Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord… these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer… for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
The earth has yielded its increase;
God, our God, has blessed us.
May God continue to bless us;
let all the ends of the earth revere him.
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.
Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28
What defiles a person and the faith of the Canaanite woman.
“The Outsiders” was a coming of age novel published in 1967 when the author, S.E. Hinton, was 18. The movie/screen play, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, was released in 1983 and contained a who’s who of young actors soon to be stars. The story was about “insiders” and “outsiders” in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1965; about the “have’s” and the “have not’s”. And I think that all of these texts are also about insiders and outsiders. (And the irony is not lost on me that I’m writing about insiders and outsiders while sitting in the Delta Sky Club at the New Orleans Airport!)
Isaiah 56 begins Trito-Isaiah and the assumed context is that some remnant has returned to Jerusalem from Babylon. It makes perfect sense to me that the question of “insiders” and “outsiders” is a post exilic question or concern. There had been some “benefits” to the exile and, while not being “home”, the Jews were well treated and some became quite wealthy. Being with foreigners had not been a complete disaster. Nevertheless, many interpreted the exile as punishment for their infidelity to Yahweh; an infidelity that was linked to foreigners and foreign deities.
So Trito-Isaiah begins with affirming and accepting references to foreigners. “Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’; and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ ” As we heard in last week’s lesson from Romans, “All that call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Bottom line, “us-ness” ought to be defined by Yahweh and one’s relationship to Yahweh, not by one’s ethnicity or nationality.
One should also note that this is the portion of scripture that Jesus quotes while cleaning the temple in Matthew 21: “My house shall be called a house of prayer…” However, Matthew does not finish the line from Isaiah: “…a house of prayer for all people.” I’m not sure why Matthew truncates the quotation (Mark does not), but I think that the point remains the same. The temple, which was supposed to be a welcome place of prayer for all people has become a place where all people are being ripped off; an especially egregious reality among foreigners that had traveled long distances.
As with last week’s reading, this too is from the unity of Christians and Jews section of Romans; Chapters 9-11. And, here again, Paul underscores – in much the same way he did pointing to the unity shared by Jews and Gentiles in the 3rd Chapter – the fact that in Jesus Christ, God’s mercy includes all: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” All of the world’s categories for who are insiders and outsiders – which usually involve categories of “righteousness” or “rightness” – count for nothing!
And yet, when people start yammering on about “America getting back to being a Christian nation” once again (assuming for a moment that it ever was), they are usually talking about categories of righteousness/rightness. They are usually talking about who ought be in and who ought be out. They may even be talking about foreigners and foreign religions. They are seldom talking about a God that is merciful to all.
One may recall Portia’s soliloquy from “The Merchant of Venice”.
The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.
One may also recall a line from the hymn “Lead On, O King Eternal“:
For not with swords loud clashing,
nor roll of stirring drums;
with deeds of love and mercy
the heavenly kingdom comes.
I’m sometimes a bit bemused by artistic renderings of Biblical stories; and one of the more bemusing is by Sebastiano Ricci, where the woman has one breast seductively exposed and is holding her little dog in her arms. I’m sure it says more about Ricci than about the encounter of Jesus with the Canaanite woman.
I do think it’s important to read verses 10-28 as the appointed text and not just verses 21-28. I think that verses 10-20 set up the story of the encounter. The encounter with the Canaanite woman “acts out” exactly what is “spelled out” in Jesus’ encounter with the scribes and Pharisees.
Righteousness or cleanliness is not about “outside-in”; it’s about “inside-out”; and that’s what gets recognized and approved in Jesus granting her request. Her status as a Gentile counts for nothing. What’s critical is her faith in Jesus. It’s all inside-out.
Some other thoughts……
The word “fair” in verse 27, “it is not fair to take the children’s food,” is a horrible translation. The King James Version got closest when it translated kalon as “meet”. “For it is not meet to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But then, what does it mean?
Consider the movie “The Autobiography of Ms. Jean Pittman”. It’s the story of an African-American woman, born into slavery, who lives to be about 100. In the closing scene, and with everyone watching (including the local sheriff), she does the one thing she has to do before she dies: slow and stopped with age, she makes her way up the sidewalk to the courthouse and drinks from the fountain marked “White”. Whether what she did was “meet” or not would depend upon whom you asked.
