There is a very well known American Old Testament scholar called Walter Brueggemann. Some of you may have heard of him or read one of his books. Years ago he came to preach at the college in Cambridge where I was a tutor. I can still remember the twinkle in his eyes and the delicious – wicked – smile on his face. There was one moment in his talk when the twinkle got brighter and the smile got bigger. It was when he said – and then repeated ‘The Bible is subversive’. Of course he said that in a gentle Mid-western accent that I can’t emulate. But I still remember his remark; it has stayed with me ever since. And Brueggemann was right – I am sure that there are times when the Bible is deliberately subversive – wanting to make us, its readers, think hard and ask some difficult questions. A couple of weeks ago a number of us were looking at some of the more difficult passages in the Old Testament, especially from the Books of Joshua and Judges, and I think part of the way through the challenges is I think that the Bible actually wants us to find those passages difficult and ask ourselves some pointed questions.
This morning’s Gospel reading is I think another of those moments when the Bible may be being deliberately subversive. Today we were reading it in Matthew’s Gospel; a very similar story appears in the Gospel of Mark, though there the woman is referred to not as a Canaanite – but as a Syro-phoenician, which in the context of the New Testament meant more or less the same thing. Whatever she was precisely called, she was undoubtedly a ‘Gentile’ – someone who for all her undoubted faith in Jesus, notice how she calls him ‘Lord, Son of David’ – was viewed as an outsider, beyond the boundaries of the Jewish community both by the disciples and initially, at least, by Jesus. In fact she could have been described culturally as a triple outsider, a Gentile, a woman having to put herself forward in a world of men, and as the mother of a demon possessed daughter she would herself have been considered unclean.
Jesus’ first response to her feels discouraging. ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ – nor does it seem to address her needs at the human level. It is followed by that comment about not throwing the children’s bread to the dogs. The implication of the remark is that Jesus’ fellow Jewish coreligionists were the children – and Gentile outsiders ‘the dogs’. Admittedly it is sometimes pointed out that the form of the word for ‘dogs’ is a diminutive, perhaps therefore to be translated as ‘little dogs’. But would you like to be called a puppy or a chihuahua? Yet the woman’s perseverance is remarkable – and her repartee – picking up and using to her advantage Jesus’ metaphor of bread and dogs, results in Jesus’ appreciation of her faith, and the healing of her daughter.
However Jesus’ initial canine comments to the woman have understandably provoked much debate among commentators past and present, from both Christian interpreters and others. I was told of a Muslim scholar in Pakistan who argued on the basis of this passage that Jesus could not be a true prophet, because a true prophet would never be so rude. There is a Japanese Christian woman biblical scholar called Hisako Kinukawa, who has famously noted that the woman helped Jesus learn how to become Jesus, which is a very interesting thought. But it is not only people on the edge who find this particular passage difficult. About 20 years ago I was co-presenting the Radio Kent Lent course and this passage came up for discussion. My co-presenter was a lovely and holy Roman Catholic priest, Fr Wilfred McGreal, who was Prior of the Carmelite priory at Aylesford near Maidstone. In those days I was perhaps less outspoken than I would be now, so I was tiptoeing round this passage trying not to be too challenging in my comments. But Fr Wilf wasn’t having any of that and came out with shortly and sharply with ‘Jesus simply got it wrong in what he first said to this woman.’ When I listened to the tapes of the recording afterwards, I could pick up the sound of my sharp intake of breath resulting from my shock that Father Wilf, one of the holy ecumenical heroes around Kent was willing to say what he had just done so bluntly and so publicly on the radio.
What I think I myself would now want to say about this passage is that I do think of it as a moment when the Bible is being subversive. It is wanting to force us to ask questions, and to think things out for ourselves. Indeed one of the questions that it may be encouraging us to explore is indeed what does it mean to speak of Jesus Christ as ‘perfect God and perfect human being’? A human being who never had to learn anything or never felt that they had to learn anything might well be considered obnoxious rather than perfect. There is an important passage in the Epistle to the Hebrews that I think it is useful to draw on which comments of Jesus, ‘though he was a Son he learned obedience through what he suffered, and having been made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation’. Jesus’ life and ministry were a process, a process that led him eventually to his passion and cross, but in the course of which he learned and grew. In that sense Kinukawa may be right – that his encounter with the woman did help Jesus discover more about what it meant to be Jesus.
But I think that the story is also wanting to force us to explore another question – a question that was fundamental to the birth of the Christian church, and has been a question that has bedevilled (I choose that word deliberately) Christian history for the last 2000 years. And that is the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, between the Old Testament and the New, between God’s love for and working through the particularity of one people whom the Bible calls Israel, and God’s universal desire for the good of all humanity, indeed today I think we would say for the good of all creation.
It has been a question that has been extraordinarily difficult to address, partly because it is linked, as is so much in our world, to the issue of power. In the years immediately after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jesus’ followers, seemed to have considered themselves as a movement, a ‘way’ within Judaism and the primary concern that they needed to address was first how Gentiles as well as Jews could legitimately be followers of Jesus. Perhaps in fact it was the knowledge of Jesus’ own experience with the woman in our Gospel reading that forced the possibility of allowing Gentiles to become disciples and members of the Christian community. The next question was whether those Gentiles who wanted to follow Jesus Christ needed to adopt the practices and traditions of Judaism as part of the baggage of becoming Christian. But then fairly quickly the answer came that it was possible to be a follower of Christ without also being Jewish, and as a result Christianity began to distinguish itself as a separate faith from Judaism. Then the issue arose what about those – in fact the vast majority of Jewish people – who did not become Christian? What was and is their place in the purposes and economy of God? Do they, should they, have one? The continuing presence of Jews and Judaism became perplexing for many Christians. Why had they not disappeared? Surely they ought to have done, though just perhaps their continuance in a state of misery, enabled them to be a sort of reverse sign of the superiority of Christians and Christianity. And so the long history of Christian antisemitism began, accentuated by the centuries of Christian political dominance in Europe, and exemplified in Christian art by the contrasting figures of synagoga and ecclesia, the synagogue and the Church, depicted as two women, with Synagoga veiled and downtrodden and Ecclesia resplendidly triumphant.
All three of our scriptural passages today explore directly or indirectly this fundamental question of the economy of God, and the relationship between the particularity of God’s love of a people and a place and God’s cherishing of all. Our Old Testament reading offers a vision which seeks to hold together the importance of Jerusalem and its Temple, with the aspiration that all would be welcome there, indeed that it would become a house of prayer for all people. Our Epistle is taken from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, part of the three chapters, 9 to 11 where Paul, the church’s great missionary to the Gentiles, after setting out his fundamental theology of God’s work in Christ in Romans 1 to 8, and before turning to its ethical consequences in chapters 12 to 16, feels it essential to wrestle over the question of the relationship between the nascent Christian church and the Jewish faith in which he himself had been so deeply formed. ‘Has God rejected his people? By no means. For the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable’. The power and passion of Paul’s language at this point makes it transparent how perplexing an issue he found the question of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. I suspect that as with all the best theologians his head and his heart didn’t always agree. In fact I love the way that Paul concludes with the exclamation, ‘How unsearchable are God’s judgements and how inscrutable his ways’ which comes in the biblical text just after the verses we have read. It is as though after all his wrestling with this question of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism Paul finds it unanswerable by human minds and has to hand it back to the providence of God.
And finally to our Gospel reading, where Matthew, himself perhaps the most Jewish of all the Gospel writers, is also grappling with a similar dilemma. Matthew who can demand that not one jot or tittle of the Law shall pass away, yet also be profoundly critical of much contemporary Jewish legal practice. He can have Jesus insisting as here that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but yet also relate those words – and he is the only Gospel writer to do so – in which the people present at Jesus’ trial shriek out ‘his blood be on us and on our children’ which have acted through so much of Christian history as justification for mistreatment and persecution of Jews. Returning to my comment that ‘the Bible is subversive’, I think that part of that subversiveness is the way Matthew’s refusal to offer us any easy answers, forces us to ask ourselves some hard questions.
One thing I am sure of is that the relationship between Christianity and Judaism is both profoundly challenging and profoundly important. It certainly has implications for our world today. Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian, writing just after the end of the Second World War, suggested that the Christian relationship with Judaism is the most important ecumenical question of our time. One of the most significant documents that emerged from the Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate ‘In Our Age’, in 1965, sought to place the relationship between Christianity and Judaism on a new and positive footing. I was privileged to be involved with the celebrations in Rome in 2015 which marked the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate. A model of the sculpture on the cover of this week’s service sheet was presented at that time to Pope Francis. The original statue is at St Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. It depicts that traditional motif of Synagoga and Ecclesia. But this is Synagogue and Church with a difference and for our time, sitting together as sisters and studying together their respective scriptures, learning together and celebrating the heritage they and we share.
There is much more we could explore about the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, and if you have any questions or suggestions I invite you to contact me by email. But I conclude by referring to two items that will appear later in this service and which in their different ways can encourage us to reflect on the Christian debt to the heritage of Judaism. Both items are musical.
The first is the Magnificat, the song of Mary, which will be sung as our anthem. This song, placed by the Gospel of Luke in the mouth of Mary the mother of Jesus, draws on word for word and phrase by phrase many of the psalms and canticles that can be found in the Old Testament. The Magnificat is a song of liberation and it owes its insistence that God is going to transform this world precisely to the assurance of the Hebrew scriptures that God is a God of justice who will raise up the poor. When we as Christians sing the Magnificat we are implicitly celebrating our joint heritage with Judaism.
The second piece is not so well known. It is our final song. ‘You shall go out in joy’, and it is a musical setting of some verses from the end of Isaiah 55. I love the vivid imagery, typical of the Hebrew biblical tradition, which sings of the trees of the forest clapping their hands. The music is deliberately written in the idiom of traditional Jewish music from eastern Europe. It is in a minor key, perhaps reflecting the frequent suffering of many Jewish communities in such countries over several centuries. But the joy of the words and the key of the music complement each other to celebrate God’s care for the whole of human life, in sorrow and in joy.
The song has an especially powerful resonance for Alan and myself. In September 1990 a friend of ours Giles Ecclestone aged in his early 50s died of an aggressive form of liver cancer which was diagnosed only 4 weeks before his death. Giles was the vicar of a village near Cambridge and his funeral took place in his own church. In the brief weeks before his death he made the arrangements for his funeral. Harvest Festival was due to take place the following day so the church had been decorated with fruits and flowers in preparation: his funeral felt in some ways like a harvest of his ministry in that place. And at Giles’ instructions, at the end of the service his coffin was carried out for burial in the churchyard accompanied by the singing of this song. In spite of our tears, we honoured Giles final testament that he and we out should go out in joy, of course making sure that we clapped our hands as we did so.