(Isa 56.1-8, Ps 67, Rom 11.13-32, Mtt 15.21-28)
Rev'd Daniel Irvine
Two pilots were in an aeroplane, and the plane developed engine trouble. It soon became clear that they were going to crash.
One said to the other, “Well this is it. We are going to die. Are you religious?”
The other said, “No, are you?”
The first replied, “Well, I am not either, but I think we’d better do something religious, because we are going to be dead in about 60 seconds. Can’t you remember anything religious we could do?”
The other man said, “Well I used to live next door to a Catholic church, and I used to hear those people in there. Maybe I could quote some of it.”
“We’ve only got twenty seconds left,” said the other man, “so you better hurry!”
The man looked up at the ceiling, and then in a solemn and reverent tone began to speak, “And the lucky numbers are... under the B, 3; under the I, 9; under the N, 22...”
If we live on the surface, on the outside of things, then that is where our last words will come from. And ultimately, they won’t say very much that is worth hearing.
Today’s Gospel story, on the outside, has the potential to be both embarrassing and very confusing and if we are not careful it could paint Jesus in very harsh colours indeed.
Throughout much of their history, including at the time of Jesus as well as in the early decades of the Church, the Jewish people also had a tendency of looking at the world around them from the outside.
Many Jews believed that they were the only people that God really loved and that the other nations were only there for God to use to punish them when they went astray.
This attitude even made its way into the early Church and was one of the first causes of division among the churches founded by the apostles and disciples of Jesus.
The debates about whether a Gentile had to first become a Jew in order to accept Jesus as the Messiah and so be saved have even made their way into our scriptures in the Acts of the Apostles and particularly in many of Paul’s letters.
In many ways too, Christians, over time, have unwittingly adopted a similar level of exclusivity. Many think, and preach and teach that because we are Christians that God loves us more, or that we are some how more special or deserving of that love than those who have not come to know God in the same way that we have.
In a lot of ways we can look through the pages of the Bible and see the struggle of particularity versus universalism; that is between the ideas that God calls and elects only a certain particular group from all humanity, versus the idea that God seeks to form a relationship with all humanity and that Jesus’ life and ministry form key part of that quest.
Take for example our readings today.
The reading from the third section of the book of Isaiah speaks of justice and righteousness not in terms of exclusivity as God’s mighty act of bringing the Jewish people out of exile, but as demands and expectations upon human conduct as all people came to know and worship God.
This idea was expressed in a uniquely Jewish way by the phrase keeping God’s Sabbaths, which, if we look at it broadly and through the lens of Jesus, were made as a sign of the liberating power of God, to grant human beings a rest from labour, to grant the earth a rest from exploitation, and, in the jubilee year, to grant society liberation from falling into perpetual debt and poverty.
These were the ideas being formulated about God’s universal love for all humanity, that worship and sacrifice were second (and a distant second at that) to justice and mercy and love.
Yet within the early Church the debate about what believers must do to be accepted into the community continued to rage.
I said that the Gospel reading today has the potential to be embarrassing and confusing and to make Jesus appear rather harsh.
But it always needs to be remembered that Matthew is writing his Gospel at least 40 years after Jesus’ life. This means that the words he puts onto Jesus’ lips sometimes reflect more about the evangelist’s understanding of how Jesus’ teaching impacts the community he was writing to then any potential verbatim record of what Jesus actually said.
Most commentators will assert that in this passage Matthew is trying to deal with the issue of exclusivity and universalism within a community of predominately Jewish believers to whom he was writing.
The story shows clearly how many Jews in the first century viewed those they believed were outside the covenant of God’s love. They were dogs, not fit for the glorious banquet God was preparing for the chosen people.
But in the end this gentile woman is praised for her great faith. It is faith alone which has the power to break down any of the barriers that people might try to erect between themselves and their fellow human beings.
The extent of those barriers and the degree to which faith in Jesus can break them down can be further seen by ethnic label Matthew attaches to this woman.
He calls her a Canaanite woman.
Now apart from the fact that a literal reading of the Old Testament might give someone the impression that the Canaanites were wiped out when the Hebrews entered the land that they came to understand as being promised to them, the choice of Canaanite for the woman shows Jesus cutting through a thousand years of accumulated prejudice and contempt with a simple act of faith and acceptance.
While his earthly mission might have been to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, that was not the extent of his actions, nor the extent of God’s reach, but merely the prepared vehicle through which the knowledge and revelation of God given in the life and teaching of Jesus has been able to spread around the world.
The universal nature of God’s love can be seen in the accounts of the Last Supper where long held formula utilised by the evangelists has Jesus tell his disciples that his life, his blood is poured out “for many” (c.f. Mark 14:24).
This Greek phrase we have inherited in the gospels, hyper pollōn however, reflects much older formulas in which the death of Jesus is always understood as being “for others” and commentators from Daniel Harrington back to Joachim Jeremias will point out that while in English “many” is often used to convey the idea of “most” but “not all”, in Hebrew and Aramaic its usage is to be understood in an inclusive sense.
That is to say that the evangelists saw Jesus’ death as bringing about a covenant community that would benefit all humans, and I admit that sometimes I take liberties with the words used in the Eucharist to better reflect that understanding.
After all, despite knowing that Judas was going to betray him, Jesus still shared in that last and most special meal with him.
So let us always strive to emulate that love in both our thoughts and our words, but most importantly in our actions, both in our interactions with other Christian denominations and in our interactions with those of other faiths, or indeed of no faith, that through our mutual love and respect we may take one step closer to realising God’s kingdom of love, justice and mercy here on earth.
In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.