) That’s why Israel had to hear the message first: as a sign of God’s covenant faithfulness to God’s chosen people.
After the resurrection the second mission was to begin, the mission that would fulfil God’s promise to Israel to be a light to the nations, all the early apostles were Jews remember, the mission to teach the whole world about God’s love as shown in Jesus Christ. This mission is the sign of God’s inclusive love to all nations and peoples.
Clearly this order and structure is at the top of Jesus’ mind when he refuses to listen to the Canaanite woman or to grant her request, even down to using a racial slur. Jesus is also fully human after all and while without sin, certainly not without human emotions, weaknesses and spontaneous reactions. The Canaanite woman is however not interested in order and structure and sequence, but in her daughter. She is both convinced of God’s love for all human beings and insistent on it applying now. She might be willing to be patient and to wait her turn for herself, but not for her beloved child.
Throughout the Gospels it is almost always the outsider, the outcast, the underdog, who shows us what faith truly is. We learn about faith from foreigners, earlier in Matthew’s Gospel from a Roman centurion, from tax collectors, which according to legend Matthew originally was, and here from a foreigner and a woman. Instead of being silent and keeping out of the way, as they are ‘supposed’ to, they speak up, or as in this case even shout out loud until they are heard. They show love, for those they care for, they show humility, by being willing to accept just the crumbs that fall from the table, but also persistence and faith, trusting in Jesus’ ability and power to heal. The Canaanite woman is the only person in Mathew’s Gospel of whom is said “great is your faith,” (15:28) though Jesus’ earlier response to the centurion, “in no one in Israel have I found such faith’ (8:10) comes close. Jesus responds to this faith . From being an outcast, the Canaanite woman becomes a catalyst for a new definition of his mission. Thanks to her, the future, the second mission to all the nations, the mission to be a blessing to the whole world, breaks into the present.
So what can we learn from the Canaanite woman? First of all be ready to be surprised who turns out to be a good example, to be surprised who demonstrates the character of love, persistence, humility, and faith. The Good News comes from unexpected places and from unexpected people.
We also learn that it’s OK to be impatient, even with God, to pray that the promise of God’s kingdom, be realized sooner rather than later and to work to that end. Throughout Christian history there have always been people unwilling to wait until the time was ripe, until it was their turn, and who have been persistent in working for change, for justice, for equality and for inclusiveness.
This impatience and persistence is however neither based on trust only in our own capabilities, nor on a sense of entitlement. It is God’s power in Jesus that the Canaanite woman relies on, just as we in those causes we stand up for must know the limits of our own power and capability and never forget, in prayer, to ask for God’s help and mercy. What she also shows is humility. She argues with Jesus not out of a sense of entitlement, but out of love for another. She doesn’t ask for a seat at the table, but just for the scraps that fall from the table. That’s a difficult concept for us today, we are so used to rights and entitlements, to what is due to us, that just trusting in God’s mercy seems an alien idea. But that is part of the message and the example of the Canaanite woman. And it is what Paul alludes to in the second part of the reading from Romans. God’s mercy is not something we deserve, say as a reward for good behavior, for God’s mercy is available for all, Jew and Gentile, despite disobedience and sin.
This is also the message of the opening words of the Prayer of Humble Access that I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon: “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.” We may not deserve the crumbs under the table, both this prayer, and the Canaanite woman’s example teach us, but in faith we know that we still receive much more. Instead of eating the crumbs under the table we are invited to sit at the table and to share in the feast just as we are called to welcome all peoples and persons into the church so that they too may share in God’s grace and bountiful mercy.