Talk given at St Michael-in-the-Hamlet Church, 16 August 2020
21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.Matthew 15: 21-28
Reading the Bible for what it actually says
The key to understanding the Bible, both for ourselves and for the purpose of communicating its truths to others, is to read it for what it actually says, not for what we would like it to say, as tempting as that might be.
When I was at theological college in the 90’s it was fashionable to talk about reading the Bible from various cultural viewpoints. As laudable as the intentions behind this approach are (promoting inclusion), in practice it has meant that essential truths have been obscured through an overlaying of the text with alternative ‘meanings’ which were not there and never intended. In so doing the message is stripped of its power and becomes meaning-less.
Reading the Bible is uncomfortable sometimes. It is meant to be. It reflects life, and life is sometimes uncomfortable.
On first reading this passage may appear a little harsh. Non-inclusive. A bit racist even? Let us look closely at the text.
Jesus is in the territory of Tyre and Sidon, which part of modern day Syria. He is talking with a Canaanite woman. The Canaanites were the original and dispossessed inhabitants of the land conquered by the Israelites. Sound familiar?
It would have taken something as serious as a ‘possessed’ child for a Canaanite to ask a Jewish rabbi (teacher) for help, especially a Canaanite woman.
Jesus: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she [the Canaanite woman] came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Jesus was sent in the first instance to the House of Israel – the Hebrew people. According to both the Old and the New Testament the Hebrews are the chosen people of God (past and present tense). Chosen of, but not superior to other races. Chosen that is for one purpose and one purpose only, to reveal the Messiah (Anointed One) to the world. The whole of the Old Testament narrative prefigures and points to this event.
Jesus – the One we Christians believe to be the Messiah – was entirely focussed on this His purpose. Jesus’s purpose and focus was to fulfil Hebrew Scripture in revealing Himself and His Kingdom, first to the Jews – the Chosen – and from these original Jewish believers to the whole world.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” (Jesus – Matthew 28: 19)
“…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Jesus – Acts 1: 8)
Jesus purpose and focus, both then and now, is a truly inter-nationalist one. [It is worth noting at this point that the biblical term ‘nation’ does not refer to the Nation State, which at that point in history had not been invented, but to people or ethnic groups].
Today the descendants of the first century Hebrews and their Arab neighbours are fighting each other in an intractable conflict over a tiny scrap of land, at the centre of which is the ‘Holy’ city, Jerusalem and its holy hill, Mount Zion, upon which stands the remains of the Second Temple and the Dome of the Rock. And the world looks on, dismayed.
For the record, I am a supporter of a two state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Ideally I would support a one state solution, where, to quote singer-songwriter Steve Earle, ‘one fine day all the children of Abraham will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem’, but this seems highly unlikely in the foreseeable future.
Yet, for Jesus and His disciples, Zion – the New Jerusalem – is not a physical place or a nation state, but a glorious state of being.
The Heavenly Kingdom. It is here already. It is coming (‘Thy Kingdom Come’).
Within and without you, the Kingdom of God is so vast and so indefinable that Jesus uses the art of storytelling to convey it to us (Matthew chapter 13). The Kingdom of God is like…
hidden treasure discovered
a priceless pearl purchased
a net expanding
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” (Jesus)
This is not an exclusive statement. Quite the opposite in fact. As a statement it more than hints at a divinely-ordained plan, and a purpose fulfilled (in Christ) which encompasses the whole world. People of every tribe and tongue.
I like to think of Jesus as ‘exclusively inclusive’.
Jesus is exclusive in that He is the Messiah. Chosen of the chosen. According to the Old Testament and Jewish tradition, there is only One Messiah. Christians believe that Jesus is that figure. Exclusively so.
Jesus’s mission is one of reconciliation. That is to reconcile people of all nations/people groups to their Creator and to one another, through His suffering, death and Resurrection. And through which Jesus offers us (not us and them) His lifeblood and His life. Inclusively so.
The Canaanite woman gets this (‘getting it’ is one way of describing a faith action), and is commended by Jesus. “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
11 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” [Jews]—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12 remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.Ephesians 2: 11-22