11th Sunday after Pentecost
August 20 2017
Genesis 45.1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11.1-5, 25-32; Matthew 15.21-28
Rev Páraic Réamonn, Church of Scotland
Jesus of Nazareth is an inward-looking, ethnocentric Jew. He is concerned only with the lost sheep of the house of Israel, not at all with the lost sheep of other nations. But a Canaanite woman sorts him out and puts him straight. The scales fall from his prejudiced eyes, and equipped with a new understanding of God’s purposes, he goes on to tell the parable of the good Samaritan – admittedly, a little later and in another gospel.
This is one way of reading today’s Gospel. It’s a way that sits well with contemporary feminism, which holds that it always takes a woman to sort out a man.
My difficulty with this way of reading our Gospel is that from beginning to end, Jesus seems to have been remarkably consistent in how he saw himself and his work.
Jesus was a revolutionary. He wanted to turn the world upside down, that is, he wanted to turn it the right way up.
Or rather, he believed that God was turning the world right way up. God was taking a fallen world and setting it back on its feet; and in all of this, God called him to play a crucial role.
But it seems to me that, to borrow a phrase from more recent revolutionary movements, Jesus had a two-stage theory of revolution.
First, in and through him, God would seek out and save the lost sheep of Israel. Around him the people of Israel would be reconstituted as God’s people. In and through his death and resurrection, Israel would be renewed.
“Repent,” he told the people, “for the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.” (Mt 3.17)
But then, in a second moment, this renewed Israel would begin to gather in the gentiles – an ingathering that will not be complete until the kingdom of heaven came in its fullness. “Many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 8.11) – in a banquet that Sunday by Sunday we anticipate in communion.
Jesus believes that God is acting decisively in his day so that God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven – this is what he means by the kingdom. But for that to happen, God’s people needs to repent, to return to the purpose for which God has chosen them – to be God’s faithful people through whom all the peoples of the earth will be blessed.
Salvation is from the Jews. When Israel repents, then the gentiles will come in. And so it is to the lost sheep of Israel – God’s flock that had gone astray – that he is sent.
He challenges the Canaanite woman. She rises delightfully to the challenge. Her daughter is healed.
Fast forward a generation to Paul’s letter to the Romans, and we find Paul’s heart breaking. But we find it hard to understand why.
The lectionary doesn’t help much. For the last three Sundays, we have been reading fragments from Romans 9-11. I expanded the fragment we read this morning; but even so it’s hard to get that these chapters are the central section of Paul’s letter.
Our tradition doesn’t help much either.
For centuries Christians – especially Christians in the West – have read the letter to the Romans as if it were “all about me”.
Teenagers lie awake at night wondering how they can get the cool girl or guy in school to like them. Drivers who run a red light or get pulled over for speeding on Route 1 wonder how they can get the traffic cop not to throw the book at them.
And Western Christians – particularly since the Reformation, but this goes back at least as far as Augustine of Hippo – are like that. Like teenagers wondering how to get the cool guy or girl, like drivers nervously aware that they have done wrong, we lie awake at night fretting about what we need to do to get God to like us.
It’s Martin Luther’s question: How can I find a gracious God?
Paul’s answer – indeed, the answer of the whole New Testament – is that we don’t have to do anything. God loves us even when we are unlovable. God loves us even when we run red lights, because God is not a traffic cop: God, as Jesus teaches us to pray in the Lord’s prayer, is our dad.
We know this because of Jesus.
“And can it be,” asks Charles Wesley, “that I should gain an interest in the Saviour’s blood? Died he for me…?” Well, yes, says Paul, yes he did. This is how God proves his love for us: the Messiah died for us while we were yet sinners.
All we need to do is to trust God; and even that is not our own doing, it is the work of the Holy Spirit within us.
But Paul’s main concern is not with you and me.
It is the world that is Paul’s focus. God created the world and created the human race to look after it; but we don’t have to look far to see the mess we’ve made of that. Paul’s central claim – it undergirds all his writings – is that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5.19).
We began our worship this morning with Abraham. When God calls Abraham in Genesis 12 and explains the call in Genesis 18, it is to deal with the problem of the world as a whole. The covenant the creator God makes with Abraham is so that God can rescue creation from corruption and rescue the human race from sin and death. Like all of God’s covenants, it is established to restore justice.
It’s a cunning plan; but it doesn’t work out quite as hoped. As the prophets of Israel never tire of pointing out, their people, chosen by God to solve the world’s problem, are part of the problem.
This, says Paul, is where Jesus comes in. Jesus is the one Israelite who does what is just and right, even to death on a cross. And God vindicates Jesus by raising him from death, so that he can become, not just for Israel, but for the whole human race and the whole world, a new beginning. “…In Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5.17)
Part of what this means for Paul is that the old boundaries between Jew and gentile, Jew and non-Jew, collapse. If in Jesus God’s purposes for Israel have now been fulfilled, it is time for the gentiles to come in. Israel is redefined around the Messiah of Israel, around the risen Christ, and it includes all those, whether Jew or gentile, who trust in him.
But this also doesn’t work out quite as Paul hoped. His preaching finds a receptive audience among the gentiles of the Mediterranean; but his own people, his “kindred according to the flesh”, are less impressed. This breaks his heart and baffles his understanding. And so, in three long chapters in Romans he does what we all must do. He struggles to hold together his faith in Jesus Christ with the facts of his experience.
His argument is an argument in tension. On the one hand, he says, Jews who do not believe in Jesus the Messiah – Jews who are not messianic Jews – are not part of God’s renewed Israel, because this Israel is constituted precisely by belief in Jesus as the Messiah. But they are still God’s people, because the gifts and promises of God are irrevocable.
Christians in later centuries failed to hold together the two parts of Paul’s argument. They claimed to be God’s people, and they claimed that the Jews were no longer God’s people. When the Roman empire turned Christian, and they had power in their hands, they persecuted the Jews. And we know how this story ends.
We need today to recover the original vision of Jesus and of Paul. Christ came to make us one, and so we are not us and them. Christ came to break down walls of hostility and division, of which the paradigm is the wall dividing Jew and gentile. We are never us and them. We are all human beings, made in the image and likeness of God. We are all God’s beloved children.
What happens when we refuse to recognize this we saw again this past week, in Charlottesville and the White House, in Barcelona and Cambrils. We see it also in more respectable views that reject white supremacy but assert the right of Wall Street to gamble with the world economy or reject the far jihad but assert the Western right to reduce whole societies to ruin, not least in this region.
Salvation most fundamentally is from God. We are one in the Lord – one in God, and one in Jesus Christ. We need to reject all the ideologies that set us one against another. We need to view our world through the subversive eyes of God’s all-embracing love, for only then can we be healed.
The God of Abraham praise! (CH4 162)
How good it is when God’s will is done (Psalm 133, CH4 90)
Healing river of the Spirit (CH4 707)
Alleluia! Sing to Jesus (CH4 445)
“I have a dream,” a man once said (CH4 710)
Joachim Jeremias, Jesus’ Promise to the Nations (London: SCM 1958)
NT Wright, Letter to the Romans in The New Interpreter’s Bible 10 (Nashville, Abingdon: 2002)
 For the avoidance of doubt: I think this is mostly true.