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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Ordinary Sunday 20,  Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
August 17, 2014

Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133; Matthew 15: 10-28


Reconciliation/reunion is a common theme today. The psalmist lauds the community “where YHWH bestows the blessing”. The Genesis reading depicts one of the Bible’s most emotional scenes: the reconciliation of Joseph with the brothers who sold him into slavery (a scene of much weeping). And the Gospel is most striking of all the barrier between Jews and Gentiles is breached as Jesus is challenged by the persistence and quick wit of a woman who is also a Canaanite (a traditional enemy). God be with you ...

Jesus is portrayed as tired, insensitive, cold. The Messiah who has just given the disciples a lesson concerning cleanliness and uncleanliness (“Hear this and understand: it’s not what enters your mouth that defiles you it’s what comes out of your mouth that defiles you”) here, from his own mouth, utters insulting words (racist, sexist, elitist) in the presence of his disciples and in the presence of a mother begging for mercy.

“Heir to the House of David, have pity on me!” the woman cries. Jesus meets her request with stony silence, and the disciples say, “Please get rid of her! She keeps calling after us”. Again, Jesus rebuffs her: “My mission is only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” In no other miracle story is a petitioner treated so harshly.

The narrative changes when the woman, doubly an outsider because she is a Gentile and is alone in public, challenges this rebuff by “worshiping” Jesus (something no disciple does prior to the resurrection) and speaking the simple prayer, “Help me, Lord/Rabbi”. Again there comes a rebuff from Jesus, harsher than the earlier two: “But it isn’t right to take the food of the children [Jews] and throw it to the dogs [Gentiles].” Not to be put off, the woman turns Jesus’ words back on him: “True, Rabbi, but even the dogs get to eat the scraps that fall from the table.” In a startling turn of events, Jesus replies: “Woman, you have great faith! Your wish will come to pass.” Her daughter is healed at that moment.

Two interpretations have accompanied this narrative through history. Building on Isaiah 56, which foresees that the Gentiles will come to Israel’s God to form a house of prayer for all nations, the Canaanite woman is a symbol of those nations that will hear the message of the Gospel. The courageous faith of the woman is a second major theme. But neither of these fully captures the great surprise of the narrative. The woman’s brash courage actually “converts” Jesus. Twice in Matthew Jesus has limited his mission to the children of Israel (Mt 10:5-6 and 15:24). Yet here he crosses this self-imposed boundary to bring merciful healing to a Gentile. The woman brings him to the full implications of his mission.

We would be right, I think, in seeing her, then, as a Spirit figure a figure of the Holy Spirit she drives, directs Jesus, opens the heart of Jesus to a Grace he is learning to share. The artwork by Angela Yarber celebrates this aspect of the Spirit.

Our Gospel for today is provocative and has often been interpreted so as to “protect” Jesus or to “defend” his behavior. Was he going along with racism, for example, in order to make a dramatic point? It’s difficult to justify such a reading, though. Why would Jesus take this opportunity a mother in great distress, and so on to make a dramatic point? Other commentators seek significance in the fact that Jesus uses a diminutive term for “dogs” little dogs, or little bitches. Most Greek scholars do not think this helps at all. The term is a pejorative one for unclean Gentiles, and not a term of endearment (however cute we might think puppies are). His behaviour, at best, is patronising. He himself concedes that the woman is in the right.

Perhaps it’s a notion of sinless perfection that many commentators are seeking to protect. If Jesus is the sinless and perfect human being, then shouldn’t he always be in the right? Shouldn’t he know what’s right, always?

One of the traditional (ancient and persistent) heresies is called Docetism: the belief that Jesus seems to be human but really is superhuman or divine, really is God dressed up as a human.

Our Gospel reading won’t let us be docetic. Here we see a human Jesus, the product of a human culture and all its prejudices and limitations. He is tired, and he is learning from his experiences. Whatever we mean when we profess that Jesus is sinless and perfect will need to take into account his growing in faith and wisdom. We will need something other than a static model of sinless perfection.

The sinlessness of Jesus does not mean that he didn’t inherit the racist assumptions of his culture. Perhaps it means that as soon as he became aware of an alternative he was able to move beyond those assumptions into greater godliness. Perhaps the temptation Jesus overcomes in today’s Gospel is the temptation to insist on being right the temptation to save face the temptation to maintain authority in the presence of his disciples and critics.

The Good News might be stated like this. The sinlessness of Jesus does not put him in an entirely different realm from us, and thereby beyond our comprehension, but is actually a genuine example for us to follow. Every time we are confronted with a new challenge to grow and we get it right, or at least part right, we are following in the footsteps of Jesus. If even Jesus underestimated the grace of God and had to be shaken into recognising some people as loved by God, then, no matter how broad-minded some of us may be, none of us is yet beyond being shocked by whom God is willing to love. None of us is yet beyond being shocked by whom God is wanting to heal and to welcome [Nathan Nettleton].

Have you ever been shaken into recognising another as valued, as loved? Have you ever been shocked to recognise another as valued, as loved?

The following appeal from several hundred Australian Jews to the Australian Jewish community may be heard as words of a shaken people, and may also shake/challenge a too-easy presumption of Jewish complicity with regard to all Zionist objectives.

“As Australians of Jewish identity and background, we are appalled at the current mass killing in Gaza by Israel. We reject the official mythology that Israel is under existential threat and acting in self-defence.

“Since July 12, the Israeli army has killed more than 1900 people in Gaza. Hospitals, schools, beaches, playgrounds even UN shelters have been attacked. The whole world has reacted with horror and outrage.

“In the face of the destruction of so many lives, we cannot remain silent while the official Jewish leadership gives such active support to Israel's attack on Gaza. Their decision to stand with the oppressor rather than the oppressed is a betrayal of our history and values, when authentic moral leadership is more important than ever. Siege, occupation, the slaughter of innocents and collective punishment of an entire people are deeply wrong and unlawful. Yet the Jewish leadership uncritically promulgates the propaganda of the Israeli government that this is self-defence. They are failing to represent and serve the Jewish community.

“Silence is consent and evil triumphs when good people do nothing. We call on our fellow Jews to break their silence, to take a public stand, not just for an immediate cease-fire, but for an end to the underlying conditions of siege and occupation which defy elementary morality, decency and humanity, as well as international and humanitarian law.”

Have you ever been shaken into recognising another as valued, as loved? Have you ever been shocked to recognise another as valued, as loved? ... Amen.