Sermon by John Hayton, Isaiah 56: 6-8; Matthew 15: 21-28.
We have an appropriate sermon today for the holiday season – because it starts with Jesus on holiday like the vicar by the Mediterranean. Jesus was near the ancient city of Tyre 30-50 miles north of the Sea of Galilee which we all know was his stamping ground. Whether Jesus was 30 or 50 miles from there depends whether he was nearer to Tyre or Sidon. Both cities actually had a evil reputation in those days. Either way it appears to be as far north as Jesus ever went. It was a foreign region, the base of the ancient Phoenicians.
Why was he there? Not I suspect for sea sun and sand. He may simply have wanted to get away from it all from the strain and stress of his ministry. Or maybe he wanted a temporary escape from his enemies from Herod and his secret police from the Pharisees and the Temple authorities down in Jerusalem who were always snapping at his heels. He may even as some commentators suggest have been escaping from his disciples his followers his friends who constantly misunderstood him tried his patience got hold of the wrong end of the stick. For if you read the same story on St Mark’s gospel there is no mention of his disciples as being with him. So it might be a bit like going on a Retreat.
Retreats – and getting hold of the wrong end of the stick remind me of the time I took my annual retreat with the Anglican Benedictines at Burford. I had signed up for what they called a “painting week.” I had visions of executing cute little watercolours of God’s creation instead of which I found myself glossing window frames. Actually, it was very enjoyable and it put me in touch with the Benedictine ideals of work prayer study and rest. But I digress.
We have heard from St Matthew’s gospel. St Mark’s version of the same episode is subtly different and maybe more authentic. It’s earlier written. I’ll leave you to look at it if you wish. It’s in Mark chapter 7. As an example Mark says that Jesus entered a house hoping to avoid recognition – but this proved impossible. Maybe Matthew author of this the most Jewish gospel thought it unlikely that Jesus would enter a Gentile house and thus risk ritual defilement. Maybe Matthew also thought that Jesus wouldn’t have tried so hard to avoid detection. So Matthew places this episode in the open air and makes no mention of the low profile stuff.
But Jesus IS noticed. A woman with a sharp eye and a memory for faces picks Jesus out as the famous healer from Galilee. Her daughter was very ill. In the terminology of those days her daughter was possessed of a demon either physically or mentally sick. Maybe both. Maybe she was epileptic. Mark calls her “Greek” – meaning a Gentile. Matthew calls her a Canaanite – a slightly old-fashioned description harking back to the ancient enemies of Israel. Either way she was gentile a foreigner representative of an ancient enemy and a woman in a patriarchal society. Not a great combination when you are looking for favours from a male Jewish healer.
According to Matthew – a male Jewish writer – Jesus refuses even to answer the woman’s repeated cries for help. She persists and the disciples – who are WITH Jesus in Matthew’s account call on Jesus do DOOO something – if only to shut her up so she’ll go away. Matthew has Jesus as saying: I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. [v24]. But what if instead of a statement Jesus is asking himself whether he had been sent only to the Jews? Or ought HE to cast his net a bit wider? A speculation only.
You won’t find any of this in St Mark’s version. Here are no disciples. Here is no obstinate silence from Jesus in the face of the woman’s plea. Instead in St Mark Jesus says: Let the children be fed first, [v27a]. So is he saying that although the woman isn’t at the head of the queue she is at least IN the queue? Was he giving her some hope?
But then Mark continues: for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. [27b]. This needs explaining because to our modern western eyes it looks appalling. Jews as the woman must have known regularly referred to Gentiles as dogs. Commentators say that the Greek word referred to household or lap dogs. It may be that Jesus spoke to the woman in Greek. His mother tongue was Aramaic and you’ll be staggered to learn that I don’t know if there was an Aramaic word specifically for household pet dogs. The point here is that household pet dogs weren’t scavengers. They were entirely dependent upon their masters for food.
So Jesus is expressing a contemptuous Jewish attitude to Gentiles not a million miles from the altitude of fundamental Islamists to us infidels. Maybe Jesus was even quoting a saying. What the written word doesn’t convey is his expression the tone of his voice the look of his eye. Jesus was fully human he had a sense of humour but the point he was making was a serious one. It was that his mission to Israel must have its limits. His tone didn’t have to be one of humourless rudeness – and it probably wasn’t. Incidentally it is interesting that St Luke omits this incident altogether from his gospel. He was a Gentile. And he was writing his gospel to another Gentile: most excellent Theophilus [Lk1:3]. Senior man. He maybe didn’t know what to make of this episode and he wasn’t about to upset Theophilus. So he left it out.