Or, remember “Driving Miss Daisy”? That’s the story of an aging white woman who cannot drive and so she has a black man – a long time “friend” of the family – as her chauffer. The movie is a study of how in some ways they got very close over the years; and yet, in some ways they always had to keep their emotional distance. It simply would not have been “meet”.
When I was a Bible camp counselor my college summers, we had some counselors of staff that were from Kingville and San Angelo. After camp was over one summer a few of the Minnesota counselors went south for a week to stay with their southern friends and get a taste of Texas. Now realize that I’m talking 1969 or 1970 here. Anyway after one day at the home of Colonel George and his wife in San Angelo, Jennifer had to pull her Minnesota friends aside and tell them that, if they wanted to make a good impression, they had better start using “Mame” or “Sir” when they addressed an adult. Their speech wasn’t “meet”.
Wear a bathing suit at Stewart Beach and no one would think twice. Wear one in to church on Sunday morning and people would be more than a little uncomfortable. Same garment, on the beach it’s “meet”; in church it’s not.
So, you have the sense. “Meet” as an adjective means: proper or acceptable. Or to use a good Southernism: “fittin’,” as in: “It ain’t kalos!” – “It ain’t fittin’.”
But note that what is “meet” or not is often a social construct. It depends upon whom you ask. Is it “kalon” to drink from the fountain? Is it “meet” to befriend Miss Daisy? Is it “fittin'” to not use Mame or Sir? You don’t wear a bathing suit to church. It’s just not done! It just ain’t right! Unless, of course, maybe you have a sunrise service on the beach? Then what? Social patterns differ from time to time, place-to-place, person-to-person, and people to people.
Most of us have played a game on a field or a court; between the lines, as it were. “Out!” the chair calls in tennis. “Foul ball!” the ump calls in baseball. Step over the sideline with the ball in football and the whistle is blown and the flag is thrown. You have got to stay “in bounds” otherwise it doesn’t count! After all, those are the rules we agreed upon! In this story Jesus is way out of bounds. He’s not playing the game “inside the lines” in Galilee. He’s way up around Tyre in Phoenicia; modern day Lebanon. And he’s talking to a woman – a woman who is Canaanite. It just goes from bad to worse!
Of course, the Pharisees had said to Jesus, “Your disciples don’t follow the traditions of the elders, for they eat with defiled (ritually unwashed) hands. It ain’t fitten’! That ain’t right!” In response to them, Jesus had said that it wasn’t what went into people that made them unclean; but what came out of them from their heart.
Of course, the issue never was unclean hands or food. The issue was unclean people! Not following the rules, the social/religious constructs, those things, they had agreed, made people unclean! Unacceptable! Unfit! Foul!
Jesus said, “It ain’t fittin’ to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs!”
“Jesus, you got that right. Now you got game! In fact, you shouldn’t even be there. You shouldn’t be there talking to her! And, for God’s sake, you shouldn’t be doing anything for her! It wouldn’t be kalon; meet!”
“Yes, Jesus, but even the dogs under the table get the children’s crumbs! Even the dogs know when something’s fit to eat, even if the children are unwilling to eat it! The children that catch the foul ball may use it to start a brand new game.” And Jesus said, “For speaking this truth it shall be as you have said!”
James wrote, “If you say to the one who is poor, ‘Stand there,’ or to the person in dirty clothes, ‘Sit at my feet,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves?”
“Well, duh! Of course we’ve made distinctions! That’s how the game is played! Life is about distinctions; otherwise, how would we know where the lines are? How will we know who’s distinguished if we don’t make distinctions? It is meet, right, and salutary!”
But, as usual, it depends upon whom you ask. “Do you, with your acts of favoritism, really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”
We live in a culture, nation, and world where the lines are being ever more clearly drawn. Polarization! It doesn’t matter if it’s nations, religions, genders, political parties, races, orientations, nationalities, classes, or whatever. Someone is always saying to or about someone else, “It ain’t right to take the bread and throw it to the likes of them.” Some people even say the words in Jesus’ name.
But those words weren’t Jesus’ last word. “For this, go – what you ask is yours.” He broke the rules. But then, maybe not. After all, Lords can do that. Rulers make new rules. “Do we, with our acts of favoritism, really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”
Do we believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? Maybe the answer depends upon whom we ask, and how we act.
Grace and peace,
Pastor Don Carlson