August 17 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: Isaiah 56:1, 6-8; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28
Theme: I'm tempted to be thoroughly outrageous this week and suggest "Open Your Eyes, Lord", but fear that people will just assume it is a misprint and take no notice. Perhaps I can convey the same thought in a less provocative way by suggesting "Our Kind of People". Other thoughts include "An Unholy Mountain", or "Buddy, Can You Spare a Crumb?" As my temper is showing no signs of improving, I'll offer one more suggestion, and then do some deep breathing. What about, "Who Gets our Droppings?"
Introduction. We begin once more with Isaiah, whom I always think of (probably wrongly) as the great prophet of monotheism, and of the natural concomitant of that, universalism. Today it is hard for us to understand how outrageous today's passage would have sounded to his contemporaries. Several centuries later, St Paul was still trying get his people to grasp it; and (it is my contention) today's gospel passage shows us that even Jesus, so often the great expositor of Isaiah's teaching, had failed to understand this part of it until challenged by a woman – and she a Gentile!
Background. My guess is that I am not the only one in this country who, until a few days ago, had never heard of the Yazidi people, or of the Sinjar Mountain on which thousands of them are trapped in the most desperate circumstances imaginable. What is to be done and who is to do it? Already the tired arguments have started. It's all President Obama's fault. He should never have pulled his troops out of Iraq, or he should have armed and assisted the rebels trying to oust President Assad in Syria. Or perhaps it's Saudi Arabia's fault because that country is arming and financing the Islamist State terrorists. Or perhaps it's the international community's fault (if only there was such a community!) and their ineffectual bunch of talking heads who believe that summoning an emergency meeting of the Security Council and talking to each other for hours (even late into the night) is a proper response to any humanitarian crisis.
And the questions remain, what is to be done and by whom? Dropping food and other aid? Tick. Creating a (relatively) safe escape route? Tick? Backing those initiatives with the military necessary for those forms of assistance to be rendered? Er, um? It's questions like this that really get to me because, in principle, I don't believe bombing our enemies is consistent with Christ's call to love them. But then, doesn't this leave me in the same position as all the other talkers and hand-wringers who prefer debate, analysis and coronial examinations to actually doing something, anything, to respond to the cries of even one desperate mother, whose child is being tortured by the demons who seem to have control over vast swathes of land, our own included?
And as I ponder this challenge to my faith, my ethics, and my so-called principles I realise that this one desperate mother – representative of so many desperate mothers all over the world – is crying out in a language spoken by the people of Syro-Phoenicia in Jesus' time. And she is crying out to him, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon." So, seeking to grow in our own discipleship, we turn to look at Jesus to see how we are to respond to the cries of a desperate mother. And we get a horrible shock, don't we? We find ourselves looking at a Jesus we've never seen before. A Jesus who has a darker side to his character, it appears. He who has, until now, made himself available to all who were in need – a Jesus who has just fed a multitude of people without any security checks, or requiring proof of Jewish identity, is now shunning this woman, claiming he has no mandate to assist her. "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel", he says, and even that legalistic justification for his apparent indifference to her suffering is addressed to the disciples instead of her.
At this point, of course, the defence counsel and the spin doctor in us are working overtime to be heard. Jesus is teasing – Jesus is bluffing – Jesus is simply testing her faith to see if it is real, and not just a ploy to win his support. You have probably heard these "explanations – and others of the same ilk – many times. But have you ever thought what image they give of Jesus? Personally, I would find it easier to love a Jesus if his Team Jesus people explained that Jesus was very tired, he had low blood-sugar, or was carrying quite a heavy cold, or just needed a break. Anything along those lines I could accept as a reasonable explanation of his below-par response to this particular woman on this particular occasion.
But a Jesus who is confronted by a desperate mother, out of her mind with worry over the state of her daughter, and who then decides to play a game with her, who pretends, or teases, or even tests her faith? Maybe it would be better if we reminded ourselves that Jesus is not answerable to us for his acts and omissions, and leave it at that.
But let's be clear about one thing. To exclude this woman because she is not of the house of Israel - because she is not one of us – is no different in principle from excluding Yazidi because they are not Sunni. And we can see where that gets us in Iraq, Gaza and goodness knows where else today. Wherever there are people who are described by anyone else as "not one of us" there are people in danger.
It is fashionable these days to remember that Jesus was a Jew. This gospel passage shows exactly that. As a Jew he believed in the Holy One of Israel. So did Isaiah. So did St Paul. But all three of them came to an understanding that God was even more than that. He was and is the Holy One of all peoples, including Syro-Phoenician women. Perhaps the real importance of this gospel story today is to warn us, as disciples, that we are all prone to the demonic allure of sectarianism, and to be constantly alert, for that particular devil prowls the world like a hungry lion seeking to devour us.
