The woman from outside.
Rom 11: 1-2a, 29-32
This story we have just heard sounds a bit shocking, doesn’t it? In our times we have seen other races persecuted just because they are a different colour, and the Black Lives Matter movement is sweeping the world. This story makes Jesus look like a bit of a racist really. It seems odd to say that. But hang on, we know the character of Jesus. We know about His great love for everyone. What is going on here?
We need to look at the first purpose of Jesus coming to the earth. It was to fulfil the promise that God had made to the Jews. They were called the chosen people for a reason. They had been awaiting the anointed one, the Messiah, for many hundreds, even thousands of years. Jesus’ first mission on earth was to fulfil that promise, to come and be the anointed one for the Jews. The title of the one the Jews were waiting for so longingly was ‘Son of David’. And, surprisingly, this is what the Canaanite woman calls him! She’s not a Jew, she’s not even living in Jewish territory. This story takes place on the coast some way north of Israel, and woman was from even further north. Some versions call her the Syro-Phoenician woman. Phoenicians lived on the coast, but the Syro bit refers to Syria, which is still further north.
So here was a woman from outside, claiming Jesus’s ministry to the world outside the Jewish world, for herself and her daughter. This is an example of the future ministry of Jesus breaking in on the first ministry. Her faith tells her that Jesus is on earth not just for the Jews but for everyone, so she confidently calls him Son of David, and asks for healing for her daughter. She acknowledges the Jewish call as the first one, by calling him Son of David, but it is her confidence in his wider mission that seems to take Jesus by surprise.
He challenges her again, and seems to be not only a bit racist but even rude. It isn’t right, says Jesus, to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.
Ouch! Gentle Jesus meek and mild has disappeared again. It was only a myth anyway.
But the Canaanite woman isn’t offended at being compared to a dog. Jewish people referred to Gentiles as dogs commonly. It wasn’t polite, but it was normal. She comes back with one of the best rejoinders in the gospels – even the dogs get to eat the scraps from under the table!
Sometimes at cafe church we have some doggy visitors. We are not supposed to feed them from the table – the food is not for them. But if bits fall on the floor they don’t last long! This is probably why dogs love small children – there are always bits for them to gather up.
This lady was content with the crumbs. She didn’t expect more. But she confidently claimed that much, knowing that even a crumb of healing, of love, of teaching from Jesus would be enough for her need, to see her daughter healed.
Jesus is amazed at her faith. We have seen this reaction elsewhere – in a previous chapter there is a Roman centurion who also shows this faith – another Gentile. We can see, in the midst of Matthew’s gospel, which was written for a Jewish audience, the future ministry of Jesus, and the life of the church being foreshadowed. Both these Gentiles were commended for their faith – the challenge is to the Jewish people – Will you also show this faith? Will you acknowledge that the one you have been awaiting for so long is here now?
Well, some Jewish people did trust Jesus, but others are still waiting, and it seems sad to me that they didn’t recognise him when he stood among them.
What can this mean for us?
Where do we see faith breaking out where we least expect it?
I remember going to a service in Wellington cathedral to install Bishop Justin. During the cup of tea afterward, I noticed a man who didn’t look like most of the others there– instead of being clergy, or nicely turned out cathedral people in their best clothes, instead of being let’s face it white, he was Maori, dreadlocks, scruffy, with prison tattoos on his hands. Interesting character, I thought, and went over to talk to him. He knew Bishop Justin quite well from a ministry Justin had had to the prison, and he was wearing a wooden cross with a red bead on it. Those of you who have been to Cursillo will recognise this, as I did. He had done the in-prison Cursillo programme, which is called Te Ara Pono.
This man didn’t look like everyone else there at first glance, but he had the identifying mark of a Christian – I don’t mean the cross around his neck, but the transformed, faith- affirming life that showed that he too was a follower of Christ.
The church has become an institution in many parts of the world, connected with colonialism and the British way. It can look very different from the city that has evolved around it. Just this week, a church choir in the UK has been disbanded because it doesn’t represent the make-up of the community it is based in. Someone has decided that because of the racial grouping it is elitist.
The story we have just heard tells us that any sort of discrimination is not relevant to the kingdom of heaven. Yes, Jesus’s mission was first to the Jews, but then to the rest of the world. The followers of Jesus in the first century took the church far and wide, with the message heard by people in all their own languages at the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
We cannot look at a group of people and say, they’re too brown, too white, too green for that matter, to fit into a picture of what the kingdom of heaven can look like. The Canaanite woman knew that it was for her and her daughter. Here at St Ambrose we know that God’s love is for everyone, no matter what walk of life.
I hope the people who want to worship God by singing in the choir in the UK can continue to do so, regardless of their colour or background. I hope those who don’t feel they can belong to that choir because it’s too something can start their own choir, and instead of being one or the other, they can have many different ways of worshipping God.
Dear friends, our challenge this week is carry on doing what we already do well here – reaching out to everyone with God’s love, and the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven!