Texts: Isaiah 56:1, 6-8; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28
I wonder what it’s like to be a prophet. I don’t mean the ones who stand on a stage with a microphone and share strong opinions with anyone who will listen. And I don’t mean those influencer kind of people who work behind the scenes to gain control over what the general public thinks.
I mean the kind of prophet that Isaiah was. The kind of person who gets an unexpected summons to God’s service, and realizes from the get-go that working for the Almighty is never going to be a walk in the park. God, in HR terms, has very poor work-life boundaries.
There’s no telling when God is going to call, or what God is going to do. The very words “Thus says the Lord” in a prophet’s ear is a piercing alarm that can’t be ignored. And no matter what God gives you to say, someone isn’t going to like it and some people will take offense for sure.
Chapter 56 of Isaiah records the time when Israel was preparing to return to Jerusalem after 50 plus years of exile in Babylon. On the surface, this is a pep talk from the tribe’s most recognized prophet. Isaiah was not most the popular prophet, mind you. But he was the most determinedly faithful bearer of God’s word in that time. When God spoke to Isaiah, he was fully accountable.
The scripture lesson today begins with God’s friendly reminder of the grand old covenant between God and Israel. Maintain justice! Do what is right! I am coming soon to save and deliver my people. Thus says the Lord. For God this is a pretty tame message, completely in line with the terms of the agreement to be Israel’s Defender in return for their faithful belief.
But just a few verses later everything goes off the rails. What comes out of Isaiah’s mouth is unthinkable! Foreigners may join God’s service? What? God is calling non-Jews to the holy mountain? (Which means Jerusalem, by the way…) And they will love the Holy name of God? Wait, it’s the work of God’s chosen children to keep the Sabbath, to bring burnt offerings and sacrifices. Now God says that foreigners can enter the Jerusalem Temple with gifts, and their prayers will be heard?
This is an unexpected wrinkle for the returnees. God calls the honored sons and daughters of David. God might be forgiven for going after the dishonored sons and daughters who were cast out of the tribe for various transgressions of God’s Law. After all, they’re still technically God’s children. And, they may have some talents useful in the rebuilding of Jerusalem… But now God has thrown open the door to anyone who calls on God’s name. No matter who they are or where they’ve been. And if God so loves…the world, then what’s the point of an exclusive covenant?
Had this prophecy come from any lesser light than Isaiah, it might have been buried in official correspondence, never to be heard again. But this! Straight from the mouth of God through the lips of Isaiah, to the ears of the Israelites. Things were going to change. And you can bet there was some very ugly murmuring about it. If you can’t count on God to keep the rules, who can you count on?
The question of who is acceptable to God and who is not is always a high-stakes game. It was going on in the Apostle Paul’s time too. Only this time the tables were turned.
Christians in Rome were struggling with the ejection of Jesus-followers from the synagogues by traditional Jews. Some Christians responded by saying that God had disowned the Jews after Jesus was betrayed into arrest and death by his own people. So the followers of Jesus began to consider themselves God’s new chosen community, honored with a new covenant.
Paul’s argument against this takes up many verses. Our reading today gives us the initial proposition, “…has God rejected his people? Far from it.” From there it skips to Paul’s summary argument: disobedience happens, no one is immune to it. The mercy is that God’s call and gifts, with both Jews and Gentiles, are irrevocable.
So, what does all this have to do with a Canaanite woman and her demon-wracked daughter? Can we say, everything? Because it does. In this part of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is on the move. Back and forth he goes, between furious engagements with diabolically clever opponents, and withdrawal for prayer and rest.
Jesus was looking for a break that day. Tyre and Sidon were beyond his mission field; possibly he thought the constant crowds wouldn’t cross the border. But a Canaanite woman came up to Jesus loudly calling, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented.” Shrieking is the best word for the noise she was making. It created quite a public spectacle.
Jesus made no response. Whatsoever. It has always puzzled biblical scholars. Since when was Jesus ever at a loss for words and so lacking in mercy? Was he that exhausted? And there’s another thing here. In saying nothing, Jesus created a wordless space. Perhaps even a prayer space.
But it was filled by the disciples, irritated with the shrieking Canaanite woman. The words that came out of their mouths were worse than silence which at least offers openness to something. “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” To which Jesus replied, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Was Jesus wrestling with whether his Messianic call might be to more than just Israel’s children? Jesus certainly knew Isaiah’s prophecy about God’s word of welcome beyond the children of Israel.
The woman knelt and spoke again. “Lord, help me.” As such, she claimed Jesus as her Lord and Savior. She believed in Jesus. The brief witty exchange between the Canaanite woman and Jesus about the fairness of children’s food being given to dogs establishes the woman’s commitment. She calls Jesus Lord for a third time, again choosing him as her master. She declares that a good master will see that even the most forgettable creatures do not go unfed. Calling her faith, great Jesus commended the woman and healed her daughter.
Only Matthew’s gospel gives this story. It explores the question of who is acceptable to God. The answer given by God through Isaiah, defended by Paul, tested by the Canaanite woman, and confirmed by Jesus is that God overcomes every border and boundary with mercy. And by this we are all set free. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.