Gender boundaries, tribal segregation, racial stereotyping, sectarian chanting, security walls and border checkpoints: we have lots of ways by which we like to differentiate between us and them. We have been shocked over the last 10 days or so with the racists and, so called, alternative right, marching in America and killing and maiming those who protested their pernicious presence. As if that wasn’t enough we were treated to the sight of Mr Trump being forced to condemn those same racists who voted him into office and then, within a day, going back on that condemnation. In our own country the narrative of Brexit continues as politicians try to work out what we voted for when we voted for Brexit. Did we vote for control of our borders, fewer immigrants coming to live here and the ability to make our own trade deals or, just perhaps, was the vote was about kicking politicians, of all hues, who had forgotten vast swathes of the country? §The end result, however, is a greater concern with borders and whose in and whose out than ever before. Last week a colleague stayed with Ian and I. She’s a German URC minister with a Peruvian husband and two children. They have no idea what the future holds for them in an age where governments assume that we all want stricter controls who who’s in and who’s out.
Interestingly, the Bible’s vision of creation doesn’t contain borders, passports or checkpoints. These things can’t be seen from space either.
Yet the Bible tells a very human story of division based on land, culture, and faith and that’s where today’s two readings are heartening and troubling.
The Old Testament is full of admonitions to welcome the stranger – even in the Wilderness strangers, non Jewish people, had gone with the Jewish people from Egypt. Our reading from Isaiah, however, goes further. It was written as the Jewish people returned from Exile in Babylon. There they had been well treated – after the initial shock of defeat and exile, and many ideas from Babylonian culture, including that of the Devil, came to influence Jewish religious thought. Much of what we now call the Old Testament was written at this time. On their return to Israel there were various voices competing for influence. Ezra and Nehemiah wanted to return to a Jewish purity. Borders had to be maintained, the foreign wives and children of those who hadn’t been deported had to be cast out and a rigorous interpretation of Jewish exclusiveness had to be upheld. Against this, understandable, reaction to the national disaster of exile, the voice of the writer of this part of Isaiah – and the voice of the author of Jonah – stand out as they hold out a vision of Jewish inclusiveness.
In Jonah a pagan people repent and turn to God – much to the chagrin of the good Jewish prophet Jonah. Here in this passage from Isaiah God says that foreigners who keep the Sabbath and love God’s holy name will be welcomed into his presence. God’s house will be a house of prayer for all people. This is a wonderful inclusive vision of a God who is not tribal. This God has no favourites – all are welcome in his house.
Jesus and the Pagan Woman
So with the words of Isaiah ringing in our ears about creating a house of prayer for all people we turn to Jesus’ in this passage with the Canaanite, woman and wonder what on earth is going on.
Is he having an off day? Does she change his mind? Is he letting her demonstrate her faith?
Already in Matthew’s Gospel by this point Jesus has healed the Centurion’s lover and praised the, pagan, Centurion’s great faith instead of shaming him. Some writers think that Jesus is testing her faith by his hesitancy but that rather ignores the fact that he calls her a dog.
Even in British culture calling someone a dog is not normally seen as a term of endearment! It certainly wasn’t in the ancient near east. So what’s going on?
Matthew already notes in his genealogy of Jesus at the start of his Gospel that there are three Canaanite women in Jesus’ ancestors. Rehab – forced to work as a prostitute in Jericho, Ruth, forced by poverty to seduce Boaz and Tamar, daughter of David and a pagan wife who is raped by her half-brother Amnon. So Jesus’ line isn’t pure by the standards of the zealots of the day and has women there who were desperate.
This, unnamed, Canaanite woman is also desperate for her daughter to find peace. She isn’t going to let some stiff necked rabbi get the better of her. She doesn’t rise to the insult of being called a dog but, instead, reminds Jesus that dogs beg for the crumbs from the table. Maybe, at this point, Jesus laughed. Maybe that’s when he realised that she was like the persistent widow he talked about in another parable. Maybe, that’s when he remembered the passage from Isaiah. Whatever, happened he insured her daughter was healed.
So what do we learn from this?
First, that no one is outside God’s purposes. We’re used, after 2,000 years, of thinking of the Church as being for respectable people. Well look around! We’re here, sinners and saints, respectable and disreputable, insider and outsider – all called by God and gathered around his Table to meet him through Word and Sacrament. When we’re tempted to think we’re good, we’re insiders, we’re respectable, remember we’re gentiles too and, in the eyes of first Century Jewish people rather like dogs begging for crumbs!
Second, that we have to be persistent. Over the summer the readings in church have made us think about discipleship. Well discipleship doesn’t come easily – like learning a martial art or language or new skill we have to be persistent. We have to work at loving those we don’t like; to give when we’d rather spend the money on other things; to get up and come to church when we have other things to do. We have to be persistent – like Helen [treasurer of Barrhead] with the power company in securing a £3,000 refund a few years ago. We have to be persistent too.
- Persistent in our prayers.
- Persistent in our love
- Persistent in our invitations to come to church to meet Christ.
- Persistent in our prayers for others to find the Lord.
The Canaanite woman is persistent – and her persistence wins. Never underestimate the power of a persistent woman and the God in whom she believes.
Will you pray with me?
whose word is life,
and whose delight is to answer our cry,
give us faith, like the Canaanite woman of old,
who refused to remain an outsider;
that we too may have the wit to argue with you
and demand that those we love be made whole,
through Jesus Christ, Amen.