I.Theme – God comes to all us, includes all in his mercy and calls us to lead lives of justice
"Jesus and the Canaanite Woman" – Jean Colombe
The lectionary readings are here or individually
Three ingredients come together to create a celebratory mix in this week’s Lectionary: The first is God’s salvation (expressed in terms of justice and mercy); the second is God’s blessing given to those who are saved; and the third is the inclusion of "foreigners" and "outcasts". The expansion of the gospel beyond the boundaries of Judaism does not supersede God’s love for Israel, but reflects God’s love and inspiration of all people. The focus, then, of this week’s worship is on God’s coming to us, welcoming all people, and including all people in God’s mercy, salvation and blessing, while also calling all people to lives of justice.
In Isaiah 5 , God calls God’s people to justice and fairness because God promises to come to them and bring not just God’s people, but also the foreigners and outcasts, to worship and to be blessed by God on God’s mountain.
Psalm 67 is a psalm of praise for God’s blessings and mercy, which calls all nations to join in praising God for God’s saving power.
In Romans 11, the apostle Paul affirms God’s faithfulness to the Jewish people. There is no room for anti-Judaism in Christianity. God’s providential gifts of grace are irrevocable. God has made an eternal covenant with the children of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. God’s revelation in Christ expands God’s covenant to include all the peoples of the earth. God will have mercy on disobedient people everywhere, whether Jew or Gentile.
The question of being chosen once again is ambiguous. An omnipresent and omni-active God, for whom love is the guiding principle, chooses all creation. No one is left out. This is problematic for those who see the Jewish people and nation, or any other nation, as absolutely unique. As some prophetic writings suggest, Israel was chosen for a mission, to be a light to the Gentiles, bringing God’s love to all peoples.
The gospel reading places Jesus in an unusual light. When a Canaanite woman comes to Jesus to seek healing for her daughter, Jesus puts her off, apparently excluding her because of her ethnicity from God’s healing realm. The woman persists and eventually Jesus relents, apparently impressed by the depth of her faith and her willingness to experience humiliation for the love of her daughter. Jesus cures her daughter from a distance; his energy transcends the boundaries of space.
This story also portrays another kind of transcendence, the transcendence of ethnic and personal barriers for the sake healing and wholeness. Now, there are a number of ways to interpret the encounter of Jesus with the Canaanite woman. At first glance, Jesus appears to succumb to the racist tendencies that characterized the attitudes of many Jewish people toward foreigners. He puts her off because, as a Canaanite, she is unworthy of God’s love. A second interpretation suggests that Jesus is testing her faith, trying to discern how much she loves her daughter and what she is willing to do to secure a healing for her daughter. Finally, a third interpretation asserts that Jesus may be creating a trap for those who see the woman as an inferior outsider. He acts and speaks like a racist, getting their insider assent, and then pulls the rug out from under them by healing the Canaanite woman’s daughter. From this perspective, the encounter is a parable, a reversal of expectations, a turning upside down of socially acceptable racism in light of God’s realm of inclusion and healing.
However, we understand the meaning of the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman, the story portrays Jesus’ eventual inclusion of non-Jewish people into his ministry. God’s healing embraces all people, regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, or sexuality. Mature faith widens the circles of God’s love to go beyond our well-being to embrace and support the various gifts of the earth’s peoples.
Earlier in the readings, Jesus explains that it is not what we eat that defiles us but the evil that is in our hearts. Then he is approached by a Canaanite woman who convinces him, in spite of his initial reluctance, to heal her daughter who is being tormented by a demon.
Old Testament – Isaiah 56:1,6-8
Many things were changing for the people of Judah during and after their exile in Babylon, 587-540 B.C.E. The third part of the book of the prophet Isaiah, chapters 56-66, was written for returned exiles, and the left-behind ones whom they rejoined, during the time of the rebuilding of Jerusalem. The experience of the exile had challenged the people’s faith to its roots. A specific land and a flourishing population had seemed essential to their covenant with God. By their sins could they have broken the covenant irreparably? How could God restore everything? Clearly things were never going to be the same again, but what would life be like now?
There is no clear scholarly consensus on who this prophet, or prophetic school, was. There is a new element – God, the prophet now insists, is interested in other nations of people besides the descendants of Abraham. The covenant is offered more widely than the first people of the covenant ever dreamed. Their exclusive claims to chosen status must yield and make room for strangers.
The foreigners who join themselves to the Lord …
them I will bring to my holy mountain … (center of Jerusalem)
their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be acceptable …
for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples
The struggle to broaden the covenant was not complete even by the time Jesus came.
Psalm – Psalm 67 Page 675, BCP
This is a thanksgiving psalm, sung perhaps at harvest time, although it has some of the hallmarks of a liturgical chant. It is a psalm of contrasts, which rejoice in God’s blessing upon the land, and also point out God’s rule over “all the peoples.”
