St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Thursday, 11 August 2011


August 14                                           NOTES FOR REFLECTION                    Pentecost 9

Texts: Isaiah 56:1-8; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28

Theme: breaking down barriers.  From our liturgy: "Blessed be Christ the Prince of Peace who breaks down the walls that divide."  A thought:  in the kingdom of heaven there are no walls.

Introduction.  Matthew continues with the motif of coming and going.  We have had a gap between the story of Jesus walking on the water, and today's episode.  It was filled with the questions about Jewish purity laws; ceremonial hand-washing, etc.  Jesus insisting that only what comes out of our mouths can render us 'unclean'.  The purity laws were the key barrier between Jews and Gentiles.

Now Jesus has withdrawn again; in fact, he leaves Galilee and enters gentile (pagan) territory.   This time his desire for privacy is challenged by a woman.  He seems strangely resistant, even rude.  It's her persistence that breaks down the wall that he seems to want to hide behind.  It's one of those rare instances in the Gospels, where Jesus seems to contradict the teaching of Isaiah, who was stanchly universalist in outlook, as today's passage shows.  Meanwhile, St Paul nears the end of his struggle with the apparent divide between Christ and the Jews.  How can Israel be saved if it insists on manning the barricades and keeping Jesus out?

Background.  Walls have been of great importance in human history.  They give us a sense of protection and safety.  Cities invariably were encircled by walls – entrances locked at night.  Walls keep threats out – enemies, wild animals, etc.  Today we have walled homes inside fenced gardens.  We take it for granted that admission requires our consent.  Trespassers will be resisted.

Politicians promise us ever more prison walls; designed to keep in those who would otherwise threaten us.     They remind us of the ambiguity of walls: our attitude towards them depends on which side of them we stand.

Many of us remember the stunning overthrow of the Berlin Wall and the great joy that triggered.  We may have a more conflicted view of the wall Israel has erected against Palestinian "intruders"; or the border "defences" between the USA and Mexico.

Walls are not only physical structures.  We all live to some degree or other behind psychological walls to exclude those by whom we feel threatened.  Sometimes we feel excluded by the walls others have seemingly erected against us.

Do we want the Prince of peace to break down the walls that divide?  That depends on who built them and why.

Isaiah.  This passage begins "Book III" – comprising chapters 56-66.  These chapters look ahead to the things to come.  The overall tone is hopeful.  God's will is to be done in the end.

Verse1 reminds us of the opening campaigns of John the Baptist, and even more so, of Jesus himself.  "Maintain justice and do what is right for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed" is the OT version of "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near."  Verse 2 declares blessed those who do this.  The reference to Sabbath observance is not legalistic – it's shorthand for faithful worship of the Lord God. 

These two verses could be addressed only to Jews, but they are not.  Verses 3-7 make it clear that the message is universal in scope, by emphasising the inclusion of foreigners and eunuchs.  The same requirements apply to them – obedience and faithful worship – but descent from Abraham is not essential.  They will all be brought to the holy mountain; more, they will have a place within the temple walls – the very dwelling-place of the Lord God – and their sacrifices will be acceptable to him.  Even though they have no issue (in the case of eunuchs), they will be remembered (immortalised) by the eternal God.  The Temple – the home of the God of Israel – will be a place of prayer for all the nations.

Verse 8 uses the idea of two gatherings which we find throughout the writings of Paul (first the Jews, then the gentiles); see also John 10:16.

Taking It Personally.

·        Can you recall a time when you felt excluded, not good enough, not acceptable to others?

·        Have you ever felt not good enough for God?

·        Does this passage say anything to you about Israel's wall on the West Bank; or about the attitude of our own people to asylum seekers or immigrants?

·        Does this sort of reading guide your thinking in any way on such public issues as these?  Why or why not?

