TENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: God of all peoples, your arms reach out to embrace all those who call upon you. Teach us as disciples of your Son to love the world with compassion and constancy, that your name may be known throughout the earth, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
I don’t much like the story from this Sunday’s gospel lesson. I don’t care for the way Jesus treats the Canaanite woman who comes pleading for the life of her daughter. Perhaps it is because I have memories of the night I was alone in the hospital with my own little daughter who had just been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and was spiking a high fever. I recall how desperate and afraid I was; how hard it was to get the attention of anybody on the floor after midnight; how anxious I was as I waited for help to arrive. Thankfully, the nurses and doctors were kind and reassuring-once they finally arrived. They did not rebuff my pleas for help as Jesus did initially. I can only imagine how panicked I would have become if they had told me they did not have time to deal with my daughter’s situation, that she was not their responsibility or that I should just take a number and sit down.
I have heard all of the explanations for why Jesus treated the Canaanite woman as he did: he was testing her faith to be sure it was genuine; he was using her to make a point to his disciples; his banter was actually fun loving and gentle. None of that flies with me. When someone is pleading with you for the life of her child, you don’t question her sincerity, use her as a teaching tool or make jokes with her. So as far as I am concerned, Jesus has some explaining to do.
But then again, I am not sure that my own experiences with Jesus are so very different from those of this woman. I have prayed mightily for loved ones in desperate need only to watch them continue in their suffering. I pray regularly for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit on my church and on my ministry, but continue to struggle with getting my church excited about the good news of Jesus Christ. Often, it seems, Jesus is ignoring me.
Still, the Canaanite woman continues to pray. Though ignored, rebuffed and denied, she just keeps coming back for more. She cannot help but believe that behind what looks like a decisive “no” there is a “yes.” In that respect, this woman is in step with the psalms of lament I have often discussed on this blog. Like the psalmists, she keeps on praying when it seems there is no more point to prayer. She keeps on pressing Jesus for help even when it seems too late for any meaningful help to arrive. She keeps on talking after being told by the disciples and Jesus himself to shut up. In the end, it turns out that she is right. Even under the cloud of “no” Jesus is, as Paul says, “the ‘yes’ to all of God’s promises.”
So maybe this story is about patience. Maybe our lesson is all about the time it takes to hear Jesus and the kind of prayer required to penetrate the darkness of his absence. Maybe the Canaanite woman is showing us that we must not take “no” for an answer because “no” is entirely out of character for the one who is God’s “yes.” The story does not tell us how long this encounter lasted. Perhaps this woman had been dogging Jesus for days before his disciples had finally had enough. Perhaps she had to endure hours of silence from Jesus before he finally spoke-with a denial. Her arguments with him might have been more extensive than the brief report we have in the lesson. Yet however lengthy or brief this encounter may have been, the woman never wavered in her belief that Jesus could and would save her daughter.
That is very much how prayer is for me a lot of the time. I pray for what I think is needed; I continue to pray when it does not materialize; I trust that eventually I will hear God’s “yes” in Jesus Christ. For some of my prayers, I have been blessed with a clear and resounding “yes.” Sometimes God’s “yes” has come after years of praying and in such a different manner than I had hoped for and expected that I fail to recognize it until long after the fact. For many of my prayers, God’s “yes” has not yet come into view. But I continue to pray to the Son of David because I know that his last word to us is always “yes.”
The fifty sixth chapter of the Book of Isaiah opens into what scholars agree is a third collection of prophetic oracles separate from the prophet Isaiah of the 8th Century B.C.E. (Isaiah 1-39) and Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) who prophesied toward the end of the Babylonian Exile. These prophesies comprising what is commonly called “Third Isaiah” (Isaiah 56-66) come from a period beginning shortly after the return of the exiled Jews from Babylon in 539 B.C.E., but before the rebuilding of the temple in about 515 B.C.E. The band of exiles inspired by the poetic promises of Second Isaiah to brave the dangerous journey across the Iraqi desert from Babylon to Palestine arrived home to find Jerusalem in ruins and the land inhabited by hostile tribes. The Eden like path through the desert promised by Second Isaiah did not materialize. Life in Palestine proved to be difficult, dangerous and unpromising. The people were understandably disappointed and demoralized. This was the tough audience to which Third Isaiah was called to appeal. A people led to such a desperate plight through listening to a prophet’s promises were probably not in any mood to listen to yet another prophet! Third Isaiah opens with the words, “Maintain justice and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come.” Vs. 1. You can almost hear the people groaning in the background, “Oh no! Here we go again!”
