Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Faith of a Foreigner

We are a “Track Two” parish, which means that we read the second of the optional Old Testament readings on the Sundays after Pentecost. That is a feature of the Revised Common Lectionary. Track Two is closer to the old Episcopal lectionary, which pulls in Old Testament readings that theoretically tie in thematically with the other readings. Track One, on the other hand, is also known as the option with “semi-continuous readings” because its Old Testament readings move more or less straight through a particular part of the Hebrew Bible. This year (Year A), those readings have been in Genesis. Some of the greatest stories of the bible are found in Genesis, and there have been several weeks this summer when I have read the Track One option with moderate preacher’s envy as I dream of preaching on a text that isn’t ours. This Sunday, however, I’m grateful for Track Two.

In Isaiah 56, the prophet declares,

And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant--these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

I doubt that Sunday morning is the right time for a sermon about the development of Judaism during the Babylonian exile, but it’s worth mentioning here that the words of Isaiah 56 reflect some substantial theological shifts that occurred during and after the period when the people of Judah were separated from their homeland and their temple. These were surprising words for a people who had been ransacked by foreigners. This was quite a turn from the days when the Lord asked his people to kill every man, woman, child, and animal that dwelt in the land they were coming in to occupy. This is a new teaching—not just to accept the foreigner living in your land but to include foreigners in the ritual temple worship—the religious cult that had always been exclusively Israelite. At some point during their darkest hour, God’s people recognized that the vision of that great day when God’s reign would be established across the earth incorporated the participation of foreigners in the religion of Israel.

But not just any foreigner would be included. Only those who “join themselves to the Lord” in a faith that is defined by loving the Lord’s name, serving him, keeping the sabbath, and holding fast the covenant would be accepted. What sort of foreigner might this be? Who might qualify? And, more importantly, when would this great day ever be accomplished? When would God’s house truly be a “house of prayer for all peoples?”

One day, when he withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon, Jesus was met by a Canaanite woman who came to him seeking help for her demon-possessed daughter. At first, he ignored her. Then, when pestered by his annoyed disciples, Jesus declared that he was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Finally, the woman came to him, begging for help, and he dismissed her as one would shoo away a stray dog. But the woman had faith—enough to see that salvation’s crumbs that fall from Israel’s table were all that she needed. And Jesus honored that faith by giving her what she wanted and by praising her for her faithfulness.

Times change. Sixty years ago, a black man could not even sit at a southern lunch counter. Now, we have a black president. Ninety-five years ago a woman did not have the right to vote. Now, women’s votes are courted by every national candidate. One hundred fifty years ago our nation was divided over whether a human being could be owned by another. What about five hundred years ago? What about two thousand years ago? What about four thousand years ago?

The tension that makes Sunday’s gospel reading worthwhile is the friction between the expected faithlessness of the Canaanite woman (reflected in Jesus’ treatment of her) and the surprising discovery of real faith within her (reflected in her statement about gathering up the crumbs). To ask why Jesus was so cruel to her is, in a way, to miss the point. He was supposed to ignore her. She wasn’t supposed to get it. Jesus’ treatment of her isn’t as much about Jesus’ internal motives as it is about society’s expectations of a Canaanite woman. He needed to treat her like that in order for us to marvel at her faithfulness. Whether there was a part of Jesus who knew exactly what would happen isn’t important. We need him to be surprised because we need to be surprised. The woman’s faith is that unbelievable. Like God’s inclusion of the foreigner, her faith is so remarkable that no initial treatment is too harsh—no comparison is too degrading. We must inhabit that place of shocking inclusion by starting from the shocking reality that we shouldn’t be included either. But, by God’s grace, we are. 

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