Rejecting the Foreigner

Updated: Sep 30

Proper 15, Year A, RCL, Track 2

Isaiah 56:1,6-8, Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32, Matthew 15:10-28

Paul, in our passage, is speaking about the Israelites. He tells us that they are not rejected; they fit into God’s plan of salvation. Recalling Abraham we may remember that God made a covenant with Abraham and his descendants. Though life is not always easy, God continues to show his favor on them. And Paul

tells us that he is part of this covenantal relationship; and he reminds us that the Israelites, like all of us, fall into disobedience or sin. This shouldn’t be news to any of us. This is why the Jewish people were wandering for 40 years and why they fell into exile. There are numerous Old Testament stories about their disobedience and it was because of disobedience that God sent the numerous prophets and finally His very own son.

Even though the Israelites had times of disobedience, God maintains his loving relationship. He never abandoned the people even if, at times, they felt as if they were. I’d imagine we have all felt similar feelings at times in our lives.

Paul doesn’t reject the covenant, the Jewish people, or even the Law. Paul will say that following the Law is a more difficult path to take and I think it would be fair to say that he also believes it is easy to get caught up in the doings of the faith instead of the principals of the faith; loving God with all your mind and all your heart; teach these important words to the children, and loving your neighbor.

In the prior nine verses to our passage from Matthew, Jesus is debating a group of Pharisees. The Pharisees are upset. They claiming that the Disciples break the Law by eating food without washing their hands. Jesus questions them, asking why they choose this particular law to hold up as an accusation. He then points to a law that the Pharisees break without concern; obedience to your parents. This is a similar criticism that Paul has with the Law. Though the Law is good and should be followed, we can bind ourselves to it so strongly that we miss the greater point, love of God and Neighbor. We see this excessive observance when some Jewish leaders criticize Jesus for healing a man on the Sabbath or today when the disciples are build community by spread God’s word to Gentiles with “unclean” hands. We generally recognize that when unclean is mentioned in this case we are speaking about ritual impurity. The washing would be more symbolic like the priest washes their hands before communion. This washing wasn’t with soap and water to remove visible dirt. This washing removed ritual impurity. So the real question here is what is more important, symbolically washing our hands or spreading God’s message to the Gentiles and foreigners? Depending on your politics of the time this may not seem so cut and dry as it does to us. The concept of reaching out beyond the people we know who act like us, worship like us, and generally believe what we do, is a common connection for all three of our passages today.

In Isaiah 6 and 7, the Lord tells us the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord will be brought to his holy mountain. He will make them joyful in his house of prayer. This is what Christianity is according to Paul. We have joined the covenant through Christ’s redemption. This passage from Isaiah doesn’t have messianic language; it simply addresses foreigners and eunuchs as having a seat at God’s table. So I wonder, who is counted as a foreigner?

Generally speaking, we tend to think of the people who are different from ourselves as foreigners. I’ll admit that this isn’t the strict definition that should be applied to Isiah, but in our current context, it probably fits well. This is similar to the way we can think of Gentile. Strictly speaking, anyone who is not Jewish is a Gentile. But for us, when we look at the foreigner or Gentile being used in an exclusionary way, we can think of anyone who is not like ourselves, especially those who we feel some sort of resistance toward, because of their social class, color, language, ethnicity, or sexual expression. Anyone who we do not see as an equal is on some level for us a “gentile” or “foreigner.” Expanding our love and kindness beyond the people we most radially relate to is difficult. And today we even see Jesus struggle with this issue as he interacts with the Canaanite woman.

If you remember back in your Old Testament history you will remember that Moses led the Israelites to the Promised Land; the land of milk and honey. This land was the land of the Canaanites. The Israelites didn’t enter this land peaceably. And it is likely due to this conflict that the Canaanites and the Israelites didn’t get along. So today we have a Canaanite woman who cries out to Jesus “Lord, Son of David, my daughter is tormented by a demon.” She is annoying. She is disturbing the peace. She is bothering the disciples. “Lord, Son of David, my daughter is tormented by a demon.” Amidst her protest, Jesus just ignores this woman and the disciples ask him to send her away.

It’s interesting that Jesus just told the disciples to ignore the Pharisees. And in the previous chapter of Matthew, the disciples asked Jesus to send the crowds away so that the crowd could buy some food for themselves. And here today we have a similar scenario, except this time she isn’t sent away because the crowd is large and the disciples don’t know what to do. It isn’t because they are tired of bantering over the meaning of the Law with their fellow parishioners. It is clear this woman is treated this way because she is a Canaanite, a Gentile, perhaps seen as a foreigner.

This is not the type of person even Jesus wants to be around. Jesus says I’m not here for your kind. I’m here for the lost sheep of Israel. But she is persistent. Jesus calls her an unworthy dog and she quips back, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Jesus is impressed by her faith, and probably by her tenacity. He gives the woman what she wants; healing her daughter.

Over the years there have been some theologians who claim Jesus wasn’t acting poorly he was just testing this woman; testing her faith to see if she was truly faithful. But I don’t agree. This encounter shows us the human side of Jesus. The same human side that we have when we see someone who is different and think that they are unworthy of our help. Jesus is acting much like the Pharisees he is speaking against. But he recognizes his reaction for what it is and decides to revise his opinion of her. This is a huge change. From this point on in the Gospel, he sends the disciples out to everyone. His mission is no longer for the lost sheep of Israel but for all people. In that very moment Jesus realizes he was about to make a mistake and instead of digging down into tradition, what his human nature is telling him to do, he changes and accepts a woman who is so very different. At least for the author of this Gospel, this seems to be the moment when grace became available to all; Gentile and Jew alike.

All three of our stories speak about opening up to the Gentile, the foreigner, those who are other; those who are different. We know from our experiences; we know from watching Jesus today and reading many of these stories, that these feelings of homogeny are all too human. We tend to be more comfortable with people who look and act like us. We unintentionally or sometimes intentionally treat others as if they are the Canaanite woman. But this is not what we are called to. We are not called to just ignore them. We are not called to simply be civil toward people who are different. We are called to embrace them, share the Good News, the love of God, and treat them just as we would our own brothers and sisters. I pray that the next time we come across a Canaanite in our life or a foreigner; we can be open to having as much compassion for them as God has for us, the Gentile.

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Photo Credit - Amy Duval 2016