It is not clear to me why the lectionary omits verses 2-5 as they seem to make up an integral part of the reading. “Happy is the mortal…” (Vs. 2) echoes the form of Psalm 1 which sets forth the two paths a human life may take: righteousness or wickedness. Righteousness is not simply general goodness or ethical behavior. It is a life of faithfulness to Israel’s covenant relationship with her God. Sabbath observation is a critical sign of such faithfulness. According to Genesis 2:1-3, Sabbath rest is woven into the very fabric of creation. Though ever a central commandment, Sabbath observance became even more important during the Babylonian Exile where it served as a line of demarcation between Israel’s covenant life and the surrounding pagan culture. The Sabbath was a visible sign of Jewish solidarity and identity.
It appears that Sabbath observance might have gone a bit lax within the community of the returned exiles. That would explain why the prophet urges his people to keep it. Vs. 2. Verses 3-5 are remarkable in that they offer full membership and participation in the covenant community to eunuchs and foreigners, both of which were excluded from the assembly of Israel under some provisions of the Pentateuch. Eg., Deuteronomy 23:1-8. Only decades later Ezra the scribe would take a more severe and exclusive stance toward outsiders. Ezra 9-10. As far as Third Isaiah is concerned, however, Sabbath observance and adherence to the commandments are what determine membership in the community of Israel, not blood. Foreigners are not merely tolerated but welcomed and encouraged to flock to the Lord’s mountain that the sanctuary there might become “a house of prayer for all peoples.” Vs. 7. Such is the generous invitation from the God who “gathers the outcasts of Israel.” Vs. 8.
This openness to foreigners runs contrary to the current mood in our country, which is now more consistent with that of Ezra. Presented with these two words of scripture (Isaiah and Ezra) each carrying a very different message, we must determine which one of the two is God’s word to us at this time. The temptation is to select the one that comports with our own view of what is right and just. That can be hazardous as human nature always bends the scriptures to favor its own self-centered needs and desires. In the end, the polestar of our hermeneutic is Jesus. This Sunday’s gospel tips the scale decisively in the direction of openness and inclusion.
Based on verse 6, most commentators agree that this psalm is a harvest hymn giving thanks for a bountiful year. The song has a recognizable structure. It opens and closes with prayers for blessing that ultimately will lead to worldwide recognition and praise of Israel’s God. The middle section falls into two parts calling for universal praise: verses 3-4 call the nations to praise God for God’s just judgment and guidance. Verses 5-6 invite praise for God’s generous bounty in the form of a fruitful yield. Rogerson, J.W. and McKray, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 81.
“The Lord Bless us and keep us; the Lord make his face to shine upon us.” Vs. 1. These ancient lines are similar to and might be taken from the “Aaronic Benediction” (Numbers 6:24-26). Use of the word “Elohim” for “God” as opposed to “Yahweh” has suggested to some scholars that the psalm may have originated in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. More likely, however, this is a very ancient form that has its roots in the period of the Judges. There is no mention of monarchy (either North or South) or Jerusalem.
“Let all peoples praise you, Oh God (Elohim).” Again, God’s works on behalf of Israel are to result in the praise of all people. This hymn affirms the belief that God is the God not only of Israel, but of all the earth. He is therefore exalted as a righteous judge and guide for all peoples. This echo of themes found in Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-66) has led a few commentators to date it after the Babylonian Exile. But that is hardly a foregone conclusion. Israel always viewed her God as supreme over all the nations. Moreover, the similarities to Second Isaiah could be the result of editing at a later time.
