Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity
20th Aug 2017
Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity Year A
“God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all”
The graphic story in today’s gospel tells of a Syro-Phoenician or Canaanite woman who as a foreigner, successfully challenges Jesus’ own intention to minister only to ‘the lost sheep of Israel’. This woman is a rank outsider. She crashes into the party where the invited and the included are those deemed to be strictly righteous and for whom the inheritance of faith in God was given and sacrosanct. These are the Jewish inheritors of a covenant which had given them exclusive rights and access to Rabbinic teaching. But the woman’s presence also reveals the down-side of this righteousness. For it excited feelings of ethnic cleanliness, and exaggerated and hardened itself against any who stood outside the community of the chosen. An obvious contemporary example of this is the caste system in India, which is still excludes.
Jesus, as a rabbinic teacher, stands awkwardly in the middle of these racial tensions both as a Jew himself and as an inheritor of the Jewish tradition. But crucially we discover that he is ready to give ground. He knows from deep within that the gift of faith is generic. It is for all and has not been parcelled out to the practising religious alone. This is evidenced in the case to this mere woman who comes from a territory unvisited by strict Jews. She comes to the gospel text as a rank outsider. Nonetheless she gives Jesus due respect, using the title ‘Lord, Son of David’. And in a gentle play on words like ‘dog’, which were and still are in the middle east used as insults, she turns the joke to her own good use and appeals to the witty idea that even the (real) dogs are permitted to eat the scraps that fall from the master’s table. Jesus commends her for her faith. The word faith here is being used as a kind of forthrightness, a kind of keen wit and intelligence borne of necessity. One comedian once said that in order to have a sense of humour and to make humour work you need also a strong sense of proportion. The place of this woman in this context is to put the ancient and well trusted idea of the Jews as God’s elect in its proper, that is to say human, and wider and more embodied, context. She might be saying, even to Jesus, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me’.
This Gospel reading and this strange, insistent woman provide a timely reminder of the need to challenge the forces of hatred and fundamentalism that carry out threats to life and limb and sanction righteous murder. In Barcelona this week there was repeated the same murdering of innocent pedestrians in a built up, tourist area, and follows on from similar attacks in Stockholm, London, Paris Manchester, Nice and Brussels. It was telling that in the people gathered the next day in the city’s main square that, after a silent vigil, applause broke out with the words in Spanish “I am not afraid” ‘No tink por’.
The challenge to what terrorism must lie in the defiance of those who will not allow its threat and fear to override the beauty and worth of life lived in one united bond of honour and trust. The summons to defend basic human freedoms is as urgent now s it was at the time of Jesus. In a multicultural and perhaps fractured world, Jesus, like us, was immersed in the potential conflict of interests that such a situation threw up.
The Canaanite woman prompts Jesus to the enlargement of the household of faith. She reminds us that such enlargement, such widening of sympathy, is necessary to the very integrity and honesty of the Christian Way, and ultimately for the freedom of the world. Her intervention begs important questions regarding the nature of religious faith and the commonness of our humanity, and acts as a break on those forms of ethnic purity which have already led to so much horror and brutality.
Jesus is manifestly Son of God. In him, we come to know that it is the Creator’s will and purpose that all are given free access to his love and mercy, beyond the imposed confines of human will and vanity and fundamentalist ideology. As the hymn reminds us, there “There’s a wideness in God’s Mercy”, not just for we of the household of Christian Faith but for all who, whether consciously or unconsciously, seek God from the bottom of their hearts. Human freedom, the freedom to live and to thrive, in peace and harmony, must never be taken for granted. It must be proclaimed daily, defiantly and fearlessly. All are ultimately included.
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
Like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in his justice,
Which is more than liberty.
F W Faber (1814-1863)