Trinity 10 2020 – 16th August 2020: Romans 11, 1-2, 29-32; Matthew 15, 21-28
Fr Leonard Doolan – St Paul’s Athens
The same coach that drew into the lay-by to let all of our pilgrim group get a panoramic view of the Sea of Galilee had picked us up at Ben Gurian Airport in Tel Aviv. You may recall what I said last week about the Sea of Galilee – if not there are ways you can double check. From the moment we start our visit the official Tourist Ministry guide is offering us much valued information.
We are travelling from Tel Aviv towards Jerusalem. We begin in the flat plains of the Mediterranean coastline and the journey to Jerusalem is all up-hill, because the city is set in the mountains of the Judaean wilderness. Its height is more noticeable on the day we journey to the Dead Sea – such a descent to the lowest point on earth that your ears actually ‘pop’.
Anyway, this first journey has some interesting commentary from our guide. ‘Look to the right’ he says. No much good really because it is night time. ‘You can’t see what you are looking at because it is dark’ stating the obvious! ‘To your right is the ancient land of Canaan.’ He informs us. This land was occupied by many tribes generally referred to in the bible as the Canaanites. This area of land is also called Syro-Phoenicia where there were cities like Tyre and Sidon.
It was this land to which Moses sent two spies to survey the land to bring back a favourable report. One of the two spies was Caleb, the other was Joshua, the only two people of the original group of the 40 year Exodus, to be allowed to enter this ‘promised land’. It was this land of Canaan. Both these characters are shown in the stained glass windows in St. Paul’s Church (Athens).
Later in history, of course it was Jerusalem that became the centre of culture, life and worship, and the Canaan was like a provincial backwater. Often the Canaanites are attacked for their idolatry, and for their lack of morality, for they were not incorporated into the purity of the worship at the temple in Jerusalem.
Caleb, one of the two spies, left something of a legacy to the land of Canaan, for in Hebrew his name means ‘dog’. The Jews therefore referred to Canaanites who were gentiles, as ‘dogs.’
So we arrive, at last, with something that is relevant to this morning’s gospel reading from St. Matthew. You must have been wondering when I would get to it. Trust me, it was worth the wait for it makes some deeper sense of the scripture today.
Jesus is in this district of Tyre and Sidon, Syro-Phoenicia, or Canaan. We might call it the ‘Land of Caleb’ or the ‘Land of Dogs’. A woman of the region starts shouting at Jesus. Not a protest, no obscenities, nothing about religious differences, but rather a supplication. She calls out to him ‘Lord, have mercy’. Her daughter is possessed and she seeks healing for her. There is no response from Jesus, and the disciples want him to have nothing to do with the woman from the Land of Dogs.
St. Matthew relates this story with a lovely sense of balance. Jesus proposes that he has come from God to minister those of the true faith, those pure worshippers of the house of Israel. So this is one caricature, if you like. She persists, though, saying ‘Lord help me’.
‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs’. Jesus says. So on one hand you have the children, and on the other the dogs – the children of Israel versus the Calebs, the dogs of Canaan. You might think that if the person she calls Lord has been so dismissive of her, that she would give up, turn her tail downwards and go off in a ‘dog in a mangerly’ sort of way, hurt, head bowed, rejected, scorned, almost punished, sent off to sit in her basket and keep silent.
But no – she has something else to say. Dog owners will know all about what she says – we try to stop our Hektor from doing it. Calling him Lord for the 3rd time in this little episode she has the persistence to say ‘even the dogs eat the crumbs from their master’s table.’ Isn’t this a clever little piece of gospel writing. Even Canaanites can share in the blessings of Christ’s mission.
In our liturgy the priest says, ‘Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, blessed (or happy) are those who are called to his supper’, to which the response is, ‘Lord I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.’
It is as if we are all Canaanites, all canines – if you can allow a little word play – but those crumbs from our master’s table are no less than crumbs of the Bread of Life, and all are invited.
All are invited, all are included
All are made welcome, none are excluded
This is the table of Christ
Come if you’re young, come if you’re old
Come if you’re broken, come if you’re whole
Come if you’re weary of the trials of life
This is the table of Christ.
(‘Words by Jonny Baker, taken from the book: ‘The Hospitality of God’ by Michael Perham).
The glorious insight from the Canaanite woman is that even she is worthy of receiving from the master, that there is no stranger in the Christian midst, only fellow guests, and that it is not ‘us’ who are the hosts in some patronizing and controlling way, but rather, Christ is the host, and we are all alike fallen, fragile, failed, but all equally worthy of receiving the bread of life, which is Christ himself.
There is something positive in the Judaeo –Christian tradition about the stranger in our midst – the xenos – and that stranger has a special place. As Abraham knew only too well, when he entertained strangers they turned out to be angels. We entertain angels unawares at times, so we must be vigilant always in our welcome of ‘the stranger’ – as Christ welcomes, so must his church. We are all too familiar with the Greek word xenophobia as it has slipped into the English language. Greek has a counterbalance also, and it is shown in living Greek hospitality – philoxenia. It is the human mirror image of the hospitality of God and a sign of his church’s presence in the world.
It is the playful balance between these two words that is so wonderfully illustrated in our gospel reading this morning, and it is in the end philoxenia that is the divine choice, Christ’s way, and it should be our way. There is no stranger – only someone we have not introduced ourselves to yet; there is no Canaanite, no Caleb (other than in the window) and no dog – though often enough in churches we have plenty of underdogs. All are invited to eat of the master’s table.
The Canaanite woman calls Jesus ‘Lord’. Kyrie eleison, Kyrie boethe, Nai Kyrie – Lord have mercy; Lord help; yes Lord. It is those who call to the Lord for mercy, for help, in faithful honour, who have got the real message of the mission of Christ our Lord.
And her daughter was healed instantly.