(Isaiah 56, 1 & 6-8; Rom. 11, 1-2a & 29-32; Matt. 15,21-28)
What are we here for?
What is the task of the Church?
The standard answer, if you look on a lot of church websites, is that we are here for mission and evangelism. We are sent out (our mission from God) to share the Good News (the evangel) with the world.
That may seem obvious to us now; but our readings indicate that this was not always obvious to the Early Church, or to the disciples, or even to Jesus himself.
The story we heard from Matthew’s Gospel (which also appears in Mark, but not in Luke) is a very disturbing one. Jesus travels to the border country where his native Galilee meets the non-Jewish territories of Tyre and Sidon. There, he is met by a non-Jewish woman, who needs his help for her sick child.
She does not ask quietly; she shouts! And when she is ignored, she keeps on shouting!
His disciples clearly find her a nuisance, and ask him to do something to make her stop: either to exorcise the demon, or to send her away (the Greek word could mean either). But Jesus does neither; he simply states his belief that his mission is only to the Jews, and specifically to the ‘lost sheep’ of Israel, those who have fallen away from their true allegiance to the Kingdom of God.
The woman then changes tactics. She comes closer and kneels in front of him. She addresses him as ‘Lord’ and ‘Son of David’, titles of honour. She begs humbly for his help.
Jesus’ answer to her is not only negative, it is blatantly insulting. He compares the message he brings to ‘food for the children’ and her race to the dogs that scavenge around outside the house. Now, many of us keep dogs as pets; they live inside our houses with us, are fed special food, and are loved and cared for. It wasn’t like that in the Palestine of Jesus’ time. Dogs were unclean animals, not allowed in houses; they had to find their own food wherever they could, among the floor coverings that would be swept out of the house into the yard
And even though our attitudes to dogs have changed, to call a human being a dog is still an insult. Just imagine for a moment if a Pakistani Muslim woman came to the house of a Christian minister asking for help, and the minister refused and called her a bitch into the bargain. It would be headline news and the minister would undoubtedly face disciplinary proceedings.
Yet, instead of taking offence and giving up, the unnamed woman persists, and uses the same insulting language to press her case, arguing that she is not asking for the whole loaf that would be shared by the master and his family, merely the scraps and leftovers.
And then comes the most surprising and challenging element in the story. Jesus, who has been so definite about his mission, appears to change his mind, and grants the woman’s request. As with other healings of Gentiles in the Gospels, he heals at a distance; but he commends the Gentile woman’s faith, in an implicit contrast with the lack of faith of many of his fellow Jews who have rejected his message.
In Matthew’s Gospel this story comes between a passage where Jesus answers criticism of his disciples from the Pharisees and scribes, because his followers do not observe the strict laws of ritual cleanliness; and the second ‘Feeding of the Multitude’ miracle, where he feeds 4000 men, plus women and children, which scholars take to represent the mission to the Gentiles.
Taken together, these passages Illustrate the struggle that was going on among the apostles at the time that the Gospels were written about what they were there for; to whom were they sent; who were they supposed to evangelise?
By the time the Gospels were written, the mission to non-Jews was already a reality. After the Jewish revolt in AD 67-70, the Jewish centre of the Church in Jerusalem disappeared, and by the middle of the second century, the Jewish part of the Christian Church was beginning to be regarded as inferior, even heretical. Eventually, it disappeared altogether, and centuries of Christian anti-Semitism took over.
It was not meant to be like that. In our Old Testament reading we heard the prophet known as Third Isaiah speaking to the Jewish people after their return from around 60 years of exile in Babylon. He urges them to live according to the commandments of their God, pursuing right and justice for all. Through that means, he says, foreigners, even the ones who oppressed them, will come to know the one true God. Eventually, they will even come to the temple at Jerusalem to join in worship there. Through the faithful witness of the Jewish people, even in suffering, the whole world will be evangelised and all people will be united in the truth.
In the Letter to the Romans, we hear Paul struggling to reconcile prophecies such as this with the fact that the majority of his fellow-Jews seem to have rejected Jesus, God’s chosen Messiah. Does this mean that God’s plan has changed, he asks. Paul is proud of his Jewish ancestry, he has been brought up to believe that salvation for the world will come through the Jews, but it doesn’t seem to be happening. Yet, he cannot believe that God will reject the Chosen People. The salvation that comes through Jesus is for the Jews first, but through them it is offered to the whole world.
Paul’s letters, and the Book of Acts, show the enormous struggle that the Early Church went through to decide exactly how non-Jews should be absorbed into the fellowship of Christ’s followers. They show the apostles going to the Jewish communities first with the Gospel, but being forced through circumstances to take it to sympathisers (God-fearers) among the Gentiles, and finally to take the Good News directly to non-Jews. The Book of Acts portrays this is in a vivid way in the story of Peter’s dream, an incident of such importance that the story is repeated three times.
The Gospel story we heard portrays this difference about the path that our mission should take as going right back to Jesus himself. He starts out, as did the first apostles, with a mission directed only to Jews; but through the persistence of Gentiles who have faith, he is persuaded to offer the healing and salvation he brings to non-Jews too.
The final words of Matthew’s Gospel describe Jesus sending his disciples out on a mission to evangelise the whole world. How do we live out that commission today, in our own churches and our own communities?
Do we live it out?
The Gospel reading faces us with hard questions about whether we still operate with ideas of mission which involve feeding the favoured children first, leaving only the crumbs for those we regard as second-best human beings, or even ‘dogs’.
Who are those that Christians regard as ‘dogs’ in our world today? The events in Charlottesville in Virginia last week, show that there is still a strand of Christianity that thinks people are excluded from God’s mercy on the grounds of race, or skin-colour, or religion or sexuality. The posters held up by the marchers show that the anti-Semitism which has been such a stain on Christian history is still very much alive today.
And who are those we would like to exclude from our fellowship, or shoo away, or silence, as the disciples wanted to silence the Canaanite woman? Isn’t that how the Church tends to treat those who disturb its peace by demanding to be listened to, given equality and a place at the table? Which groups of people tend to be left to pick up the crumbs, rather than being fed?
Those who like noisy modern music?
Those who question traditional ways of interpreting the faith?
The poor (as some of the bishops have said this week)?
The very elderly?
Travellers and asylum seekers and refugees?
People with disabilities?
People who are LGBTI+, gay or lesbian, or bisexual, or transgender, or intersex, or who don’t conform to what the majority thinks is ‘normal’ in some other way?
Jews and Muslims, and those of other religions and none?
Can we, as the Body of Christ hear God talking to us through such people as these, as Jesus heard God talking to him through the Canaanite woman, and demanding not just the crumbs, but an equal place at the Lord’s table for all of these?
Only if we can, will these ‘dogs’ be seen God’s children, part of God’s Chosen People, members with us of God’s Beloved Community.