For August 17, 2014: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15, Year A

The Reading            Isaiah 56:1,6-8

By the time Isaiah 56 was composed, in the late 6th century before Christ, some people exiled to Babylon had returned to begin rebuilding Jerusalem. Isaiah’s powerful words recall God’s covenant with Israel—and this time, says the Lord, the door of the house of prayer is open not just to the Jews but to all peoples.

The Response            Psalm 67

Psalm 67 tells much the same story as Isaiah: God’s saving health is for all nations, as is gladness in God’s judgments, and all the peoples to the ends of the earth are to praise and stand in awe of God.

The Epistle            Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

The short but rich epistle passage builds on Isaiah’s proclamation and the psalmist’s rejoicing. The Jews’ rejection of Jesus cannot make God repudiate them—but, through God’s mercy, it opens the door to a wider definition of “God’s people” that embraces and accepts the Gentiles.

The Gospel            Matthew 15:21-28

Isaiah, the psalmist, and Romans all proclaim welcome to Gentiles as God’s people alongside the Jews. In Matthew 15:22-24, however, Jesus ignores and even disparages the Canaanite woman’s desperate pleas for healing for her daughter. Might even Jesus in his lifetime have needed to be startled into learning and growth?

 

Further thoughts

Three of the four readings for Proper 15 abound with comfort to those of us who need mercy but can’t trace our physical pedigree back to Abraham. The gospel, however, starts out disquietingly different. When a woman begs Jesus to have mercy on her little girl’s torment, at first he doesn’t even bother to shrug. Next he tells the disciples that her kind aren’t on his agenda. Then, though she abases herself before him, Jesus blows her off with an analogy that casts her and her daughter as kynarioi or ‘little dogs’—this in a society in which dogs aren’t cosseted pets but barely tolerated scavengers. (Translating with “the b-word” might not be too strong.)

Commentators over the millennia have dealt with the disquiets in this story by explaining either that Jesus was joking gently with this woman or that he was testing her faith. I’m not comfortable with either possibility, partly because of the dehumanization in “little dogs” and also because no other story in the Bible has Jesus being this determinedly rude unless someone’s hardness of head or heart clearly merits a comeuppance.

A different possibility is advanced by Grant LeMarquand. He notes that Matthew makes a point of identifying this woman not merely as a gentile but as Canaanite: a descendant of the idol-worshipers from whom the Israelites wrested the land of promise and for whom Deuteronomy 7:1-4 explicitly commanded total extermination without mercy. Canaanites are the worst of the worst, and Jesus’ scorn follows from the Torah and his cultural conditioning. But when the woman turns his analogy on itself, it changes his thinking and his reach, and he moves to fulfill the prophecy of God’s mercy extending to all nations.

If the Son of David can rethink things, why shouldn’t I? And what can I do to extend God’s mercy to all?

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