Romans.  St Paul reaches the end of his wrestling with the (for him) vexed question of the salvation of the Jews, given that it is the gentiles who are accepting the gospel and the Jews who are (by and large) rejecting it.  This is no mere theological puzzle for him.  He is a Jew himself; and the attitude of his fellow Jews is causing him "great sorrow and unceasing anguish" (Romans 9:2).

His argument is not always easy to follow.  Perhaps we can say the crucial verse is 29: "for God's gifts and his call are irrevocable".  God has promised salvation to Israel through the Abrahamic covenant: he has also promised salvation to those who have faith in Christ.  How is this salvation given?   Through forgiveness of sins – what Paul calls the mercy of God.  Thus Jews and gentiles become eligible for salvation through different covenants (Jews through the old covenant and Christians through the new), but in each case that salvation is effected by forgiveness of sins (the mercy of God).

Taking It Personally.

·        Pray the third petition in the Lord's Prayer, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us", slowly and repetitively.

·        Are you a sinner – are you sinful?  Or is all that old-fashioned unhealthy language?

·        Is there anyone you haven't forgiven?

·        Have you experienced the forgiveness of others?  Have you experienced God's forgiveness?

·        Ponder the term "the mercy of God"?  How do you feel about it?

·        Pray the Jesus Prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner", slowly and repetitively.

Matthew.  After Jesus walked on the lake and joined the disciples in the boat they sailed to Gennesaret on the north-western edge of the lake, where we left them.  There Jesus was quizzed by some Pharisees and teachers of the law about his attitude towards the Jewish purity practices.  Jesus insisted that what we eat cannot make us unclean; we are made unclean by what comes out of our mouths and hearts, not what we take in.  So radical was this teaching that Peter had to ask for an explanation.

Now Jesus has again "withdrawn", this time to Phoenicia (modern-day Lebanon), to the twin cities of Tyre and Sidon.  In 11:21 Jesus had used these cities as examples of great godlessness.  This is gentile territory.  He is addressed by a Canaanite (or Syro-Phoenician) woman, a mother of a girl who "is suffering terribly from demon-possession".  She calls out in words very similar to blind Bartimaeus: "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!"

We expect Jesus to have compassion on her.  He doesn't.  He ignores her!  Her first appeal falls on (his) deaf ears.  Why?  Because she is from the wrong side of at least 3 walls – a woman, a gentile, and a worshipper of pagan gods?  It seems that she may have been pestering the disciples: they urge Jesus to send her away - just as they suggested he should send the crowds away to buy food (14:15), and just as they will try to drive the mothers away who bring their children to Jesus for a blessing (19:13).  This time Jesus seems to agree with them.  He "answered"...but did he?  The answer doesn't seem to make sense.  Perhaps it was directed to the woman; or perhaps what the disciples meant was, "grant her request so she will go away".

"I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel."  This is clearly Jesus' original understanding of his mission: see 10:5-6.  The woman is undeterred.  Instead of going away, she draws near and kneels before him.  She makes her second appeal: "Lord, help me."  Jesus strongly, even rudely, rebuffs her.  She is not a member of the House of Israel.  But again she refuses to be dismissed.  We might recall the persistent widow badgering the judge, or the friend at midnight bludging bread from his neighbour. She doesn't respond in kind to the insult, but nor does she yield.  She hoists him on his own petard!  Her faith in him remains intact.  Jesus recognises her faith and grants her request.  He has mercy on her.  Her daughter, a gentile, is saved though faith by God's mercy.

Taking It Personally.

·        What do you make of Jesus' attitude towards this woman?  Do you feel any need to defend/excuse/explain his attitude?  On what grounds might you do that?

·        Some have suggested he was a man of his times; others that he was tired and exasperated, never able to get "off-duty?  Does this "only-too-human" Jesus appeal to you at all?

·        How does the woman's approach compare with your own approach to Jesus in times of need?  Do you persist in prayer?

·        Ponder the graphic image of the crumbs falling from the table.  Next time you see crumbs on your dining-room floor give thanks for this nameless woman who broke down the walls that would otherwise have kept her from the mercy of God.


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