St Andrew’s Parish of Indooroopilly
Sunday 16 August 2020
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Mothering prophets ©Suzanne Grimmett
Jesus of Nazareth had the kind of presence that made those who felt lost, excluded, guilty or condemned flock to him. This begs the question, why does the church that follows him have the reputation for being able to make people who already feel bad about themselves feel even worse? How often has the Church through history, as well as we who are the Church today, told people in subtle and unsubtle ways that they are outsiders- to the community and even outsiders to the salvation of God. Or maybe we have felt like an outsider ourselves sometimes….unable to access life in its fullness? Second class citizens, sitting outside the banquet hall. Or perhaps like dogs, waiting to catch the crumbs of life which fall from the table of those privileged to be the invited guests at the dinner party.
Knowing those beautiful stories of the way Jesus welcomes the lost, the sick, the troubled and the outcast, today’s Gospel reading may come as a shock. Here Jesus is confronted by a woman who is clearly an outsider, but Jesus seems only to be confirming the exclusion. What are we to make of this?
It is interesting that this story occurs also in Mark’s Gospel, but there the woman who approaches Jesus is referred to as a woman of Syrophoenician origin: a much more culturally appropriate designation than Matthew’s “Canaanite woman”. It is equivalent to calling a modern Scandinavian a
Viking, with all the centuries of history that conjures. ‘Canaanite’ carries with 1 it all the connotations of a warlike enemy people to whom the Israelites are to show no mercy, because no mercy will be shown to them. This is a significant use of the word in the text, as in Jesus’ day there was no longer an identifiable culture known as Canaanites. So what is the Gospel writer trying to tell us? A hint can be found in Deuteronomy (7:1-5) where we read;
When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations — the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you ….and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. …Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.
Here it is clear that the seven nations are to receive no mercy from Israel, and yet Matthew’s Jesus repeats twice the reference to the prophet Hosea, teaching the people to ‘learn what this means, “I desire mercy not sacrifice.” What if this story of the Canaanite woman is part of this prophetic tradition which reveals the heart of God for humanity?
In Matthew’s Gospel this text comes between the two feeding miracles: the feeding of the five thousand and the feeding of the four thousand. Where the five thousand were fed, twelve baskets were left over, representing the twelve tribes of Israel. After the story of the Canaanite woman, the next feeding leaves seven baskets of bread, pointing to the seven Canaanite nations Israel came to destroy. It appears in God’s new kingdom being ushered in by Jesus, our enemies are to be fed rather than slaughtered. Israel’s ancestors had believed they were sent on a mission to destroy these nations, but the way of Christ shows that God is engaged in a larger global mission that is about transforming the world through love and mercy.
As indicated by the symbolism of the first feeding miracle, and by Jesus’ reaction to this determined mother who comes loudly begging for such mercy, Jesus seems to have understood his mission at this point as being only to his own people. The disciples are rudely dismissive to her and Jesus’ answer, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” is shockingly abrasive if not downright insulting. But when she responds, Jesus, this God-man who has spent his life tuning in to the voice of the Father, hears something he did not expect to hear. In her great faith, or, as another version translate it, her enormous trust, this woman speaks the voice of the Father to him. Out of the mouth of this mother comes a prophetic calling to Jesus to align himself with the breathtaking vision of God that would make of his life a merciful offering for love of the whole world.
And Jesus changes his mind.
Mary, the mother of our Lord whose feast day we celebrated yesterday, carried in her very body the prophetic word that God could be born in us, incarnated in the world. This Canaanite mother, who should have been an outsider, became instead the word of God to him, prophetically calling him into the fullness of his grace. Her love for her child prompted her to persist in claiming life from the One she knew could give it. This man who was Messiah, King, the Holy One of God, is able to listen and be changed by the prophetic utterances of a woman who by all human laws should have remained an outsider.
How often has the religion that has followed Jesus failed to follow such an example of humble listening? How often in the past has the door been firmly barred to those on the margins; women, the divorced, those with a disability or issues of health and wellbeing, survivors of abuse, people of colour, people diverse in sexuality and gender. Sometimes we judge, control and exclude people based on what we believe are the best of intentions- in the name of protecting God, ‘pure’ doctrine or our understanding of family values. But we need to allow the Spirit of God to challenge not just our sin, but our good intentions and our unquestioning dogma, that others may have life, and have it abundantly.
Like Mary who sang with joy of the God who lifts up the lowly, scatters the proud and fills those who hunger with goodness and mercy, this powerless mother claims the promises of God for the one she loves. She recognises in a moment of blinding faith that God has crept into a human life, and this means that there is nothing that can separate her own humanity from the love of God. It may be, she reasons, that the bread from heaven only comes in crumbs, but that will be enough. Jesus, in healing her daughter and being visited himself by the incarnation of God through this woman, then becomes host at a hillside banquet where seven baskets of bread were left over for those who had only anticipated the crumbs.
The good news of the gospel is that there are no outsiders. Jesus life is witness to this ever expanding vision of God, but also to the humility of the kind of saviour who would not just welcome the outcast but become the outcast for us. In this move, all are welcomed in an act of forgiving love, the fear of condemnation is erased and even our enemies have a place at the table.
This is captured in part of a poem by Stewart Henderson, “Christmas Bonus: The Magnificat”
My soul magnifies the poor, the sore, the raw
And my spirit rejoices in God my downcast, my outcast
…For he regards the low state, the no go estate,
the empty plate and squats there
With those generations
for, at whose name the cosmos shakes and canyons quake Sought sanctuary within a womb,
A young girl’s chaste unopened room
A sparse unblemished catacomb.
And holy is he among the lame
My soul magnifies the poor, the sore, the raw
And my spirit rejoices in God my outcast.
God gathers up in generous hospitality all that is outcast in us, and sends us as the body of God into the world; that the mighty will be cast down, the lowly lifted up, the bellies of the poor filled and God’s promise of mercy known to all peoples from generation to generation.