As noted above, verse 5 suggests that the psalm may have been composed for use as a hymn of thanksgiving for a fruitful harvest. Just as the Lord has brought about a successful growing year resulting in prosperity for Israel, so God’s life giving power will spread to the whole earth as Israel’s God is recognized as God of all peoples. The psalm concludes with a prayer for continued blessing that will have ripple effects to the ends of the earth. In the end, all the ends of the earth will revere the God of Israel who is, in reality, the God of all peoples. Vs. 6.
This chapter of Romans is critically important. It deals with a question very near to St. Paul’s heart, namely, the place of his own people, the Jews, in God’s redemptive purpose for creation. If there is one take away verse in this chapter it is verse 1: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!” This verse is important because it puts the lie to nearly two millennia of Christian theology teaching precisely the view that Paul here rejects, namely, “supersessionism.” In short, supersessionism is the belief that Christianity is the fulfillment of Biblical Judaism. From this conclusion it follows that Jews who deny that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah fall short of their calling as God’s Chosen people. In its more extreme forms, the doctrine holds Jews solely responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus and for that reason maintains that they are thoroughly rejected by God. This view has dominated the thinking of Christian theologians about Judaism until relatively recently and continues to enjoy support in many quarters.
It is important to remember that, in Paul’s time, there was no “Christianity” distinct from Judaism. The Jesus movement, sometimes called simply “the way,” was a reform movement within Judaism. Neither Paul nor Jesus ever dreamed of starting a new religion separate from Judaism. For Paul, Jesus was the fulfillment of the Jewish hope and the conduit through which gentile believers were brought into God’s covenant relationship with Israel. Both Israel and the church were indispensable partners with God in the drama of redemption.
So how did we get to where we are today? The answer to that question is bigger than can be addressed on this post. But suffice to say that throughout the first century the line between church and synagogue had not been sharply drawn. It appears that Paul moved freely between the church and the synagogue in his ministry. Although some rupture occurred between the Jesus movement in Palestine and the Sanhedrin governing most of the Jewish community in the 90s C.E., there is documentation showing that disciples of Jesus worshiped in synagogues well into the 2nd Century C.E. If an event signifying the final break between church and synagogue could be identified, it would probably be the rise of emperor Constantine under whose influence Christianity became the dominant religion within the Roman Empire. In 380 C.E. Christianity was declared the official religion of the empire by emperor Theodosius. From that point forward, all other religion, Judaism included, was disfavored if not strictly illegal. The Jews found themselves increasingly alienated in an increasingly Christianized Europe. Suspicion and fear of these communities that would not be assimilated into the larger culture often erupted into violent pogroms. The carnage reached its climax during the middle ages when knights on their way to crusades against Muslims in the Holy Land routinely destroyed Jewish communities and murdered their inhabitants along the way. Although the Renaissance saw greater tolerance and acceptance of Jews that continued throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries, anti-semitism lay close under the surface. A deadly mix of these fierce cultural undercurrents of fear and hatred against Jews with the pseudo-scientific theory of white supremacy bequeathed by Enlightenment rationalism run amok infected Germany and several other nations with genocidal madness never before seen on the planet. The slaughter of six million Jews in the heart of Christian Europe finally led to a much needed (and far too tardy) reconsideration of the doctrine of supersessionism.
Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is a good place to start in reconsidering the relationship of the church to Israel. Paul’s assertion that God does not reject Israel is simply the natural outcome of the view he has been expressing from the beginning concerning salvation by grace. God does not go back on his promises. Therefore, Israel’s disobedience no more invalidates God’s covenant with her than does the church’s disobedience void the promises made in baptism. “The gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” Vs. 29. It is unfortunate that the lectionary omits Paul’s words to his gentile audience about the importance of Israel in the redemptive purpose of God and the fact that they, as outsiders to the covenant, have been graciously incorporated into the household of God just as wild olive branches grafted into a cultivated tree. Vss. 17-24. As such, the gentiles ought not to vaunt their status over Jews who as yet do not recognize Jesus as Messiah. The rejection of Jesus by some Jews does not amount to God’s rejection of them. All Israel is and remains God’s elect by grace. Knowingly or unknowingly, they are fulfilling the purpose for which God called them.
