Inviting the Other to the Table

August 17, 2014

Helen Jacobi

Isaiah 56:1,6-8     Psalm 67:1-7     Romans 11:1-2, 29-32     Matthew 15:21-28

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“I will not take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Why does the gospel writer Matthew include this story about Jesus and the Canaanite woman in his gospel? He shows both Jesus and the disciples in a bad light. This woman, this Gentile woman, dares to approach “the master” and his followers, and calls out, cries out. She sounds to them like the demon who is said to torment her daughter. Send her away for goodness sake. Let us get on with being disciples of this master who is going to overthrow the Romans and bring about God’s kingdom – which will be exclusively for the people of Israel. And yes, even Jesus is arrogant and rude. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel …. I will not take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

 

Hang on a minute – has the Jesus of the gospels we know been replaced in this story? Where is the Jesus who says - let the little children come to me; where is the Jesus who saves the woman from being stoned for adultery? where is the Jesus who touches lepers and ignores the ritual washing of hands before meals?

 

Why would Matthew the gospel writer include this story? John and Luke don’t. Mark does but in a kinder version than this. Matthew does not flinch as he shows Jesus to be rude and racist.

 

If me calling Jesus a racist makes you flinch, I am sorry, but Jesus calls the woman a dog, a derogatory term used by the Jews of his time for Gentiles.

If it does make you flinch, you might have been happier with our gospel readings for the last couple of weeks – Jesus walking on the water or feeding the 5000.

 

Those stories are part of an understanding of Jesus as divine, as God, and so of course he can break the rules of nature, and do as he wishes. He is not a magician, nor “a conjurer of cheap tricks” to quote Gandalf, but his divinity breaks through and allows him to heal, to feed, to teach, in a way never seen before.

 

That is one thread which is woven into the gospels. It is the thread of a high Christology – an elevated and divine view of Jesus and who Jesus was.

 

Today’s story belongs to another thread, a much lower Christology. A Christology of the human Jesus, the Jesus who ate, drank and slept, worked, laughed and cried. The Jesus who wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, the Jesus who was grumpy with his mother at the wedding of Cana, the Jesus who rejected his family when they came to get him because they thought he was mad. The Jesus who died a ghastly human death. It is the very human Jesus whom we see in this account. Jesus says his message and teaching is only for the people of Israel, his own people. And in his defence, he is fitting absolutely into the norms of his time, here he is not the radical, he is being quite normal.

 

But the woman, this feisty unnamed woman from Canaan, replies in a very quick and witty way – yes but even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table. She is not asking to sit at the table of the master, she knows her place, but she does want healing for her daughter and she is not about to give up. And she knows that there is enough to go around. Maybe she has heard the story of the feeding of the 5000, there were 12 baskets of crumbs left over then.

Cannot Jesus share a few crumbs, take a moment out of his precious busy schedule to attend to the needs of her daughter?

 

Well, Jesus has met his match, his mind is changed and he commends her faith and the girl is healed. I heard a lecture some years ago from Professor Phyllis Trible, an eminent scholar from the US who spoke about this passage in one of her lectures. She said “By a deft retort, a Gentile woman healed a Jewish man of ethnic chauvinism and thereby liberated him to heal her daughter.”[1]

 

The woman is the one who shows Jesus the error of his ways. The human, ordinary Jesus is rebuked and corrected. Had he forgotten the words of the prophet Isaiah? “I will bring the foreigners to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (56:7). The foreigner herself sees that these words are fulfilled.

 

In modern day Canaan, in modern day Israel, the words of the prophet have again been forgotten. The Canaanites, the Palestinians, are again excluded and worse than excluded they are imprisoned by violence and poverty and lack of hope.

 

Matthew includes his story of the Canaanite woman in his gospel because in the life of the early church one of the most important questions they had to deal with was the question of membership. Was the church just for Jews or for Gentiles as well? What would be the rules of joining, were food rules to be applied, was circumcision necessary? There is precedence in Isaiah and other prophets for all to be included. But there is plenty of precedence for exclusivity as well:

the descendants of Moses invade the land of Canaan with little regard for the then inhabitants. Later Jezebel, the Gentile, Phoenician Queen, and great opponent of Elijah, after promoting her Gentile religion, is killed and eaten, interestingly by the dogs (1 Kings 9).

 

Matthew includes this account in his gospel to shock his readers into realizing that even Jesus and the disciples were once in the mold of excluding “the other” but no more. Gentiles are in; all are in. The world has changed, for the kingdom of God, the way of God is upon them.

 

Stanley Hauerwas says “To be a Christian does not mean that we are to change the world, but rather that we must live as witnesses to the world that God has already changed.”[2]

 

Jesus becomes a witness to the world that God had already changed by healing the daughter of the Canaanite. The disciples become witnesses to the world that God had already changed by allowing her to become one of them, a follower of the master. How do we become witnesses to the world that God has already changed? How do we live the reality of God’s way, post resurrection.

 

We watch in horror as our world continues to divide on the basis of ethnic division and we see the exclusion of the poor and marginalised from the tables of the world. Israel and Palestine; Sudan; Iraq; the list is so long. And as long as the opponent is the other, the unnamed, inhuman opponent, then the answer to holding onto our own power and security, is to exclude them from the table and to keep it all for ourselves. The scandal of the separation wall between Gaza and Israel; the scandal of bombing a people with nowhere to flee to because you have fenced them in; and worse if it is possible, the scandal of ISIS in Iraq massacring Christians and other religious minorities. ISIS fighters have marked the homes of Christians with the Arabic letter N for “Nazarene”. The Anglican Communion and many others have changed their twitter badge to an Arabic N.

 

And in our own country our election campaign has degenerated into intrigue, slander and insult and racism. In a country where we have the immense privilege of the freedom to vote we throw away our privilege and do not deserve it.

 

We insult those around the world who cannot vote by devaluing our politicians and encouraging them to devalue each other.

 

Jean Vanier, the Canadian founder of l’Arche, which runs communities for people with intellectual handicaps, says that we exclude people because of fear: fear of difference, fear of failure, fear of loss or change. He also says we have a fear of “dissidents” – those who seem to threaten the existing order.[3] The Canaanite woman was a dissident.

 

How does this play out in our own lives – who in our lives is the other – who is the woman begging us to see her as real, as human, as someone. Is it the person at work who annoys us everyday, is it our children needing our attention, is it the spouse we are separated from, but whom we still treat with animosity, is it someone who slept in the church porch last night, is it a politician on the hustings?

 

Paying attention to the other, listening to them is the very thing which will liberate us from our animosity and exclusiveness. No longer looking at them as the other, but as one who belongs, will in turn liberate us and allow us to be closer to God’s intention for our lives. And even Jesus has been there – he has been impatient, rude and uncaring – and he listened when a woman, the other, the unwanted, spoke truth and justice to him.

 

Matthew brings us this story so that we might listen to the other. Matthew brings us this story that we might bear witness to the world that God has already changed. Matthew brings us this story so that we too might bear witness to the changing of our hearts and lives.

 

 

 

[1] Wellington 2002

 

[2] p25 Matthew  2006 Brazos Press

 

[3] Jean Vanier Becoming Human 1998 Anansi Press, Toronto pp74-81

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