Hymns (From ‘Singing the Faith’)
342 All hail the power of Jesus’ name
685 In Christ there is no east or west
109 In the darkness of the still night
255 The Kingdom of God is justice and joy
Readings: Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 and Matthew 15: 21-28
What’s the furthest you have walked?
Today’s reading tells us that Jesus went off from the northern shores of the sea of Galilee to the district of Tyre and Sidon, which is a distance of about 50 miles. One of the commentaries I have says that would have been about a day’s walk. I suppose if you are very fit and used to walking, it’s just about possible.
Tyre and Sidon are in southern Lebanon. The explosion in Beirut on August 4th would have been clearly audible there as it could be heard over 100 miles away. Today it would take you much longer than a day to get there, because the journey is 5 times further. You have to go through northern Jordan, into Syria, across to Beiruit and down the coast. The border has been closed for 40 years because there is such animosity between the Israelis and the Lebanese. The picture is of the Rosh HaNikra Crossing, which is right on the road that Jesus would have walked.
The animosity between the Canaanites, (the ancient inhabitants of Lebanon), and the Jews goes back 4,000 years. Abraham was insistent that his son Isaac should not marry a canaanite woman.
Things haven’t changed very much have they, when you look at that border crossing in the picture. The Canaanites were despised by the Jewish people. They worshipped Baal and, without going into detail, it is likely that we would have found their religious practices very distasteful. They were a cursed people, which goes back to the bit of the story of Noah in Genesis 9 that we don’t learn about in Sunday school. If you’ve read it, you’ll know that Noah got drunk on the wine that he made from the fruits of the vineyard that he had planted when he came out of the ark. He was found lying naked in a stupor by his youngest son Ham. We can imagine him waking up with an awful hangover in quite a mood when he realised what he had done. He lashed out and cursed Ham’s son, his grandson Canaan, which seems pretty unreasonable, but an excess of alcohol leads people to do all kinds of distasteful and irrational things. The commentaries I have suggest that this curse was a fabrication inserted by the author of Genesis to justify the way that the Jews regarded and treated the Canaanites. They were the original inhabitants of the land that the Israelites settled in, but there was constant animosity between them. Just one modern example of this is the way in which the treatment of the Palestinians in the illegal settlements is justified.
So all this baggage, and the ongoing tensions in the modern world, are the background to Jesus’ encounter with this Lebanese woman 2,000 years after the time of Abraham. She is clearly identified as a foreigner, and someone who belonged to a despised race. It’s interesting to note that Jesus’ fame had spread beyond the frontiers of his own country.
Jesus’ initial response is astonishing, and seems out of character. This is the only time in the gospels that he is recorded as being on foreign soil. First of all he ignores the woman, which appears to embarrass the disciples, and they ask him to send her away. Interestingly, he doesn’t do so. The disciples’ motivation might just have been to get rid of her, as they didn’t ask Jesus to help her. She was a nuisance. They wanted her gone as quickly as possible.
Then Jesus seems to suggest that he has only come for his own people, not for foreigners like her. He even implies that she isn’t worthy of his help. It is now, and was then, quite an insult to describe someone as a dog. Jesus is referencing the contemptuous Jewish attitude to Gentiles. How do we square this with Christian love, pity and compassion? The tone and the look is key though, and can make all the difference. We can imagine the expression on Jesus’ face and the compassion in his eyes. Sometimes we can use offensive words as terms of endearment. “You rascal”. Furthermore, the greek word that is translated as dogs is the diminutive term, used for household pets, rather than the unclean, savage, diseased scavengers of the street and rubbish heaps. Mark identifies her as being from Greek culture, and she would have understood the subtlety of Jesus’ words. What we end up with is a bit of humourous banter. Matthew’s emphasis is on the fact that she is from a hated race. Canaanite isn’t used anywhere else in the New Testament. He was writing one or two decades after Mark for a Jewish expatriate community in Syria, who needed to come to terms with the universality of God’s love.
The ending of the story absolutely reinforces the idea that the good news was for the whole world, for all people, and that it was the beginning of the end of the barriers and prejudices that human beings have created. The woman isn’t seeking something for herself, she is seeking a better life for her child. In the end, the woman’s daughter was granted the deliverance that she sought for her. No-one else, anywhere in the New Testament is granted the accolade: “Great is your faith”.
Justice and mercy are characterised as being part of God’s nature right back to Old Testament times. We read in Isaiah: “Foreigners… I will bring 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. Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered”.
John Sawyer is honorary professor in the Theology and Religion Department at Durham University. In his commentary in the Daily Study Bible series on Isaiah he says about the verses we read from Chapter 56: “Even in the Old Testament, the foreigner is always to be given hospitality. God’s love and acceptance extends to all members of the human race. Verses 6 and 7 concerns foreigners who wish to adopt the Jewish way of life. They will be welcomed into full membership of the people of God. The new Israel will be greater than the old Israel, because it will embrace Gentiles and the ‘wealth of the nations’.”
It might be uncomfortable for us to read this in our current circumstances, but the concept of the human race being one family, all of equal value, is central to our faith and to the teaching of the Bible. The reading from Matthew is about how poor people from the middle east have as much of a right to the quality of life that the rich and privileged enjoy.
And we reflect on this story today when there is a frenzy of political and media outrage against the hundreds of migrants who are attempting to cross the channel to reach sanctuary in the British Isles. We need to get it into proportion. We read it against the background of statistics which show that the UK is 15th in the league table of countries accepting refugees, behind Sweden, Malta, Cyprus, Austria, Germany, Denmark, The Netherlands, Belgium, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, France, Luxembourg and Finland. Sweden accepted 116,000 asylum seekers last year, the UK under 20,000. The Isle of Man, of course, has accepted none. Not one.
The headline on the front page of the Methodist Recorder on January 11th 2019 was ‘Providing sanctuary should be a source of national pride’.
James O’Brien, LBC radio presenter, was raised in the Roman Catholic faith and refers to himself as a Christian. On August 9th he posted this on Twitter: “The calculation is that, with the support of most of the media, the British public can be made angrier about innocent foreigners than guilty politicians responsible for thousands of British deaths. And all while claiming to care about ‘Christian’ values. It will work too”.
Writing in the Guardian last Tuesday, (11th August 2020), Daniel Trilling, the author and journalist, says: ““The 120 people who were intercepted in the Channel on 4 August came from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Pakistan, Palestine, Sudan and Yemen. Of these countries, two were invaded in recent history by a coalition that included the UK; one has been pushed into famine by a Saudi-led bombardment using British weapons and military expertise; one is in a prolonged conflict with Israel, which like Saudi Arabia is a UK ally; and the others, most of which are former British colonies, are places where there is long-term, well-documented persecution of particular ethnic and social groups. Our lives are already enmeshed with the people of these countries, and we should neither be surprised when a small number of them arrive on our shores, nor treat their presence as illegitimate.”
This foreign woman, in need, from an alien and despised culture, comes to ask Jesus for help. He doesn’t turn her away but grants her request and transforms her life and that of her child. We have some hard questions to ask ourselves, and of our leaders and politicians, when we consider where these people stand before God and what our response should be towards them if we are to be faithful to what the bible teaches us.