If parts of the Isaiah reading are meant for foreign ears, this Psalm is expressed from the perspective of Israel, seeking God’s blessing on Israel so that other nations would be drawn to God. Psalm 67 directs worshipers’ attention away from themselves and towards not only the Lord, but also the nations of the world.
Verse 4 asserts, after all, that God desires and works for life in God’s world. And how does God often do that? Psalm 67 suggests, after all, that one way to invite the peoples and nations to praise the Lord is by showing them God’s goodness by sharing that with which God has blessed us. Worshipers’ sharing of food and other provisions is, in that way, like an advertisement for God and God’s goodness. The abundance of the land becomes a sign to all the nations.
That lends Psalm 67 an ethical dimension that may not be readily apparent to worshipers. God’s just rule over the nations invites and even demands the participation of those to whom God has graciously turned God’s face. Worshipers, in a sense, reign with God when we share what God has showered on us.
Epistle – Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
In Romans 9-11 Paul asks how God could apparently renege on the promise made to Abraham, that Abraham’s descendants would always be God’s chosen people, now that those descendants had rejected Jesus. Paul figures out that it was God’s plan all along to allow the Jews to reject Jesus, so that the few Jews who accepted Jesus would be forced to turn to the Gentiles, long the outsiders, and bring them into the covenant. Then the Jews would become jealous and accept Jesus, and God’s long secret plan to invite all people into the covenant would be revealed and completed.
“Has God rejected his people?” (v. 1) No, says Paul: you can be a member of God’s first chosen people, an “Israelite” and Christian: he is an example. So God has not totally cast off the people he chose long ago, even if they are at times disobedient to God’s will. When God makes a promise, he keeps it: Israel is still chosen (v. 29).
As in Elijah’s time, there is now a faithful remnant, i.e. Jewish Christians. It was, he says, the failure of the mission to the Jews that led to the mission to the Gentiles. Gentile Christians will provide an example for Jews, leading them to seek oneness with him in faith.)
Now vv. 30-32: Gentile Christians (“you”) were once unfaithful (“disobedient”) to God but because they (Israel) were unfaithful, Gentiles have been brought to Christ. Their unfaithfulness has a purpose: that they may be brought back to God. “Disobedience” provides God with the opportunity to give his love (“mercy”) to both Jews and Gentiles.
Gospel – Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28
Jesus had a number of discussions, first with the religious leaders and Pharisees and then with his disciples on the nature of unclean/clean. In other words, what made people unfit of fit for worship of God ?
The Pharisees have come to Jesus asking why his disciples break the oral law, which they believe to be God-given and to have equal status with Mosaic Law: why do they not wash before eating? (v. 2) He has pointed out to them that at times they give priority to the oral law over the biblical Law. The Pharisees teach rules of human, rather than divine, origin.
Now (v. 10) he tells the crowd a “parable” (v. 15), a saying with a hidden meaning. He sees moral behavior (“out of the mouth”, v. 11) as important, not food laws (“into the mouth”). When the disciples point out that he has offended the Pharisees (v. 12) by his reply to their question, he is blunt: do not follow them; being “blind” (v. 14), they and their followers will be judged adversely (“pit”).
When Peter asks for an explanation, Jesus addresses all the disciples (“you”, v. 16, is plural). What is eaten, Jesus says, even though ritually clean, ends up unclean (“sewer”, v. 17), so food laws are unimportant (in spite of being in the Law). The “mouth” (v. 18) was seen as the channel by which the “heart”, the very being, expressed itself. Immoral behavior (“evil intentions …”, v. 19) does alienate one from God (“defile”, v. 20) but breaking laws of human origin does not.
In the second part of the reading, Jesus goes to Tyre and Sidon – not a Jewish area . He had moved out of Jewish territory because he needed space. On one hand, he had the religious authorities hounding him, picking up on his every word. On the other hand, he had the crowds clamoring for miracles – understandably, he was healing their sick. While miracles were a part of Jesus mission, they were not the core. The core of his mission was to call people to faith in God and his promises.
The disciples were probably nervous being there. The word “Canaanite “ represented all that was hostile to Israel. Firstly, they refused passage to them, then they threatened the Israelite purity of worship with their pagan practices, then over the centuries they collaborated with the invading armies against them, then they collaborated with the invading Greeks and built up an economic system that militated against the local Jewish people.
Now a “Canaanite” (v. 22) woman, from Phoenicia (“Tyre …”, v. 21) and probably a Gentile, calls for help. At first, he does not say a word to her even though she recognizes him. She was considered unclean and an outsider. The Disciples urge that she be sent away but he doesn’t do that
Only after her persistence does he converse with her. Twice, he explains to her that his mission is first to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” This is an echo from the Matthew 1, the Gospel explains his mission and very name, "…you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1: 21, italics added.)
However, Jesus lineage in that same chapter does shows a number of Gentiles. And he has just fed 5,000 in the previous chapter. His ministry is a kind of extended heavenly feeding.
Her passionate love for her daughter opens her to the possibilities within this person of Jesus: three times she calls him ‘Lord’; she names him ‘Son of David’ .