Maybe Jesus said what he said in order to test the woman. If he was then she passed with flying colours. She accepted that the children – meaning the Jews – had first claim to the food to the spiritual gifts of God. But she made the point that even the dogs the household pets get the food from under the table. As to WHICH table Mark and Matthew’s accounts differ. In St Mark it is the children’s own table. In St Matthew today the food falls from the MASTER’S table. We are put in mind of the Prayer Book Holy Communion service: we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table but thou are the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy… And suddenly we see a vision of the whole world – and everyone being sustained by the bounty that overflows from God’s table. The God whose mercies are over all his works. The God who is the giver of life and breath and every thing.
Jesus was evidently impressed by the woman’s quick wittedness by her determination to secure his help by her confidence that he COULD help. We are put in mind of that other Gentile – the Centurion we encounter in St Matthew chapel 8 [5-13]. Both were healing a child. Both were at a distance. Both supplicants call Jesus LORD – they are gentiles – remember. In both episodes the focus isn’t the healing it’s the preceding conversation in which Jesus makes a statement about Israel. Both record initial hesitation on the part of Jesus – who is then won over by the supplicant’s faith. And they both reinforce the message we receive today from our other readings that salvation WILL come to those OUTSIDE Israel in response to their faith in Jesus. At this point in this episode in response to the woman’s imploring Jesus had to decide. Should he step outside his ministry to the Jews? He had after all stepped outside Judea.
So THIS is the connection with our passage from Isaiah: …for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. [Is 56:7b]. The author is here specifically announcing the inclusion in God’s covenant of foreigners of eunuchs whom the Jews – with their ties of family and dynasty – especially despised. Incidentally Jesus quoted these words as he overturned the moneychangers tables in the Temple. [Mt 21:12]
In the first passage we heard Isaiah taught that NO-ONE is excluded from membership of God’s people either by nation or ancestry accident of birth affiliation to a former god – and that can be materialism sexism agism anything. Remember that in this context WE are foreigners. We good and not so good Anglicans are the foreigners. We are not the home team. I have two wonderful daughters-in-law. One is Catalan Spanish currently living in Zurich. The other is Taiwanese racially Han Chinese and a Taoist-Buddhist living in Taipei. My two grandchildren are Anglo-Chinese. No-one is automatically excluded from the love of God. In the passage we heard Isaiah tells us that the walls of partition have tumbled down between peoples who love the Lord – and also between these people and God.
Jesus the Jew soaked in Old Testament theology was familiar with the passage we’ve heard. He could see that this woman foreshadowed a time when the true Israel that is all the people of God would transcend the boundaries of culture race and heritage. And here is a difficult message for those who would cast God in their own image rather than the other way round. God who they have convinced themselves supports what they support whether it be issues of gender sexuality or the desirability of bombing North Korea. It is a problem now. It was a problem 2000 years ago for Jesus and 600 years before that for the authors – in the plural – of Isaiah.
Jesus had to make up his mind whether to help this woman. Maybe her response this woman this pagan persuaded Jesus to change his mind. Interesting thought. For there are two main views on Jesus.
Many people think of him as Superman a divine visitor to this world in possession of supernatural knowledge as well as power. On this view everything was cut and dried from the start and Jesus proceeded along tram lines to his inevitable destiny.
Other people including St Paul who told the Philippians that Christ emptied himself and became human [Phil 2:7] believe that as a human Jesus was subject to human limitations. Sure he had power to make judgements based on his experience his powerful prayer life and his special relationship with God the Father. But he was a man. Fully human. He had to face temptation and make choices. So when Jesus met this woman by the seaside on his holiday maybe he at that time believed his ministry was exclusively among the Jews.
Dare I suggest that Jesus learned something from her? She reminded Jesus that God wants EVERYBODY’S needs to be met – the children at the table the dogs UNDER the table literally the underdogs regardless of age gender religion background as Isaiah taught.
And WE can also learn a couple of things from that woman. One is that God cares for everyone and so should we in our much more limited sphere. The other is that if we press our claims and cling to our faith as per a life raft as that woman did then WE shall find as she found the healing and sustaining power of Jesus Christ still present and active in our world.
Inclusivity persistence faith. Not a bad trinity. AMEN.