Sermon for Ninth Sunday after Trinity – High Mass Sunday 17 August 2014
Sermon preached by Father Michael Bowie
There’s an unusually clear shared theme in all three of our readings this morning, a key question for the Christian faith from its beginnings, about particularity and universalism. It preoccupied St Paul (from whom we heard a rather opaque reference to it just now); it is a frequently ignored elephant in the Old Testament room; and while it doesn’t often feature in the gospels, today Jesus is powerfully confronted by it, and seems to be bested in argument by a gentile woman.
To row back a little, our assumptions about the so-called purity of Judaism are only a small part of the story, the part written by people like Ezra and Nehemiah. Moses, the great Saviour of Israel was, as Freud pointed out, an Egyptian. David has Canaanite women among his ancestors and one of his wives is a Hittite. Intermarriage was, in fact, a common phenomenon in OT Judaism and Solomon’s heroic devotion to polygamy certainly included it too; Solomon, lauded as the greatest monarch in Jewish history. I could go on, but you get the point. The view we have about Jewish exclusivism is generally the result of prophetic and other initiatives to recall the people of God to their unique relationship with him.
Today’s reading from Isaiah (56.6-7) lies behind Jesus’ view, as we will hear it expressed later on:
And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
This is the key text quoted by Jesus during his so-called ‘cleansing’ of the temple as first recorded by St Mark. So Jesus’ commentary on his acted parable of overturning the moneychangers’ tables and chucking them all out is about inclusion. It isn’t the commerce on sacred ground to which he objects (though the other gospels have misunderstood him and taken the story down that track, producing centuries of neurosis about selling things in church); he’s objecting to the exclusion of the gentiles from the temple, a process in which the money changers tables are complicit.
I’ll return to Jesus’ view in a moment. First let’s consider St Paul. As I’ve mentioned from this pulpit before, there’s a good case for understanding Paul’s teaching as inclusive in the reverse direction: including his fellow Jews. We had a little of it last week and here it is again today. This morning’s excerpt is one crucial moment in the argument:
11.1-10 The Jews are not rejected – they have ‘stumbled’ and the gentiles have been brought in. But their calling is to faithfulness as Jews; we are to be grafted onto the olive tree [them]; they are only cut off if unfaithful.
11.26 All Israel will be saved by the inclusion of the gentiles
11.29 for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable
For Paul, Jews experience the righteousness or justification of God through faith grounded in the living Torah, which includes the promise to Abraham, but is not about ritual purity regulations. Gentiles experience the righteousness or justification of God through the faithfulness of Christ, the ground of their faith. The promises of God are sure, and so too must be the status of those to whom the promises are made. In the matter of election the mind of God does not change (11.29 for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable). So Paul wrestles at length with this tension between the particularity of faith in Christ and the security of God’s age-old promises to the Jews. He is desperate to find a both-and solution, consonant with his conviction that Christ is THE way.
Then in today’s gospel we have an encounter that pushes a different set of buttons. In Matthew 15 Jesus first puts his opponents to the test: we heard him condemn the elevation of ritual cleanness over Godly behaviour. Then, remarkably, he is in turn tested by the approach to him of a complete outsider, a gobby Cannaanite woman, who is herself aware of her outsider status (notice her self-description as a ‘dog’). Things being seldom what they seem, we might observe at this point the presence of Canaanite and other foreign women in Jesus’ own genealogy according to Matthew (including, of course, Solomon’s mother Bathsheba).
Whether or not Matthew intends us to remember that, what is going on here? Behind the telling of this incident lies, no doubt, the outworking of the mutual status of Jews and non-Jews in Matthew’s church. But within the story there is also an astonishing moment when the non-Jewish woman out-teaches the Jewish teacher. This is a unique encounter in the Gospels: Jesus is bested by a non-Jew, and, yet more shockingly a woman. Full marks to Matthew for not censoring it.
The ultimate test for Jesus is that the woman shows faith from beginning to end. With faith she addresses Jesus as both ‘Lord’ and ‘Son of David’; in faith she cries out in what may already be a liturgical formula – kyrie eleison, Lord, have mercy.
By calling Jesus ‘Lord’, Kyrie, she has made a double statement: a profession of faith, but also a claim to approach insider space. Jews didn’t allow dogs in the house. Gentiles did. So when Jesus speaks of throwing food to the dogs, his words imply throwing it out the door. When the woman speaks of eating crumbs from the table, she is saying that even the dogs are allowed in. ‘For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples’: she reminds Jesus of the same principle on which he will act in ‘cleansing’ the temple.
So, three readings about radical inclusion in the face of bigotry and misunderstanding, in which the Son of God is himself apparently convicted of bigotry and changes his mind. If Jesus had trouble with inclusion perhaps we should not be surprised that arguments about it still haunt so much human behaviour; even, sadly, ecclesiastical behaviour.
God insists, through Isaiah, that all are welcome in the Temple, the holiest place of Judaism.
Paul ties himself in knots to establish a basis on which Jew and Gentile are equally included in the Gospel (the good news of which, for Jews, is that Christ is the means for non-Jews to know God, Christ is the Torah for the gentiles). This enriches our understanding of Christ as the Word, capital ‘W’, of God.
Jesus, having just railed against prioritising ritual purity as a principle of inclusion is immediately challenged to practise what he preaches, and sees, in the faith of the outsider, the outworking of his own teaching.
How do we apply this teaching? There are so many stages on which it plays out. Inclusion in the Church: both our own community and the Anglican Communion. Choose your issue. Inclusion in the world: the treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers; the knotty current problem of Gaza. Inclusion in our personal dealings: how open or closed are we in our dealings with people unlike ourselves or simply unknown to us.
The question which lies behind every one of these, and myriad other problems of inclusion, is whether we checked our assumptions. Today we learn that even Jesus can change his mind on a crucial question of religious and political identity. I find it salutary to ask myself how long it is since I did that.