The Gospel reading today is about eating and excreting, belonging and borders. It uses the metaphor of the household table to describe not just a religion but a geographical region. Who can gather at the table, the church, or country, and partake of its benefits?
It is a story relevant to our time and place where containment of a virus, maintenance of our borders, and concerns about trust, anxiety and fear are in the air. There is even a reference in the text to hand washing!
First, less we think Jesus was discarding the Torah dietary regulations, let us locate the first part of our reading in the intra-Jewish debate regarding food. Jesus was not telling his fellow Jews they could eat anything they like. Then, as now, what we put into our mouths does affect our health and wellbeing. But Jesus’ point is, it is excreted. Its impact is temporary. (Yes, I know, there are problems with his argument). What is more important, says Jesus, is what words come out of the mouth from the heart. This is what can defile. Kindness, affirmation of others, goodness… these matter more than food purity and the associated ritual handwashing practices.
The backstory to this is the intra-Jewish debate, dating from the Babylonian exile (approx. 598-538 BCE), is the tension between the need to preserve Jewish identity through strict adherence to Torah (and keeping foreigners away) and the universalism in Jewish theology that said all humanity was made in God’s image and faith was seen in service (and welcoming foreigners in).
Today, here in Aotearoa, in these Covid times, we have our own version of this tension. How we treat others – those within and outside our borders – is important. And border control and handwashing/hygiene practices are expressions of our caring for all, especially for our most vulnerable, are not unimportant or less important. What comes out of our mouths, from our hearts, can alleviate anxiety and build trust; or it can do the opposite. This is a difficult balance to get right, especially for politicians and media commentators. We live in fragile times.
Matthew, after this introduction on identity and universalism, largely copying from the Gospel of Mark, recounts an exchange between Jesus and a Canaanite woman, called in tradition Justa (or Just One).[i] She is from the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon, hence why Mark calls her Syro-Phoenician. Matthew though identifies her as a Canaanite, a member of the original indigenous tribes before Israelite colonisation. So, Justa belonged to a people dispossessed [not unlike modern day Palestinians] and she now lived outside the geographical borders of Israel.
She also lived outside the religious borders of Judaism. And she was a woman in a very patriarchal world. So, ‘triply marginalized’.[ii] She also had a troubled demon-possessed daughter – ‘demon possession’ often being an allusion to imperial rape of mind and body.
Initially Matthew’s Jesus responds to her pleas by not answering. He then tells his disciples that he was sent “only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel”. Both the metaphor of ‘house’ and the boundaries around religion/identity are introduced at this point. This Jesus, being an insider, inside the borders, gives an insider’s response – “sorry, only native Israelites get entry…”
Matthew’s Jesus reflects the normative understandings of the Jewish Jesus communities in the Antioch region [where the text was written] and is challenging through this story the cultural exclusivity and male hegemony present in those communities.
Justa was not deterred by this Jesus’ prejudice against outsiders. She was not going to be put off by bigotry. Her daughter’s health was at stake. She continued to plead. Jesus told her, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The Matthew scholar Warren Carter[iii] suggests that we should translate ‘dogs’ as ‘little bitches’ to capture the insult and offense of Jesus’ words. She responded, "Sir, even the little bitches under the table eat the children's crumbs."
This Jesus is at the table within the house called Judaism, looking after its children. The woman, Justa, is away from that table outside that house. Jesus is an insider. Justa is an outsider. The insiders are called children. The outsiders are denigrated as dogs. The outsider wants something from the insider, and the insider doesn’t think he should share it. And he thinks he has God on his side.
Time and again in history conflicts have arisen between religious insiders and those outsiders who are religiously ‘other’. The house of faith wants to maintain its boundaries, ‘maintain standards’, determining what is right and wrong, and only grant admittance on its terms. This is an old scenario.
Time and again in history conflicts have arisen between those who maintain geographic or national borders and those who are needy and want to enter. The insiders have ‘border control’. How needy are those who are knocking wanting to be let in? What drain will they have on the resources of the country? Will they take the children’s food? Do we have the resources [the crumbs] to share? This is a well-known scenario too.
The other dynamic to remember when reading this passage is that this is verbal tussle not only between a Jew and a Gentile. It is a verbal tussle between a man and a woman, in the public sphere, in an honour/shame culture, where men don’t engage with women in public debate, where Jewish men certainly don’t engage with gentile women in public debate, and where a righteous respected rabbi like this Jesus does not shame himself by losing a debate with an unknown female foreign outsider.
For in this story, in the world of male honour, Justa bests Jesus in the argument. Jesus’ verbal strategy is to appeal to the habit of distinguishing between the needs of one’s children and the needs of a dog’s puppies [remembering of course that dogs were low down in the social hierarchy of that day]. Justa appeals to the habit of allowing the puppies to feast on the leftovers.
Table and food were the primary sites of conflict for the early Jesus movement. As the Bible commentator Luke Timothy Johnson says, “We are obsessed [today] by the sexual dimension of the body. The first-century Mediterranean world was obsessed by the social implications of food and table fellowship.”[iv] To let the ‘dogs’ into the house of Judaism was unscriptural, ritually unhygienic, and contrary to culture. Therefore ‘God as agin it’.
Justa the Gentile takes the household metaphor of eating and widens it in order that both children and ‘dogs’ are fed from the same table. She believes that the table of faith in God can sustain both Jews and Gentiles.
Can we today take the household metaphor of table in this text – a metaphor which has long been central to our understandings of God and faith – and invite others in while also keeping ourselves safe? On a national level, with a virulent virus at large, we need to be extremely cautious. Maybe a better way to understand this text in our current context is extend our St Luke’s ‘table’ to care for as many vulnerable people as we can who are within our country and community – particularly the frightened and fearful, the aged and little children, and those medically susceptible.
This Antiochian Jesus for his part opens his mind to Justa’s truth, to the width of her truth, and grants her request. Rather than smarting from being bested by a woman and shamed in the eyes of the audience, Jesus responds positively to the challenge. He opens himself to the truth of a greater hospitality and inclusion. He wants to keep learning.
Hospitality requires more than simply inviting others to dine with us. It requires a hospitable heart and a generous mind. It requires us to accept that the ‘others’, the ‘foreigners’, are different from us and may never believe or act exactly the same as us. Therefore, the table we will sit at together will feel less like our table. The table though familiar will now feel somewhat strange and foreign.
The Communion Table is a central symbol for all Christians. It is a symbol of radical hospitality. Yet no one owns the Table. No one has the mandate to erect a fence around it; for as one Communion liturgies says, ‘God is the host.’ Therefore, the Table will always be familiar and comfortable, but also strange and uncomfortable.
And the Table not only feds and nurtures us but makes demands of us. To eat is to make a commitment to share and help create and sustain a culture that shares. By eating and sharing we declare that everyone matters [even the people difficult to like], and that the common good of the whole world matters. This leads to engagement with those deemed outsiders. This leads to examining our own prejudices and putting them aside in order that the multitude are welcomed, honoured, and included.
[i] The name she is called in the 3rd and 4th century Pseudo-Clementine homilies.
[ii] Elaine Wainwright Shall We Look for Another: A feminist reading of the Matthean Jesus, Orbis: New York, 1998.
[iii] Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, p.324
[iv] Luke Timothy Johnson, Scripture and Discernment: Decision-making in the Church, Abingdon: Nashville, 1983, p.147.