The Gospel reading today is a story about belonging and borders. It uses the metaphor of household to describe not just a religion but a geographical region. Who can enter the household, church, or country and partake of its benefits? It is a story remarkably relevant to our time and place where so many in the world have no place to call home. I’m thinking of the estimated 65 million displaced people in the world. I’m thinking of the many in our own land who struggle to find rent for a home, let alone purchase a home. I’m thinking of those stopped at the barriers of economics, ethnicity and religion, and not allowed in.
It’s a story that challenges the exclusivity of any religion. Do any of us own God, or have God all figured out? Maybe God is on the margins, the border crossings of every religion, and rarely if ever let in?
It’s a story too that challenges nationalism. Do our countries’ borders define who belongs? Who are our brothers and sisters really?
It’s a story too that challenges privilege, especially the privilege of powerful males to determine belonging. How do we structure an alternative?
Matthew recounts an exchange between Jesus and a Canaanite woman, Justa,[i] from the region of Tyre and Sidon, who wanted her daughter healed. Justa was an outsider in terms of race – she belonged to a people dispossessed by Israel’s occupation of the land [not unlike modern day Palestinians]. She now lived outside the geographical borders of Israel. She lived outside the religious borders of Judaism. And she was a woman. ‘Triply marginalized’ as Elaine Wainwright[ii] says. 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, no ‘visa’, no entry, get lost”. 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 tribalism 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 within the house called Judaism, looking after its children. The woman, Justa, is 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.
Time and again conflict has arisen between religious insiders and 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 that rears its head frequently in religious history.
Time and again conflict has arisen between those who maintain geographic or national borders and those who are needy and want to enter. The insiders have border control personnel to assess those knocking at the door. How needy are they? 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 the scenario well known to refugees.
The other dynamic to remember when reading this passage from Matthew is that this is a verbal tussle not only between a Jew and a Gentile. It is a verbal tussle 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 well-respected rabbi like this Jesus does not shame himself by losing a debate with an unknown female foreign outsider.
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 very low down in the social hierarchy of that day!]. Justa appeals to the habit of allowing the puppies to feast on the leftovers from what one feeds one’s children. Justa brings to the metaphorical world of “house” and “children” the words “table” and “food”.
Table and food were the primary sites of conflict for the early Church. As 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’ in to the house of Judaism was unscriptural, ritually unhygienic, and contrary to culture.
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 metaphors in this passage – metaphors about table and food which are central to our understandings of God and faith – and invite others in our country, and especially our political leaders, to widen their understanding to think not only of the good for New Zealanders but the good of all the suffering ones in the world? Can we share the food of the New Zealand table, and make it go a bit further?
This Antiochian Jesus for his part opens his mind to her 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 to open the doors of his metaphor and to let the breeze of change blow in. He opens to the truth of a greater hospitality and inclusion.
In the verses that follow, Jesus leaves the region of Tyre and Sidon, and returns to the Sea of Galilee. Many people come to him, bringing folk who need healing, and … “they glorified the God of Israel” (v.31). That is a curious way of putting it. One would think that if Jesus were in the region of the Sea of Galilee, then it would be taken for granted that “they glorified God” would mean “they glorified the God of Israel.” But Matthew seems to be underlining the point that it is the God of Israel whom they glorified.
I wonder if that means that the crowd that met Jesus in the wilderness, bringing their sick and lame, and ultimately being fed (again) with loaves and fish, is not a crowd from the “house of Israel.” If they are from outside of the house of Israel, then this encounter with the Canaanite woman radically changed the scope of Jesus’ ministry. The gospel went to the dogs! The dogs were being fed straight from the table. 4,000 ‘dogs’ are going to be fed in chapter 15:32-39, just like 5,000 ‘children’ were fed in chapter 14:15-21. The food - the scarce resources of Israel, the scarce resources of the Jesus movement - were going to be stretched a little bit further.
If this reference to “the God of Israel” – as opposed to simply “God” – has significance, Justa has won Jesus over with her argument, has broadened his mind about the inclusive love and mission of God, and Jesus has acted upon it.[v]
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. All are welcome. Yet no one owns the Table. No one has the mandate to erect a fence around it; for as one of the Iona 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!], that the common good of the whole world matters, and we want to contribute. 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.
Last week I talked about leadership and the early Jesus movement. This passage comes from the late 1st century Jesus movement in Antioch, Syria, and reflects how they understood discipleship and leadership. It congratulates the male disciple/leader who, like this Jesus, has the courage to change, to listen to an uncomfortable and counter-cultural challenge, and respond to it by widening the borders of his mind and his actions. It also congratulates the female disciple/leader who like Justa has the courage and tenacity to challenge the male hegemony and the cultural/religious bias of the dominant group. It applauds her as she is insulted, yet stands her ground demanding admittance.
These communities in Antioch, in their wrestling with the issues of borders, of insiders and outsiders, continue to inspire and challenge us today.
[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.