Jonathan Andrew's Sermon 20th August 2017

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28

From time to time I find myself talking to professed atheists who blame all the problems of the world on religion – all the wars, all the conflicts - and it’s an easy response for me to point out that all the great mass-murderers of the last 100 years were people of no faith – Hitler, Stalin, Chairman Mao, Pol Pot - but if we look farther back this is over-simplistic.

Likewise, I sometimes find myself involved in conversations about Islam that attempt to contrast the warlordship of the Prophet Mohammed and his followers with our Kingdom of Peace, but this too is grossly over-simplistic.

No, the history of Judeo-Christianity is far from blood-free. There is something fundamental to our fallen nature that impels us to define ourselves not by what we are, but by what we aren’t – we define ourselves against the other, and demonise the other as in some way sub-human and not deserving of life. And so, to counter that, our three readings today are all about inclusion, and contain messages that bear continual repeating.

Judaism was, and to a large extent still is, an exclusivist faith. The self-identity proclaimed throughout the Old Testament is one of a chosen people and that people’s relationship to a special land promised by God. The family history set out in the Old Testament is based on that claimed special status and includes divine authority to commit genocide – to slaughter the inhabitants of the land of Canaan. Now whether this genocide ever happened in the way described in the book of Joshua is open to debate, certainly the Old Testament is full of references to aliens living peacefully in the land and indeed treated with respect long after that time, but we cannot argue that strict Jewish identity required strict separation from people who, in some sense, were seen as unclean and inferior.

But in the later parts of the book we now call Isaiah we start to see some move away from this – the lovely passage we just heard talks of the Temple becoming “a house of prayer for all peoples”. But even such passages as these generally seem to envisage the other nations coming to give tribute and pray from the sidelines, rather than being absorbed into the Jewish faith. Even in Jesus’ time there was a very clear distinction between Jews and Proselytes (that is non-Jewish followers of the one true God).

So, it’s in that context that were faced with our very challenging and uncomfortable Gospel reading. On the face of it, Jesus is painted in what to us is a very unappealing light. This poor woman has a mentally sick daughter and the disciples and then Jesus himself simply dismiss her as a non-Jewish ‘dog’ - unclean, sub-human. She’s not just a foreigner but a Canaanite, one of that race whom God had ordered should be wiped from the face of the earth. But then comes the dramatic change. Instead of slinking away with her tail between her legs, the dog barks back, Jesus recognises her faith and her daughter is healed.

What is going on here? Is Jesus actually learning? Well possibly, after all he was human as well as divine. But note where the action is taking place. Jesus has intentionally led his disciples out of Israel and into the region of Tyre and Sidon. Why are they there? Is it because Jesus is foreshadowing the mission to the gentiles, and indeed to some extent repudiating his own
nation’s history. We often speak of Jesus as the second Adam, but we might also reflect on the fact that his name, Jesus, in Hebrew is the same as that of the genocide Joshua. Is it pushing things too far to suggest that Jesus’ action might be seen as an act of repentance for what his ancestors did, as he sees in the Canaanite woman that same ability to respond to God’s love that is hard-wired into all the sons and daughters of Adam, all who are made in God’s image?

But, before we finish let me just touch on our passage from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, because that must be one of the Bible passages that has been most ignored down throughout our blood-soaked history. Paul makes it totally clear that God is faithful and that his covenant with the Jews has never been broken. And yet down the centuries we’ve seen pogrom after pogrom - in Spain, in Portugal, in Russia, in York - Jews slaughtered simply for being Jews. This year, we’re encouraged to celebrate the life of Martin Luther, seen as the founder of the Reformation. Well I suppose we should be thankful for his reminding the Church of the teachings of St Augustine, but we must also recognise that he was a virulent anti-Semite. If his good legacy is the Reformation, it must be acknowledged that he also played his part in laying foundations which 400 years later led for the Holocaust, an anti-Semitism that only this week broke out again in Charlottesville Virginia.

May we and all Christians always guard against believing that we are God’s chosen people to the exclusion of others.