Rev’d Trevor McCracken
One of the great moral and cultural issues of the last 100 years has been racial identity. The world watched in horror as Nazi Germany murdered 6 million Jews, and their only crime was that they were Jews. Race and religion seem to be the great dividing matter that has set people against people. Look at South Africa and the apartheid regime of the past, the colour of one’s skin differentiated who was who. The US South in the 60’s was no better, nor Uganda or Rwanda when tribal affiliations rather than skin colour overtook compassion and humanity. Then there is the current issue in Iraq and Syria with ISIS and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Today, the world is witnessing the mass persecution and genocide of the Iraqi and Syrian Christian population. Sadly, the international community has expressed very little concern about their fate, with few coming to their aid. The disappearance of the Christian community in Iraq and Syria presents a threat to humanity. Who will be next?
The last Christians have left Mosul, after the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) gave them a choice between conversion to Islam, ruinous taxation, exile, or death. For the first time since the 15th century there is no longer a Christian population in Mosul.
In 2003, prior to the American invasion into Iraq, there were more than one million Christians living in Iraq—this included 600,000 living in Baghdad and approximately 60,000 in Mosul.
The Christians who chose to leave Mosul had no place to go, becoming refugees. Unable to pay the unrealistic, mandated tax, those who stayed and did not convert to Islam were murdered.
However, most countries today strive to show and believe that all humans are equal, irrespective of their race and colour, and are working hard to make their nation integrated with their various races living in peace and harmony. But there is still much prejudice, much hatred, and much suspicion to overcome.
So when we read today’s Gospel from Matthew 15 in today’s setting, we may find it quite shocking. It looks as though Jesus, to begin with, is refusing to help someone in need just because she’s from the wrong race. We wouldn’t think much of a doctor or nurse who refused to treat a patient because they weren’t from the right family background, or weren’t the right colour. It seems very strange. What’s going on?
We are here again when Jesus defines his fundamental mission. He wasn’t simply a travelling doctor whose task was to heal every sick person he met. He had a very specific calling, which he already hinted in Matthew 10 went he sent out the twelve disciples “5These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. 6Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel”. God’s people, Israel, needed to know that their God was now at last fulfilling his promises. The Kingdom for which they had longed was beginning to appear. He was the herald – and, as the disciples were starting to realise, he was himself God’s anointed King.
But this message was always aimed at Israel itself. Not to maintain this would imply that God made a mistake in choosing and calling Israel to be his special people, the promise-bearers through whom his word, and his new life, would be brought to the rest of the world. Though many Christians have tried to forget the specialness of Israel in the purposes of God, the New Testament writers never do, and Jesus himself never implied anything different. What he had come to do, as he says in Matthew 5, is not to abolish the law, but to fulfil it; not to do away with the category of ‘Israel’, God’s chosen people, but to fulfil the purpose for which this people existed in the first place. If God’s new life was to come to the world, it would come through Israel.
That’s why Israel had to hear the message first. If the promise-bearing people were in danger of forgetting the promise, they must be reminded, precisely because the promises are now being fulfilled. If Jesus and his followers had simply begun an indiscriminate mission to the wider world, before God’s purpose had unfolded, they would have made God a liar. That is why Jesus himself, and his followers at his instructions, limited their work almost entirely to the Jewish people.
But, as with much of what happens in Jesus’ public career, the future keeps breaking in to the present – even, as here, seeming to catch Jesus himself by surprise! He has already commented on the remarkable faith of the Gentile centurion in Mt 8:10; you know the story, the centurion came to Jesus asking him to heal his servant who was home paralysed, and Jesus said he would, but the centurion said you need not come, just say the word. Jesus did, the servant was healed and then Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith”. What Jesus was saying, I can’t even find a Jew with such faith, what a statement.
Now Jesus comments on the equally remarkable faith of a Canaanite woman, a non-Jew living some way north of the land of Israel. Jesus and his close associates had gone there, perhaps to escape any angry backlash from the controversial things he had been saying and doing.
The Canaanite woman does indeed have great faith. Not only does she clearly believe that Jesus can heal her stricken daughter. She addresses him as ‘son of David’, the Jewish messianic title which the disciples themselves were only gradually coming to associate with him. And, most remarkably, she understands, and uses to her advantage in the banter with Jesus, the way in which God’s choice of Israel to be the promise-bearing people for the sake of the world was to work out in practice.
Yes, she says, the dogs can’t simply share the children’s food. This is remarkable enough, that she accepts the designation ‘dog’, which is a regular way of dismissing the Gentiles as inferior. But she insists on her point. If Israel is indeed the promise-bearing people, then Israel’s Messiah will ultimately bring blessing to the whole world. The dogs will share in the scrapes that fall from the children’s table.
Of one thing we can be sure; the early church didn’t make all this up. From very early on in the Christian movement the acceptance of Gentiles on equal terms with Jews was fought for within the church, and the battle was won, by Paul in particular.
What we have here is as startling to us, perhaps, as it was to Jesus’ followers at the time. The woman’s faith broke through the waiting period, the time in which Jesus would come to Jerusalem as Israel’s Messiah, be killed and raised again, and then send his followers out into all the world (Mt 28:19 – The Great Commission). The disciples, and perhaps Jesus himself, are not yet ready for Calvary. This foreign woman is already insisting upon Easter.
Being a Christian in the world today often focuses on the faith that badgers and harries God in prayer to do, now, already, what others are content to wait for in the future. In the early nineteenth century, many Christians agreed that slavery was evil and would eventually have to stop, but not many wanted to do it just yet. William Wilberforce and his friends worked and prayed, devoting their lives to the belief what would happen in the future had to happen, by God’s power, in the present as well.
The abolition of the slave trade was is much a testimony to the staying power of Wilberforce as it was to his faith. This is the ‘great faith’ upon which Jesus congratulated this woman. You see, in Wilberforce’s quest, it was a long-term view of seeing the outcome before it came into being, and by faith and perseverance it did happen. How many of us give up too easily on the faith quest that God has set in our hearts? We lack perseverance and therefore we lack faith. Jesus said that all the faith we need can be as small as a mustard seed, however though our faith may be small, it must be sure.
What, then, are the issues we face today? Which promises of God have we imagined might be fulfilled in the distant future, but ought to be claimed in the present with a prayer and faith which refuses to be put off? This is the question for us today. We may not have the faith of William Wilberforce, or the Centurion with the paralysed servant, or even the Canaanite woman, but we do have faith. Though it may be small, it needs to be sure. We need perseverance like the widow in Jesus’ parable from Luke 18. She would not give up badgering the unjust judge until she got justice. The same is for us. What’s your faith issue today? Take all your faith, however small or large, and meet that need head on. God is waiting to see if you really want the need or issue to be resolved, is waiting for your request in prayer knowing your faith, and if it is according to his will, he will grant it. Be resolute and persevere prayerfully to our Heavenly Father who delights in answering our prayers.
Scripture Readings this week:
Romans 11: 1-2a, 29-32
Genesis 45: 1-15