Return to Index or Sermons

Proper 15, Yr A, Tr 1(Trinity 9, 21.08.2011)
Gen 45.1-15:
Ps 133: Let all the peoples praise you, O God
Rom 11.1-2a, 28-32: God is reversing the situations: Gentiles will cause Jews to come in.
Matt 15.(10-20), 21-28:  (It’s not what goes in but what comes out defiles) ; Canaanite woman: children’s bread to dogs  (1145)

Gracious Father, revive your Church in our day, and make her holy, strong and faithful,
for your glory’s sake in Jesus Christ our Lord.

(We need the Old Testament to know Jesus in the round.)

          Have you ever wondered why we have OT readings in the Eucharist when we are remembering Jesus?  If I understand today’s gospel rightly, I think it can help us answer that question.

          Why do we have an ordained ministry, and what is its function?

          When I preached three weeks ago I told you about a bit of the materials that Mark added to his second edition that was used by Matthew but not by Luke, who was working from Mark’s first edition which lacked the whole of 6.45-8.26.

          The main point that I was making was that the additional materials are mainly concerned with conditions of the mission to the Gentiles, including table fellowship, as I showed you in the shifts from the Feeding of the 5,000, a purely Jewish feeding, to the Feeding of the 4,000, which includes the Gentiles.

          Our NT readings have continued to be from Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Three weeks ago we were reading from Romans 9, and Paul was agonising over his fellow Jews.  He is on the same theme today, and today’s reading from Matthew is also following the second edition of Mark.

          Today’s reading from Matthew includes the story of Jesus’ encounter with a Canaanite woman who wants healing for her daughter.  As I did three weeks ago, let’s start with Mark’s earlier version of the same story before we look at Matthew’s re-telling of it.

          In Mark’s version (7.24-30) Jesus enters the region of Tyre and Sidon which is Gentile territory.  He enters a house and wants no one to know about it. But this is not possible, for immediately a Greek woman of Syrophonecian origin hears of him and comes and falls at his feet, seeking healing for her daughter who has an unclean spirit.  Jesus is presented as saying ‘Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs’ (7.27).  She responds, ‘Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs’ (7.28).  What does this mean?  To put it simply, she accepts being called a dog, which in that society was as low as one could get.  She admits that the Jews are there by right and she has no right, but she will accept any crumb of help she can get.  For this Jesus commends her trust and her daughter is healed.

          I believe that what Mark is arguing for in this story is the maintenance of Jewish-Christian teaching leadership in the community.  This is certainly how Matthew modifies the story, for in Matthew’s version she now speaks of crumbs that fall from the table of their masters, a much stronger term.

          This stronger emphasis than Mark, therefore probably means that the stability of the leadership is more threatened, as would appear to be indicated as well by the more frequent use of direct OT quotes and a stronger emphasis on Jewish elements.

          What was the problem being faced?  I believe the answer lies in the highly syncretistic nature of Hellenistic society.  I would liken it to the New Age phenomena in our day when one takes a soupçon of this and a bit of that and mixes them together.  We get more than just a hint of this in Luke’s account in the Book of Acts of life in Athens when he says, ‘Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new’ (Acts 17.22).

          The presentation of Jesus in the NT claims that he fulfils the basic calling of Israel in the scriptures of what we call the OT.  Weaken that bond and it will be very hard to maintain this understanding of Jesus.

          Paul, writing to the Galatians which was a predominantly Gentile community, says, ‘Peace ... be upon the Israel of God’ (Gal 6.16).  That is, for him the Church itself is the Israel of God.   There is no discontinuity.

          When Paul writes to the Romans he says, ‘What advantage has the Jew? ... Much in every way.  First, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.’ (Rom 3.1-2).  It is striking that he never goes on to make a second point, So the Greek word proton translated as ‘first’ has the force of ‘Above all’.  That is, the witness of the scriptures has been entrusted to the Jews. 

          When we turn to the letter to the Ephesians written in Paul’s name perhaps by the very person who collected together Paul’s letters, we have a letter clearly written by a Jewish Christian to a predominantly Gentile audience, and he tells them in no uncertain terms that they are to stay true to teaching of the founding generation who are named as ‘the holy apostles and prophets’, who were, of course, all Jewish believers.

          Let me read you a fairly long passage by Fr J. L. McKenzie, S.J. ("The Significance of the Old Testament for Christian Faith in Roman Catholicism", in The Old Testament and Christian Faith, ed. by B. W. Anderson (SCM Press, London, 1963), pp. 108 f. )

          “One might dispute, if one wished to be precise to the extreme, whether Jesus was the Messiah of Israel. All the evidence indicates that he himself was at least extremely reserved in his own use of the term; and the Messianism of the Old Testament is so transformed in the New Testament that Jesus can hardly be said to correspond exactly to any messianic conception of the Old Testament.  But the evidence is also convincing that Jesus and the primitive Church believed that Israel would have no other Messiah, no other fulfilment.  In his coming Israel had its final and decisive encounter with God.  The conviction of the New Testament is that the history of Israel , which is the history of its encounter with God, should have brought Israel to the point of recognition.  It is the history of Israel that isolates Jesus Christ from any figures in the ancient and modern world who might wear enough of his features to confuse those who seek vaguely for what he brings.  It is the history of Israel that sets Jesus apart from all culture heroes, king-saviors, cosmic men, and mythological bearers of life; or, in more modern terms, from political saviors, economic prophets, scientific sages, military heroes, psychotherapist bearers of life.  It is remarkable, it is even sharply surprising, when one reflects that only as the Savior of Israel can Jesus be recognized as none of these other things.”

          So, in short, if we are to continue to know Jesus as witnessed to by the writers of the NT, we shall only be able to do so as we hear that witness as pointed to and illuminated by the overall witness of the OT.  Only with both can we know Jesus in the round.