Sunday Worship 16th August
“Suppose outsiders want to follow me and serve me. They want to love me and worship me.
“I will gather them to myself. And I will gather others to join them.”
We come, with purpose,
into the presence of the living God.
Come to worship, and to be amazed,
to discover and learn new things.
Come, knowing that God welcomes us all with open arms.
We gather here, Lord,
ready to focus totally on you.
Help us to be brave enough, like Peter,
to ask the questions that we would like to ask,
and open enough to hear your answer.
In our worship today, speak to us, Lord.
We are listening.
Lord God, as we come before you now,
we open our hearts to you.
Help us to see that we can learn so much from others,
even from those with whom we think
we may not share much in common.
Make us willing to stand out from the crowd,
to hear your voice, and act upon it.
Isaiah 56:1,6-8; Psalm 67 Romans 11:1-2a,29-32 Matthew 15:10-28
Comments on Bible Readings:
There are two elements to the reading in Matthew. Lets us consider who is involved in this passage. The Pharisees are named, and their influence is critical in the story, but they do not actually appear in person. The Canaanite woman’s daughter is another important figure who is not actually present but equally important to the reading. Jesus is central, as is the crowd and the Canaanite woman, but the disciples are present too.
The Pharisees had already been following Jesus to find Him do things wrong, and against their laws. They found the disciples had not washed their hands as they should have done and so try to draw Jesus on why this is the case. Jesus turns it back to them and asks why they don’t believe in their hearts and worship as they should. Then He calls the crowd to one side and so beings the passage we have read today. ‘Listen and Understand’ says Jesus and goes on to explain that what comes out of your mouth, the words you speak and use show what kind of person you are. Your words are a reflection of your heart. Although the Pharisees were not invited to this conversation they had overheard (I suspect Jesus knew they would be and this is why He said what He did) and ere not pleased. Not that anything Jesus did would please them, they were always looking to catch Him out. The Pharisees sometimes define themselves by what they are not, rather than what they are – drawing lines around who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out’. Their offence at Jesus’ words stops them from learning and growing spiritually. They are so concerned at looking good and following the law that they fail to understand that the law is nothing unless interpreted by love. In fact love supersedes the law, for when we love then we will do the will of God, it will be instinct, we will not need the law for it will be written in our hearts.
Jeremiah 33 says:
But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
The disciples still ask Jesus to explain the words He has spoken, in effect Jesus was saying that the Pharisees were hard hearted, they wanted everyone to follow the law which they themselves could not follow.
The Pharisees are scandalised by Jesus’ words, so shocked that they cannot listen – the word Matthew uses literally means ‘a stumbling block’. So, they can’t listen to the message that to do what God wants means controlling the tongue more than avoiding non-kosher food. The singer Stormzy has many songs with a religious message, but some people will find the style and the language so off-putting that they are unaware of the content. The style is a ‘stumbling block’ to hearing what he has to say. Do we put stumbling blocks today on those who would follow Jesus, expecting them to be like us, to confirm to our standards. To adhere to the rules that we can’t adhere to. Look at the Government who has constantly told us during COVID to behave in certain ways and then they go and break their own rules, citing the exemptions around childcare as a valid reason to drive miles at a time when we should not be leaving our homes. Or the councillor in Leicester who had her family over for Eid – 4 households in one garden – the rules were confusing, she said. The Pharisees had over the years taken the 10 commandments and added to them 70-fold, they are contained in the book of Leviticus – it is impossible to follow them all. Jesus said Let's forget the rules and replace them with two simple ones. You are to love God with your heart your soul and your mind and to love your neighbour as yourself. If you do that, then all of the other rules that the Pharisees came up with will be met, don't make it complicated, love is the answer.
The Canaanite woman then approaches Jesus, how different she is to the Pharisees and the crowd for she is in desperate need and knows it is only Jesus who can help her. She has a simple request for her daughter to be healed, her daughter who is not there. It appears that Jesus ignores her cries for the disciples came to him and urged Him, ‘Master send her away she keeps crying she's following us.’ The Gospel writer surely didn’t intend us to have a bad impression of Jesus from reading this story, so what is he doing? What lesson is he giving to us?
A conversation between the woman and Jesus ensues about dogs and bread of all things!. The largely Jewish-Christian audience for whom Matthew writes would appreciate the sharp debate between Jesus and the Canaanite woman – it was part of their religious culture. The woman is commended because the depth of her need is greater than any possibility of taking offence. She is acutely aware that as a non-Jew she may not deserve anything at all, but she isn’t going to give up. The story is told to strengthen our faith. Don’t take offence, don’t give up if you think you are being ignored, don’t give up when others try to put you off, and don’t take no for an answer. She knows Jesus’ reputation and knows that He could heal her daughter if only He would. How the Pharisees would have judged her, a woman and a Canaanite, she would be on the outside, she would never get into the Kingdom of God. How wrong they were for Jesus, loving a debate, just as with the Samaritan woman at the well, engaged her in conversation. She knew her place but was intelligent enough for the answer to Jesus, imagine Him smiling as He gladly gave her what she had come for, healing for her daughter. While the Pharisees are blinded by their offence over trivial things, a Gentile woman sees clearly who Jesus is, and Jesus wants the disciples to learn from her.
What looks somewhat racist (calling the Canaanites ‘dogs’) is turned around. In a society in which women didn’t speak to men, a woman is heard. This foreign woman, who had the temerity to speak to Jesus, has been offered salvation. The gospel is for people of all nations. Women matter. We matter. She has been fed, and indeed can share in the heavenly banquet – a point recalled in many English-speaking eucharistic traditions: ‘We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.’ She is one of us and we are one with her. The story of the Canaanite woman can be tricky to interpret but it shares the thematic link of food and belonging with the first half of the passage.
The Canaanite woman’s mention of the scavenging dogs may refer to a theme in God’s relationship with the Jews: alongside the injunction to enjoy and be thankful for God’s bounty, there was always a command to leave something for the marginalised. Nothing, neither the grain in your fields, nor the olives on your trees (see Leviticus 19.9; Deuteronomy 24.20), was yours unconditionally. God give us so much, yet there is always some left, this was the basis of some of the laws in the Old Testament. Farmers were told to leave wheat at the edge of the field for those who were in need of food (see the story of Ruth). This is what the woman is referring to, she understood Jewish scripture, perhaps even better than the Jews.
What is this telling us today, that the message of Jesus is for all. Like the Pharisees we cannot choose who comes into our churches, we cannot choose who God chooses, rather we have to accept anyone and everyone who enters our church building and welcome them as Jesus himself would welcome them. How are we conformed by the church? How and why do we draw lines about who’s in and who’s out? People are easily scandalised about how other people worship and/or behave. Do we take offence? In many centuries, including our own, there has been a great deal of drawing of lines around who’s acceptable among Christian communities and who is not. Might we see this Gospel story as one that demonstrates that the Messiah has come not just for his own people – and certainly not just for ‘people like us’ – but for the whole world?
Living Lord, we praise you that you are a God who loves. You have given us a marvellous world, to live in and to share with all your people. You, O God, love everyone equally, and we thank you that we are each unique. We thank you that each one of us has so much to give – and to receive – from each other. Thank you for each new experience that you give us.