One final thought. I have lost count of the number of times some good soul in pain has said to me, "Well, there's always somebody worse off than me." But this story prompts me to wonder if we more often believe that there is always somebody better off than us. Those people who have so much food on their table that dogs feast on the crumbs that fall to the floor. Where are we in this story – feasting at the table or grateful for falling crumbs?
Isaiah. What a wonderful passage this is – and how important it is today, in Israel and elsewhere! Why is it that we so easily overlook wrongs committed by Israel, and notice only the wrongs committed against Israel? Could the message be any clearer – that the test is not ethnicity or nationality – but faith in God? Faithful "foreigners" will be gathered, along with Israel's outcasts, and made welcome on the holy mountain and joyful in God's temple. All completely counter-cultural, of course, then and now.
Taking It Personally.
- Suppose a person is suddenly taken ill in Dunedin and requires expensive medical treatment. This, however, is refused on the ground that the person is a Moslem. How would you feel?
- Would you feel any different if that person was denied medical treatment because he or she was not a New Zealand citizen or a resident of this country? Why?
- Would you vote for a party in the coming General Election who promised to impose "a justice and development tax", in addition to ordinary income tax, to enable New Zealand to increase its humanitarian aid to other countries?
Romans. St Paul continues his examination of the special position of Israel in salvation history. If I've understood his argument, it goes something like this. The starting-point is the Abrahamic covenant between God and Israel. Because God is always true to his word, it is, as far as God is concerned, irrevocable. So can Israel rely on it, regardless of its own gross and ongoing breach of it? Well, yes and no. God will not rescind it – he will, in the strict legal sense, forgive their breach of it, but in doing so he is changing the nature of the relationship enshrined in it. Instead of granting Israel the benefits of the covenant as a matter of contract, God will grant Israel those benefits as a gracious act of mercy. And that is the mercy that God has chosen to extend to the Gentiles as well. St Paul sums this argument up in verse 32: For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.
Taking It Personally.
· How might we apply this teaching to the situation in Iraq or in Gaza? Are all parties "imprisoned in disobedience" and equally in need of God's mercy?
· Does it then make sense any longer to talk of "parties"? Are we not all one party?
· Spend some time reciting/chanting/praying the Agnus Dei.
Matthew. Whatever else we might think of this episode, one other thing should be noted. Its inclusion strongly argues for its authenticity. It may be that neither Matthew nor Mark saw it as raising the sort of objections it raises for us, but it must surely have struck a discordant note among Gentile converts in the early church. Is there a clue here, perhaps – that it was intended as a caution to those converts not to get above themselves, or, to be more precise, not to get above Jewish Christians? Perhaps the "New Israel" was beginning to make the same mistake the original Israel made, and was taking salvation for granted. The emphasis in the story, of course, is not on the miraculous healing of the daughter, which is treated almost as a footnote to the main text. The story is about the inclusion of this Gentile woman within Christ's healing love because of her great faith. The setting – Tyre and Sidon – is interesting bearing in mind Christ's earlier comments in Matthew 11:21. But perhaps it is when we put this story alongside the story of Jesus walking on the water that its full impact is felt. Peter calls out, "Lord, save me!" This woman's second plea is "Lord, help me." The Lord responds instantly to Peter, but then berates him for his "little faith". The Lord remains reluctant to help the woman but then lauds her "great faith". There are obvious echoes too of the attempts to shoo the little children away and silence the cries of blind Bartimaeus; and of the parables of the friend at midnight and the unjust judge. Some commentators make much of the fact that the crumbs fall from the rich man's table; the rich man does not deliberately take some of his food and share it with his dogs, the inference being that nothing is taken away from Israel and given to the Gentiles. To me that's a bit of a stretch. However, there might be something of an echo here of the twelve baskets of food left over after the feeding of the multitude.
Taking It Personally.
· This is an excellent story to use for Ignatian prayer. Put yourself in the action. How does this woman strike you? Is she well-dressed or scruffy? Is she determined, pushy, humble, or desperate? How do the disciples react when they see her? What do you feel as Jesus ignores her, and then is rude to her?
· Are you tempted to act as Jesus' defence counsel or spin doctor? Go ahead, then. Are you able to convince yourself?
· Do you agree or disagree with my view that this encounter widened Jesus' understanding of his divine mission?
· How do you react to beggars? Does that term mean something other than "people who ask for help"? Would you call the woman in the story "a beggar"?
· In a desperate situation, are you most likely to ask for help from a family member, a close friend, a member of your local church, a neighbour, or some sort of agency?
· Would you consider your request for help begging?