August 21, 2017
Categorised in: Sermons
Preached by Dean Catherine Ogle on Sunday 20th August 2017, the Tenth Sunday after Trinity.
A couple of years ago, a promenade performance of a contemporary Passion play was staged in Birmingham in and around the cathedral and the pub opposite, and in the grounds outside them both. And the play showed me something about Jesus that I hadn’t seen before. It has stayed with me as a heart-warming insight. It was when the actor playing Jesus, and the young men who were his disciples started to lark around – they had a piggy back race – and were being physical and silly and at that point I recognised my own teenaged son, and how he behaved with his friends. The horse-play and play fighting. Because of course, adults don’t generally behave in that way, we’d do ourselves some sort of damage. But that’s what youngsters are like.
It was a joy for me to see Our Lord and Saviour portrayed as a young man in the joy and vigour of youth. In his incarnation, Jesus is a baby, an infant, and he grows up through boyhood into an adult. Scripture teaches that Jesus is fully human, he gets hungry, thirsty, tired, exasperated and scared, just as we do. He is one of us, also, God incarnate. How these two natures come together in one person is the study of Christology, the doctrine of Christ. We know from history and current theology there is a range of interpretation of scripture and how Jesus was both human and divine, how this expressed itself.
Our gospel reading today is fascinating and rich in meaning and frankly, difficult, and it seems to me, raises a Christological question. And as always, with difficult texts, it’s good to stick with it, wrestle with it, so my sermon today is my offering to you of my wrestling with this text over the years.
We hear of an encounter between Jesus and a woman, at a boundary. Jesus has gone west out from his home of Palestine, to the border with Canaan, traditionally a land of enemies of Israel, pagans, worshipping the god Baal. The Canaanite woman, not named, has also ‘come out’, this is a meeting at a boundary marking deep differences; of nation, of race, of religion and of sex, male and female. if you can imagine a meeting for yourself in a strange place, with someone from a different race, religion, nation and sex to yourself, then for most of us, that’s at the edge of our comfort zone. This is a significant place and something very significant happens, remembered and recorded in gospels of Matthew and mark. Matthew places it just after controversy about what is true piety.
So Jesus and the unnamed woman have both stepped out from the place where people are like them, and their conversation is across great differences.
The Canaanite woman has, somehow, a profound insight into who Jesus is, and she shouts, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David,’ this is a royal acclamation. And she tells Jesus that her daughter is ill. The energy that drives her to approach Jesus so boldly, is that deep human need, to keep our children safe and well. Across every conceivable difference, human beings are united in that instinct to protect our children. We can see why she shouts.
And Jesus doesn’t answer. The Disciples want him to send her away, which is also a human urge. This shouty foreign woman. She is not one of them. And Jesus seems to agree, saying that he was sent only to the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’, which makes her beyond his mission.
Then she comes and kneels before him and the well-known exchange takes place in which Jesus says that the children’s food must not be given to dogs. The woman turns the metaphor back to him and says that even the dogs can eat crumbs from the tables of their masters.
Now, in no culture that I’m aware of is calling someone a dog is a compliment. It’s an insult, isn’t it? Some scholars say, well the word used means a house dog, a puppy, not it’s really not so rude. It’s a generic, not a racial insult, so it’s not so bad. Some say, Jesus is smiling when he says this, he and the woman are testing the disciples.
But this makes uncomfortable reading. Having been silent, Jesus speaks to the woman across so many divides, he says what he believes, that he has come to save the house of Israel, and he insults her. And her response is stunning. She doesn’t take offence, she’s bright and desperate and she turns it around, but even the dogs pick up the crumbs. This is wordplay, this is being determined to stay in the conversation.
And in my grappling with this text, I believe that it’s one of several conversations that Jesus has and one of several with women that are mutually transformative.
This conversation enables a change in Jesus, and his understanding of his mission. That the good news of the Kingdom is for all, culminating in the great commission, at the end of the gospel, ‘therefore go and make disciples of all nations…’ This takes nothing away from the covenant promise to the Jews, who are still Gods people, which is the point St Paul is so keen to labour with the Christians in Rome, but this is a turning point at which Jesus accepts he is messiah for Jews and gentiles. And he recognises ‘great faith’ in this gentile woman. There are only two occasions in Matthews’s gospel when Jesus sees ‘great faith’, the other is with a Roman centurion, also a gentile.
And Jesus heals the sick girl. He is good news for the gentiles and the Jews.
My understanding of the incarnation, is that Jesus matures and grows in self-understanding like us in relationship with others, and the challenges these involve. We grow and learn through prayer and reflection, through our education, through our family life and relation with others and, like Jesus, going out of our way to widen our own circle of experience and hopefully, of friendship.
Because Jesus and the woman from Canaan with so many difference between hem, have only one thing in common, their humanity. Yet with this in common, they are a mutual blessing to each other.
Humanity is enough. Humanity, blessed by the incarnation of Christ.
Tragically, the terrorist attack this week in Barcelona, and the white supremacist rally in Virginia show the strength of hatred that can be fuelled by difference of race and religion, leading to conflict and violence. I believe that Jesus teaches us to refuse to reject those who are different from ourselves, and be determined to see them as a beloved child of God. And that when we risk going beyond our comfort zone, then relationship across divisions will bring a blessing for us both.
The passion play, I began with ended with Easter day after the first resurrection appearance in the garden, we came inside the cathedral. There was the whole cast, including Pilate, soldiers who had tormented Christ, and Judas too, all were together and singing songs of alleluia. Risen Lord at the centre and it was a glimpse of reconciliation of humanity, beyond division and hatred, vision of heaven on earth.