Isaiah 56:1-8 (NIV)
This is what the Lord says: “Maintain justice and do what is right, for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed. Blessed is the one who does this—the person who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath without desecrating it, and keeps their hands from doing any evil.” Let no foreigner who is bound to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.” And let no eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” For this is what the Lord says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant—to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever. And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” The Sovereign Lord declares—he who gathers the exiles of Israel: “I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered.”
Matthew 15:21-28 (NIV)
Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
In reflecting on this morning's readings, we're going to begin with the gospel text. And it's a tricky one, because on the face of things, it seems to show us Jesus as we've not seen him before. A woman comes to him for help, and he ignores her and then insults her and then denies her, before finally being won over by her and helping her. What is happening here? Is it possible that there were limits to Jesus' compassion? Did he finally tire of people pestering him, and it was just bad luck for this woman that she was the one who was there when he snapped? Did she really teach him a lesson about who may receive the grace of God? And perhaps most troubling of all, do we have to consider the possibility that Jesus was racist?
That final question raises itself because the language he uses here is deeply problematic. Having invoked ideas of ethnicity by speaking of the sheep of Israel, he then employs a metaphor that we can only understand as applying to Jews and Gentiles. He upholds the former as children and dismisses the latter as dogs, rendering them less than human because of their ethnicity, calling to mind similar slurs which are used to vilify national and racial groups, and similar language which speaks of a desire to look after 'us' but not 'them'. And he does this in the face of a Gentile woman asking for healing for her child. It's not so hard to reimagine this scene with a Syrian refugee asking for a place of safety, being told the doors are closed because it's not right to take jobs and resources from our people and give them to foreigners. We may rightly squirm, but we can't let ourselves off the hook. We have to grapple with why Jesus initially refuses to help the woman, and why he uses such derogatory language in order to do so, not least because of the contemporary resonances that seem to dance around the edge of the text.
One approach has been to say that this story reveals a Jesus who was rather more human than we often feel comfortable admitting. He was influenced by the culture he lived in, and in this case he had assumed something of the hostility between Jews and Gentiles, and so he needed to learn to see people differently. There is something encouraging in seeing Jesus model the same process of understanding and repentance and transformation that we need to undergo, as we must likewise recognise our biases and work to overcome them, but I am unsure of this reading for a number of reasons. In the first place, it seems to say that we may judge Jesus' words as racist now but they were normal then, which is only half a step away from saying they were acceptable then, and I don't think we should ever justify historical racism. It's not wrong because it's the twenty first century, it's wrong because it's wrong. It also seems strange to me to suggest that Jesus didn't know any better, when he so clearly knew better about so many other things.
I also think that such an approach fails to take proper account of the broader narrative of the gospel. Jesus has already performed a miracle at the request of a Gentile, healing a centurion’s slave in Matthew chapter eight, and as we saw last week, he is intentionally and persistently travelling into Gentile regions. Why would he have healed the centurion’s slave if he really thought that he had come only for the sheep of Israel? And why would he have sought out encounters with people of other ethnicities if he truly believed it would be like tossing the children's bread to the dogs? The answer surely has to be that he wouldn't have done those things, and so the fact that he did means he can't have believed those things. And to press the point further, we can look to the broader witness of scripture, including Jesus' declaration that he has sheep of another flock in John chapter ten, and this morning's reading from Isaiah which makes clear that God is for all nations.
So if Jesus did not really believe that the Gentiles were dogs who were not worthy of his time, why did he say it? One answer has been that he was testing the woman, to see if her faith would withstand challenge, and that idea of testing takes us back to the binding of Isaac, which we looked at a couple of months ago. I suggested then that God asking Abraham to kill his son was not just a test, but a living parable. Nobody really wanted or expected Isaac to die, but rather everyone involved was playing a part in order to demonstrate that God does not require human sacrifice. Perhaps something similar was happening here, with Jesus acting out a scene in order to make a point about the inclusion of the Gentiles in God's blessing, modelling understanding and repentance and transformation as was suggested earlier, but by taking on a role.
If that is the case, we might want to think about the audience this scene is being played to, and ask if Jesus might have been testing them too. He ignored the woman until the disciples got involved, which leads me to wonder if his initial silence was intended to draw them in and make sure they were paying attention. It also makes me wonder if perhaps Jesus was vocalising what he expected the disciples were thinking, in order that the woman may offer a response. And it is worth emphasising that she is not only given the right of reply, but also the moral high ground. Jesus could have turned to the disciples and said "you may be thinking I have only come for the sheep of Israel and helping this woman would be like tossing the children's bread to the dogs, but you are wrong and so I am going to help her". It would have made his intentions a lot clearer and saved me about nine hundred words and counting, but perhaps he wanted to give the Gentile woman a voice in order to show that not only was she worth healing but she was also worth hearing.
This reading of the text doesn't entirely resolve the problematic language, as the passage itself does not refute it but instead twists it to leave us with an image of the woman as a dog looking for crumbs under the table, an image which is only marginally less uncomfortable than the one we began with. However, I think we do find a resolution if we read on a little further, as this encounter is followed by the feeding of the four thousand, the second miraculous picnic in Matthew's gospel. We don't know much about the crowd, but they are presumably Gentiles, as the reference to them worshipping the God of Israel would be superfluous if they were Jews. The story plays out in very similar fashion to the feeding of the five thousand, except whereas the first time round there were twelve baskets left over, this time there are seven baskets left over. If the twelve baskets represented the twelve tribes of Israel, the seven baskets perhaps represent the seven Gentile nations spoken of in Deuteronomy chapter seven, emphasising that while the first miracle took place among the Jews, this second miracle has taken place among the Gentiles. Jesus doesn’t give the crowd the crumbs from the first meal, but a feast of their own. He feeds them not as dogs but as children, for that is what they are.
That Jesus should follow a conversation about who gets fed with another miraculous feeding does not feel like a coincidence. These stories together tell us that there is a place for both Jew and Gentile at the table, that neither should be left hoping that someone will toss them a morsel or drop crumbs at their feet. Everyone is fed, and if there is any preference, it is that the hungriest eat first. And while the emphasis here is on reconciling or removing ethnic divisions, the text we heard from Isaiah is a reminder that there is a much bigger picture. In one of my favourite passages in all of scripture, we hear God promise to bring foreigners and eunuchs into the temple from which they have been excluded, and to gather still others besides those already gathered. The foreigner and the eunuch are representative not exhaustive, because the list of those God will gather is endless. What we glimpse in these verses is God reaching out to all the outsiders and the outcasts, to all who are devalued and dehumanised, promising a place and a name to all who will accept his invitation, because all are welcome on the holy mountain and all are called to the house of prayer.
What then does this mean for us? It presents us with both a joy and a duty. A joy because it means we are embraced, and a duty because it means we must make sure others know they are embraced. Both church and society have too often been guilty of treating people like dogs, but we must not be like the disciples who tried to send the Canaanite woman away. We must instead be like the woman who insisted that there was a place for her, and like Isaiah who declared that there was a place for any who would take it.