People, Particularity and the Gospel of Jesus Christ
Preacher: The Venerable Peter Lock, Archdeacon (2001-2009)
14 August 2005 (Trinity 12)
Genesis 45.1-15; Romans 11.1-2a, 29-32; Matt 15.21-28 Lit Yr A Trinity 12
Preached at St Helen's Church, Cliffe
I realise that the nation is almost in the grip of a strange epidemic – the need to know the score from the latest Test Match. The fact that the latest match is in Manchester reminded me of a story that was told about the Kent visitor who attended a Roses match at Headingly. Yorkshire and Lancashire matches have always been played with the utmost seriousness so the Kent person felt a bit of an intruder. So, in his polite way he applauded the boundary hit by the opening Lancastrian and also the first wicket taken by the Yorkshire bowler. He did this whenever a boundary was hit or a wicket fell and then someone sitting nearby said:
‘Art thou Yorkshire?’
‘Art thou Lancashire?’
‘Well, no – I’m Kent actually.’
‘Well shut up then. It’s nowt to do with thee.’
Regions, villages, towns and cities have often spawned rivalries some of which have spilled over into cold suspicion and even out and out war. It’s as if human beings as part of being normal need an identity which is associated with place. Sadly this sometimes develops into a serious breakdown between peoples as their particularity is all that matters. We have seen what this has done to the history of the Balkan countries as well as Rwanda. And of course there is the on-going conflict in Palestine Israel which is coming to a head with the withdrawal of the Jewish settlers from Palestinian quarters.
Somehow the world needs to re-orientate itself and understand that whilst people need identity and belonging they also need other communities around them. If they begin to think of themselves in a superior way this is bound to lead to suspicion and conflict. In our part of Kent the Thames Gateway developments could also lead to this sense of wariness as old and well established villages and towns fear the incomers and the new settlements which might submerge them. For how do the old communities retain their sense of identity and at the same time welcome those who are new? Some might say – well why should they?
Our gospel story is about such matters. It has been preceded by Jesus reflecting on what makes a person unclean and he concludes that it is not what goes into a person (ie food that might be ritually unclean) but actually what is in the person’s heart – that’s what makes them ‘unclean’. And so the story goes on with Jesus withdrawing to Tyre and Sidon. This is way ‘up North’ into the land of the Phoenicians lying outside Jewish territory. If he were a strict Jew he should not be there. But the gospel of Matthew is also at this point beginning to broach the subject which was to tax the very first Christians and which we read about in the book of Acts and in St Paul’s letters – namely, the relationship between Jew and Gentile. Should the followers of ‘The Way’, the disciples of Jesus, mix with the Gentiles? Was the gospel for them as well?
In this simple encounter even Jesus himself is challenged. He has laid his campaign map out to go to the people of Israel, the Lost Sheep, as he calls them. But now, when he has sought some solitude and felt the need to be away from people and on his own, he is challenged: by one of the Gentile people, and a woman to boot. Double problem. She has a daughter who ‘has a demon’. Another problem. And Jesus almost ignores her – well in fact he does. I think we would all find this out of character or at least not in keeping with the Jesus we have got to know who responds to people whenever they are in need. So why does he appear cruelly to turn away from her? Michael Green in his commentary on Matthew’s Gospel suggests that when we next hear Jesus’ response he is in fact making a soliloquy – reflecting inwardly to himself rather like a Shakespearian Hamlet: ‘Í was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’. He is struggling to know what he should do. You can extend his thinking: ‘Should I respond to this person who is not an Israelite, who is not part of my plans, who might distract me from ‘the big picture’. How many times have we found someone’s interruption a distraction, frankly a bit of a nuisance who is getting in the way? And for Jesus this was meant to be a bit of peace and quiet.
But she is persistent: and it says ‘knelt before him’ and just says, ‘Lord, help me’. Jesus responds with what might seem like cruel words except that we might accept them more if they were again Jesus ruminating to himself: ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs.’ With anyone else that might have been considered the insult which would have lead to a fight. But not with this mother. What follows next is history, for we find her words (not Jesus’) have been drafted into our liturgy, and some of them in our service of Holy Communion which we shall say today:
‘Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.’
We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under your table.
She has also used in the earlier part of the conversation a lovely short phrase of penitence which also been adopted into the penitential section of the service (though not used today):
Lord, have mercy (kyrie eleison)
This is a wonderful example of how someone from another culture who was considered to be unclean and not to be mixed with has made her contribution which has echoed down the ages. Jesus responds to such persistence and faith with words of recognition and assurance – ‘Woman, how great is your faith, let it be done according to your wish.’ And it was.
Why was this passage included in this gospel (and you can find it also in Mark’s Gospel Ch 7 with variations)? Was it to show that Jesus’ miracles are about revealing the intentions of God in creation: that where he is there is always light and life, healing and hope? You could – for that is the Kingdom of God. But for me it’s the detail about the place and the person which is most revealing: Jesus was out of bounds. He shouldn’t have been there, and he shouldn’t have given time to this woman. But he did. For that is his gospel too. St Paul pushes this thinking further –as we read of his mission to the Gentiles, but also in those inspiring words which have huge international and political importance: There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is not longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.1
It’s the old phrase ‘Unity and Diversity’ that comes to mind. These have to live side by side: whilst we need and indeed accept our human diversity this cannot be at the cost of unity. Jesus accepted the particularity of the Canaanite/Phoenecian woman and more importantly he accepted her. The past history and hatreds that existed between traditional Jews and those who live in the north had to be set aside. The Gospel is about unity. The unity of people with people and the unity of God with people. Setting up walls to divide people and neighbourhoods only feeds suspicion and hatred. Suddenly we realise that faith in God means we have to have faith in people too. As Jesus did with the Phoenecian woman. Then miracles happen – whether in Palestine, Israel, Rwanda or even NW Kent. The demon of suspicion is driven out.
1 Gal 3.28