Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 14 August 2011
Isaiah 56:1, 6-7; Psalm 67:2-3, 5-6, 8; Roman 11:13-15, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28
I have always found this Gospel story of a foreign woman petitioning Jesus for her daughter perturbing. Why does Jesus actively ignore the woman at first, and then when he does address her, why does he initially rebuff her? Is it because he wants to teach the disciples something and so plays on their own prejudices? That may be, but isn’t it disrespectful to turn the woman into a kind of object lesson, instead of addressing her as a human subject? The woman is not Jewish, yet she addresses Jesus as the Jewish Messiah and asks him to heal her daughter. Jesus justifies ignoring her by pointing to her non-Jewish status and his own mission which is to his co-religionists. When calling to him does not work she comes and bows down before him. Rather than tripping over her, he replies to her using a proverb that underlines her outsider status and her lack of any claim on him. She is not to be dissuaded, however, and replies with a proverb to trump his. She challenges the notion that to extend God’s grace beyond Israel is to deprive Israel of what is rightfully theirs. Jesus commends her faith, and her daughter is instantly healed. A story like this has the power to engage us deeply, precisely because it doesn’t sit well with us at first reading. We have to wrestle with it and the questions it throws up.
In my own wrestling, I have become convinced that Jesus does not try to fob off the woman simply because he begrudges a healing to an outsider. He is not a magician who performs magical healings on a whim. Jesus ministry signaled the breaking in of the Kingdom, and was accompanied by signs that pointed to God’s presence in the midst of God’s people, a restoration of wholeness and shalom. But now Jesus is in foreign territory and being petitioned by a foreign woman. I think he does not answer her not because he is annoyed with her, or because he’s playing games, but because he genuinely does not believe that he can help her. He does not brusquely send her away as the disciples suggest he does. I imagine real regret in his voice as he explains to them why he does not respond to her request. But this woman is motivated by her love for her daughter, desperation, and a stubborn refusal to believe that God’s grace and power will not extend beyond God’s own people. Jesus recognizes this as great faith and, as is suggested in the proverb exchange between them, he learns from her wisdom. Here is proof if ever it were needed that God works outside the box: a foreigner, and a woman, nudging God’s messiah to a new insight!
The Jewish tradition had long acknowledged that God’s rule and providential care extended beyond national borders. There is a creative tension, even a paradox, in recognising both the universality of the creator and sustainer God and one’s status as the people of God. This tension has been carried over into Christianity. Today’s psalm calls upon all nations to praise God, and asks God to behave in such a way that his gracious dealings with his own people become the theme and reason for that praise. The prophet conceives of God’s universal care in terms of an invitation to those on the outside to join God’s people and thus become ‘insiders’. That way, God still remains ‘ours’, without others being irrevocably excluded. God remains the God of a particular people, but membership of that people is open to all who choose to identify with the community, whatever their origin.
The earliest Christians were all Jewish, and followed Jesus as the Jewish messiah. But through the ministry of people like St Paul, more people of pagan backgrounds became Christian, and they did so without first embracing Judaism. This led to many a theological headache (and still does), as illustrated by Paul’s musings here in Romans. For him three things are clear: God does not abandon God’s people; God is at work in Jesus Christ and his followers of all backgrounds; and God’s purpose is not to choose one group to the detriment of another, but that all may be saved. Where do we draw the insider / outsider boundaries, and where does God?