Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
Isaiah dares to say risky things. To be more specific, in light of current biblical studies, “3rd” Isaiah dares to say risky things. 3rd Isaiah is that part of Isaiah that is generally thought to have been written and edited during the post-exilic period when some of the Israelite diaspora had returned to Jerusalem from their time in Babylonian exile. This was a time of great cultural renewal, and a time of political and religious uncertainty. The second temple was constructed, and around the temple walls were again built around the Holy City (walls provide security for people within, but they also work to limit the access of people without). The antagonism that once existed between Israel and its surrounding neighbors was again rekindled (c.f. Nehemiah 13:1-3).
It was during this crucial time in Israel’s national identity that 3rd Isaiah describes a bold gathering of people from all nations on the “mountain of the Lord” and into “the house of prayer” (i.e. the temple). These ‘god fearers’ will keep the sabbath, and they will honor the covenant. They will make sacrifices and burnt offerings that will be acceptable on the altar. The temple of God will become known as a “house of prayer for all people.” This is in keeping with God who gathers “the outcasts of Israel.” As God gathers the heirs of the promise, so God will gather others.
3rd Isaiah’s bold proclamation takes aim at destroying a very powerful provincial and sectarian feeling amongst the returning exiles. The end result will be mixed (as our gospel story illustrates). In our own day and time there is a still great need to hear Isaiah’s message and to proclaim our own radical gospel in the face of fear, xenophobia, and religious exclusion.
What does it mean to receive the LORD’s blessing? That we have to ask the question means that we have ignored a significant theme in the Hebrew Bible. The blessing of God, described here as “the earth yielding increase”, is a grace gift from God, in the same way that salvation is a grace gift from God. God blesses whom God blesses. And God blesses whom God blesses for a reason. We receive blessing for a mission. God’s abundance is not to be hoarded. In our psalm the blessing received by Israel was to allow the Israelites to be a “guide to the nations” so that “…all the ends of the earth revere God.”
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Has God rejected the Israelite people? No. Absolutely not. That, in a nutshell, is Paul’s message in our lection from Romans. The words Paul chooses to deny God’s rejection of Israel is extremely strong (one commentator suggests a good cultural equivalent is, “No freaking way!”)
The reason Paul strongly rejects this idea is theological to the core, “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” says Paul. This is who God is. God is not with you today, and not with you tomorrow. Israel remains the people of God, not because of who they are or their faithfulness, but because of who God is and God’s faithfulness.
Paul implies that the disobedience of Israel even fits into the divine plan, by bringing about the inclusion of the gentiles. And the mercy given to the Israelites is the same mercy given to the gentiles.
Many people’s first impulse when they read this text is to scramble to save Jesus from the harsh statements he utters to a woman in need. The Canaanite woman’s daughter is sick (“tormented by a demon”), and she is seeking the help of Jesus for her daughter’s healing. At first Jesus offers no answer. The woman persists. The disciples become indignant with her, and they demand of Jesus, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” Jesus responds by confirming their assumptions about the scope of Jesus’ saving work, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” The woman persists all the more, this time kneeling at the feet of Jesus and pleading, “Lord, help me.” Jesus’ response is, perhaps, the most puzzling of all of Christ’s statements, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” It is impossible to suggest this comment is anything other than a reference to the woman (and her people) as dogs (an even more pejorative insult then than today).
At this point we expect the woman to react negatively to the insult and either send her own salvo of invective toward Jesus and his disciples or to quickly go about her way. Her response, however, surprises us, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” The woman agrees with Jesus’ assessment (“yes, Lord”) but insists that even dogs enter into the economy of food distribution by being the recipients of table scraps. Jesus declares (with an apparent reversal of his initial position), “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
Here are a few takeaways from this bizarre encounter:
First, the disciples play the all too common role in this story of gatekeepers to God’s house (one commentator calls them God’s “bouncers”). In this role they fancy themselves as protectors and maintainers of the approved tradition, and they see people entering God’s presence only with their permission and approval. This position is proven to be in error in this story, and thus in its hearing it provides the church with a chance to consider the times it also acts as God’s gatekeeper. The church must consider who it deems unworthy of God’s mercies, and be open to the persistence of those seeking God, and the genuineness of their “great faith.’
Second, the woman in our story presents an ideal of faith. It is only here, in all of the New Testament, that the adjective ‘great’ is joined with the noun ‘faith’ to describe a human’s lived-out trust in God. The Canaanite woman refuses to be denied access to God, no matter how many people (including Jesus) attempt to keep her away. The result is that she is heard by God, and her daughter is healed. Those who have internalized an oppression are encouraged to not give in to the oppression’s dehumanizing forces, but to seek the Lord all the harder in the face of rejection, insult, and hostility.
Third, the Jesus of our story cannot be explained in light of traditional christologies. Notions of Jesus’ perfect righteousness are challenged to the core by his inability to see past a cultural prejudice. There is no answer to this thorny problem. We are prone to soften what Jesus says, and many creative attempts have been put forward. Unfortunately most attempts (if not all) do violence to the plain and obvious meaning of the text. It is worth asking, in light of Jesus’ full humanity, if the “great faith” of the Canaanite woman propelled Jesus along in his own self-identity and his knowledge of God’s common blessing.
Celebration of Worship
As you prepare your hearts and minds for worship, consider the prerogative of God in providing blessing, healing, and salvation. It is not our role to be God’s gatekeeper. We worship a God who acts unilaterally in grace. We hold none of the purse strings to God’s bank of benevolence. The blessings we receive are not proof of our merit, but are tools for our mission. Our worship is not merely a thanks for all that God has done for us (“the worthy”) but a praise for all that God is doing in the world by God’s own initiative, and in God’s own time, and with God’s own reason.