Preacher: Catherine Staziker, Cathedral Reader (2006-2010)
17 August 2008, 10:30 (Trinity 13)
We do not presume
to come to this your table, merciful Lord,
trusting in our own righteousness,
but in your manifold and great mercies.
We are not worthy
so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table.
I have always found today’s Gospel passage rather uncomfortable and troubling, but have to confess that I haven’t really put too much effort into grappling with it, until now! I find the passage disturbing.
A woman comes to Jesus in desperate need and not only crying, but shouting for his help.
This woman begs for help not for herself, but for her sick child.
This woman dares to approach Jesus, even though she is not Jewish
(she is a Canaanite, unclean - a race despised and hated by the tribe of Israel)
This woman acts independently, without a husband.
This woman does not behave in the expected manner for a woman of her time.
This woman takes the initiative,
This woman acts against social and religious convention.
This woman addresses Jesus as “Lord, Son of David”
And so what is Jesus’ reaction to her as she pleads:
“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David”?
“Send her away – I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel – not to an unclean Gentile woman”.
His reaction to her plea: “Lord help me”?
“It is not fair to take food of the house of Israel and give it to the unclean Gentiles”
His reaction – on the face of it – shocking – to say the least. NOT what we expect from one who challenges prejudice, rather than mirrors it. Is Jesus really demeaning the woman who has come to ask him for help? Is he really dismissing someone in need because she is a woman and a non-Jew? Is he asking her to recognise her place as an outcast? Could he really have referred so offensively to the Gentiles as “dogs”, scavenging round the table of the children of Israel?
One wonders why he does not respond immediately and graciously. But Jesus was a Jew after all, fully human, and his outlook and sympathies must have been coloured by his own Jewishness. Did he have the conversation with her to test her faith? Or, did he intend to grant her request all along? Whatever the answer to these questions, we know the outcome of the story.
This bold Canaanite woman, confident in her faith, persists. She refuses to accept the lot of her daughter; She focuses on Jesus’ gifts and her need for them. She doesn’t take offence by being called a “dog”. But she retorts quickly that “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table”
Her faith is unmoved, despite Jesus’ reaction. Compare her faith to the disciples’ lack of faith in the boat with Jesus in the storm in last week’s Gospel.
Finally, Jesus acknowledges the woman as a human being.
“Woman, great is your faith!
Let it be done for you as you wish.”
Words reminiscent of those at the healing of the centurion’s servant:
“Not even in Israel have I found such faith”.
Jesus, in this miracle, as others, identifies himself with someone in fear and distress and hurt; (although his empathy is not immediately obvious to us in this case) he releases and restores them so that they might have life – life in all its fullness.
There is no question that Matthew approved of the mission to the Gentiles and their inclusion in the Church; it was happening at the time he was writing. Jesus would have recognised the cultural distinction between Jew and Gentile and assumed his primary commission was to Israel. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel”. Matthew, the most Jewish of the Gospels, shows that Jesus and the early church obviously struggled with who should be the focus of God’s promises, and who should be fed first. The idea of Israel being elected as God’s chosen people is, in many ways, a difficult concept to take on board; it seems to go against all our ideals of justice and racial equality. It leaves God open to the charge of favouritism, or at best ‘counting some more equal than others’. This story challenges this in a particularly stark way.
But did Israel’s election mean God cared more about the Jews than anyone else? Amos back in the 8th century BC was clear that Yahweh was God of all nations, and that Israel had been elected and redeemed so that He would be known throughout the world. But with these privileges came responsibility. In today’s Old Testament Reading there is also concern about non-Jews belonging to the “chosen people” and joining in temple worship, but the message is clear: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples”. Israel was chosen to be the source of the light that would enlighten the Gentiles.
The church today still struggles with these issues, even though we are called to spread the good news to all the world. We may think that don’t have a narrow-minded mentality in terms of our Christian outreach. But we often behave as though the Gospel were our private property. We identify our own customs and culture with Jesus’ message. As we do this, we fail to see the gospel from the perspective of other cultures. It is one thing to believe with conviction and another to exclude those who do not think as we do. We too are invited to join Jesus and asked to cross barriers of race and culture.
Dare we step out to those who are also welcome at His table, but who we feel are not?
Dare we step out to those who are also welcome at His table, but who feel themselves that they are not.
Like the early church, we are challenged to step out of our comfort zone. We are challenged to look at our own prejudice and bigotry. Do we feel like the chosen ones, sitting here in our beautiful cathedral this morning? ACTUALLY WE ARE! But with this comes responsibility to fulfil our mission. Here each Sunday, Jesus feeds us with a lot more than just crumbs or scraps. We are here today to receive Christ in all his fullness, his body and blood, to be transformed. We live in him and he lives in us. This transformation is a gift from God to us. But it is not just for us. It is for the whole body of Christ through us. We must use it for the whole body of Christ. Having been fed and nourished, we have received God’s healing love. And so, in the words of the Collect:
Help us to proclaim the good news of your love, that all who hear it may be drawn to you.
Trusting in your righteousness and mercy, we are worthy to gather the crumbs from under your table. But not only that: Trusting in your righteousness and mercy, we are worthy to come to your table and fully partake in your feast. And what is more. Trusting in your righteousness and mercy, everyone (and I mean everyone) is worthy to come to your table and partake in your feast.