Perhaps, Jesus’ refusal to listen to the disciples gave the woman hope that her request would be heard. She does something that is significant in this Gospel: she kneels before him. For the woman to treat Jesus in this manner is in keeping with her earlier declaration of Jesus as the Son of David.
Kneeling is not only a sign of kingship, but also recognition of power. There is a connection between those who kneel before Jesus and the healings that Jesus performs. A leper kneels before Jesus and asks to be made clean (Matt 8:2). A ruler kneels and asks for his daughter’s healing (9:18). At the end of this Gospel, when the resurrected Lord appears, the disciples bow before him, and Jesus says that all authority in heaven and earth is his (28:17-18). Bowing in worship also recalls Jesus’ command to worship only the Lord God (4:9). This woman kneels before one whom she recognizes as having authority not only to sit on the throne of David, but to wield power over evil.
On the face of it on first glance this is a troubling scripture. In fact, this is the only time in all the gospels when Jesus seemingly ignored someone’s cry. Then he claimed this woman was outside the scope of his concern. Finally, this woman is asking for a place at the table, but Jesus, chillingly, relegates her to the floor of life. "It’s not right to toss perfectly good bread meant to feed children to dogs." Jesus calls her a dog. It’s a kind of slur, an epithet, and the disciples no doubt approved.
He tests her (v. 26): the “children” are Jews, their “food” the gospel, and “the dogs” the Gentiles. Her answer, that he can still help her, demonstrates her faith in him. She accepts the status of a family’s dog by claiming that even the dog enjoys crumbs from the table. Her statement is striking. She places hope in what others have discarded. She just wants a crumb, recognizing that even a crumb is powerful enough to defeat the demon that has possessed her daughter. She understands Jesus is the hope of all the world, not just that of Israel.
After this amazing demonstration of faith, Jesus moves beyond the Pharisees and heals her daughter. Jesus declares that what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and what comes out of the heart determines what makes one clean. What comes out of the Canaanite woman’s heart is faith — certainty that Jesus has power enough for Israel and power enough to save her non-Israelite daughter.
Look back on the story, her recognition is all the more remarkable because the disciples have been a bit slow in recognizing Jesus. In Matthew 14, after the walking on the sea, they do recognize Jesus as the Son of God, but it is not until 16:16 that Peter declares Jesus as Messiah. Yet, this woman hails Jesus as the Son of David, begs his mercy, and entreats his power over a demon that has “severely” possessed her daughter (v. 22). How is it possible that this woman has more insight into Jesus’ identity than his disciples? She is, after all, an unclean outsider, part of a people who are remembered as an old enemy of Israel.
No wonder Jesus seems blown away. This is the very faith that he was wanting – not even the disciples had come to see what she had recognized. In relationship to the earlier part of this reading.
The motives are unclear here. Did Jesus really think at first that it was God’s will that he limit himself to Israel? Did this women help him to rethink the situation and to cast it into the long view of his ministry. It’s hard to know
There are three possible interpretations
First, Matthew wants us to see that even though we may think we know exactly what (and who) needs to come first in our ministries, the main thing is to remain open to the people God sends our way. It may be a case of Jesus shifting around his priorities. Or he may be using this to take the earlier discussion of what/who was unclean and human law vs. moral law with a real life example
Scholars think that Matthew was quite probably writing this gospel specifically for a Jewish-Christian audience. If so, then perhaps that community of faith, like so many communities down along the ages, was struggling with questions about who should be included in the church. He told this story to answer who should be included.
Matthew’s gospel provides other examples. We also find in Matthew wise men from the East (2: 1-12) and a Roman Centurion (8: 5-13) as other Gentiles who know what, or whom, they are talking about. Finally, chapter 28 with its command to "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” (v. 19) carries the outward-reaching vision of this Gospel into the future.
Secondly, It is possible the that Jesus is testing her faith, trying to discern how much she loves her daughter and what she is willing to do to secure a healing for her daughter. Earlier Jesus had talked about heart. This is a story for putting this into action. Jesus initially questions her intent in seeking him but probes the heart of her intent, and in it finds faith. How have we treated those who seem unworthy of us, and yet have had a heart of faith ?
Finally, a third interpretation asserts that Jesus may be creating a trap for those who see the woman as an inferior outsider. He acts and speaks like a racist, getting their insider assent, and then pulls the rug out from under them by healing the Canaanite woman’s daughter. From this perspective, the encounter is a parable, a reversal of expectations, a turning upside down of socially acceptable racism in light of God’s realm of inclusion and healing.
Reading Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman during Pentecost reminds the church that God is constantly entering new territory and breaking boundaries. This God is in the unsettling business of meeting outsiders and granting them not just a crumb, but a place at the table.
The story is a challenge all of us in the church to imitate Jesus in being willing to extend the gospel to all people, starting with the ones who, for whatever the reason, we may initially deem beyond the pale.
Over this coming week, mull on how God uses your love for people as a means for building up your faith. Notice the times when you are prepared to go beyond yourself in service of others. When this happens, thank and praise God.