Sunday 20 August 2023 Trinity 11, Twentieth in Ordinary time, Proper 15
Isaiah 56:1,6-8; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28
Context: a Eucharistic in a medium-sized church on the edge of Cambridge, mostly older, highly educated adults
Aim: to remind us of the surprising, inclusive nature of the good news of Jesus
This passage from Matthew’s gospel is one of the most uncomfortable and not one that a preacher is likely to delight in. It looks as though Jesus, to begin with, is refusing to help a woman because she is from the wrong background, and worse than that, he uses some rather offensive language. What’s going on? Where is the good news to be found?
ALL IN CONTEXT
Firstly, it is helpful to put this tale of a tricky encounter into the context of some of the surrounding verses. If we zoom out a little, we see that in the previous verses Jesus has had a heated debate with the Pharisees and Scribes about Jewish purity laws, challenging them to think differently, to see the bigger picture. Now he goes straight into this encounter with the Canaanite woman. He has just declared all foods clean and now we see that extended: it is not just foods that are declared clean, but people. The national, religious, cultural and gender boundaries which delineated nicely who was clean and who wasn’t are all thrown up in the air, yet again, when this Gentile woman demands action from Jesus.
GOING ALL IN
She goes all in, all in for herself and for her daughter. She shouts at him. She begs him. She uses the words of discrimination that have been used against her and turns them back to Jesus to emphasise her point. She goes all in.
In contrast, Jesus appears to withdraw. He initially remains silent. He then appears to dismiss her, suggesting his ministry is only for the ‘house of Israel’. Hold on, is Jesus saying that he has come only to save the Jewish people? Is he affirming the use of the word ‘dogs’ to describe the Gentiles?
ALL IN TESTING
Well, it is here that we should note that there are others in this scene – the disciples, maybe a larger crowd. Could it be that Jesus is testing them, as well as the woman? She passes the test with flying colours. She seemingly knows what others, and perhaps the disciples, had forgotten. Yes, Jesus came to the ‘house of Israel’, but that was never the full extent of God’s plan for the world. Throughout scripture, it is clear that, yes, God called and chose Israel to be his special people but, in turn, they were to be the promise-bearers through whom his word and new life would be brought to all. Had the disciples fallen into the trap of forgetting this bigger plan? I rather like a story of a woman willing to go all in, to remind Jesus, the disciples and anyone else around her that the Kingdom of God is an ‘all in’ kind of kingdom!
GATHERING ALL IN
And, if we zoom out a little further, we might note that this un-named woman’s plea to Jesus comes in between two miraculous feedings: of the 5000 when twelve basketsful of leftovers were gathered up, and of the 4000 when seven basketsful remained. And these are there not because Jesus did a repeat but slightly less impressive version of a feeding miracle, but because the first was for the Jews and the second for the Gentiles. The feeding of the 5000 comes first and its symbolism can be said to be obviously Jewish; five signifies the Torah and 12 represents the 12 tribes of Israel – the gospel is first preached to the Jews. In the later feeding described after the encounter we read of today, the symbolism speaks to a much wider audience: four represents the four corners of the earth, and seven the days of creation. Wholeness and completion. All in!
Jesus came not to abolish the law, but to fulfil it; not to do away with the category of ‘Israel’, God’s chosen people, but to fulfil the purpose for which this people existed in the first place. God’s plan was and is for all! And this woman, pushy, desperate, foreign, an outsider several times over to the covenant, is the one who sees it, names it and is willing to go all in to experience it. And, in the healing of her daughter, she is rewarded with praise for her great faith and experiences a foretaste of God’s universal love.
Kenneth E. Bailey: Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes
Tom Wright: Matthew for Everyone
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