Paul goes on to explain that the hearts of many of the Jewish people have been hardened toward Jesus-not because God is rejecting them, but because this hardening will open the way for faith among the gentiles. The faith of the gentiles will, in turn, awaken jealousy among the Jews that will ultimately draw them to faith in Jesus. Vss. 11-12; 25-28. I must confess in all humility that this is where I fall off the caboose in Pauls’ train of thought. It is not clear to me how Israel’s rejection of Jesus facilitates the faith of the gentiles or how the faith of the gentiles will finally draw Israel to Jesus. Obviously, that is not how things worked out historically. Nevertheless, be that as it may, Paul is absolutely clear about two things: 1) Israel is God’s people by the grace of election every bit as much as the church; 2) Israel plays an indispensable role in the redemption God is working out for all of creation. The church must therefore never understand itself as “the new and improved Israel” or as Israel’s replacement.
Every so often, the lectionary gets things right. Here the juxtaposition of Jesus’ teaching on “cleanness” and “uncleanness” is further illuminated by the story of the Canaanite woman. Jesus makes the point that one does not become unclean by what s/he consumes or by what s/he handles. Nor does one avoid uncleanness by adhering strictly to ritual practices. One is polluted by those things that fester deep in the heart. From a heart infected by greed, lust, anger and folly proceed evil words and actions.
In the Gospel of Mark, the woman in our lesson is described as Syro-Phoenician. Mark 7:24-30. Matthew identifies her as a Canaanite. Throughout the Pentateuch Moses repeatedly warned the people of Israel to have no dealings of any kind with Canaanites. Canaanites were to be exterminated thoroughly without mercy: “But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breaths, but you shall utterly destroy them…” Deuteronomy 20:16-17. Canaanites were repeatedly blamed throughout the Book of Judges for leading Israel into idolatry and betrayal of her covenant with God. That there probably were no persons living at the time of Jesus whose linage could have been traced to the Canaanite peoples of the Bronze Age is beside the point. Matthew wishes to make clear that this woman is the epitome of “unclean” in terms of Hebrew sensibilities. Yet she recognizes Jesus as “Lord,” and addresses him as “Son of David.” Her persistent plea for Jesus’ salvation for her daughter comes from a heartfelt confidence in Jesus’ ability and willingness to save. She, unlike Jesus’ ritually sensitive critics, is “clean.”
It is important that we avoid “dumbing down” this story. It is tempting to treat it as a morality play praising the heartfelt devotion of this woman while deriding the superficial ritualism of the Pharisees. Let us give the Pharisees their due. Faithful practices are essential to the development of character shaped by virtue. The ritual provisions of the Torah were designed to remind Israel in each of the most mundane and routine tasks of daily living that she belonged to her God. Prayer was woven into the fabric of work and play. Each meal was an act of worship and a celebration of community. There was no artificial division in Hebrew thought between secular and sacred such as we more or less take for granted today.
Jesus had no objection to ritual observances, but he would have us know that all such observances presuppose a covenant relationship of grace between God and the community of faith. To those on the outside, these observances must witness to the generosity of God and serve as an invitation to participate in that generosity. A community formed by the virtues of Torah and which practices Torah accordingly appeals to persons experiencing a hunger they didn’t know they had for a God they do not yet know. It is precisely for this reason that Judaism has in fact drawn proselytes from all the surrounding cultures in which it has made its home. That Jews have not historically sought such converts only further serves to illustrate the point.
Nonetheless, when religious practices become ends in themselves their meaning is distorted no matter how deeply scriptural they may be. That goes for Christian as well as Jewish practices. When prayer, the sacraments, preaching, fasting, tithing and Bible Study are used to manipulate, control and maintain power rather than to strengthen the covenant and nourish the community of faith, they become demonic. When observance becomes a measure of one’s worthiness to be part of the community of faith rather than means for inviting participation and strengthening membership, it conceals an unclean devotion to self-promotion and control of others. Under these circumstances, the joyous invitation to repent and believe in the good news is obscured.