20 August 2017
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 15A (RCL)
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
The incident of Jesus confronted by the Gentile woman makes us uncomfortable: surely Jesus would never have been so rude, right? He essentially calls this woman a dog, a deep insult. Both Matthew and Mark include the event, so it is likely Matthew copied it from Mark. Both also include a double set of miracles of sea crossing and feeding in the wilderness. This miracle happens between the second sea crossing and feeding.
Mark organizes a major chunk of his narrative material around these paired miracles, setting a major portion of his Gospel as a new Exodus and wilderness journey. Significantly, the first miracle after the first sea crossing (in both Mark and Matthew) is the exorcism of Legion. The demons enter a herd of pigs which plunges over the cliff into the sea, reminding us of the destruction of Pharaoh’s army. Scholars have seen the miracles sandwiched between the sea crossing and the feeding as people crossing dangerous social boundaries (by baptism) and entering table fellowship.
Both Mark and Matthew relate that in the second sea crossing, Jesus is not in the boat, but appears as a ghost. I believe that this series of miracles represents a shift that took place in the community after Jesus death and resurrection. Peter’s walking on the water lines up with Paul’s confrontation with him in Galatians 2. Initially he had the courage to step out and dine with Gentiles, but when certain men from James arrived, he withdrew and would only eat with Jews.
Matthew connects the healing of the Gentile woman’s daughter with a declaration that all foods are clean. He moves it from its place in Mark as part of a longer argument, and prefaces the healing with it. For Matthew, the question is clearly table fellowship. Who is clean and what food is clean? In the teaching about food, Jesus declares that it is not something on the outside that determines purity, but attitudes of the heart.
The story of the Canaanite woman puts that statement to the test. If it is only what comes from the heart that defiles a person, does that hold with a Gentile? Clearly, the shift was not an easy one to make. Jesus repeats an instruction he gave to his disciples: I came only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But, then, lest we should forget the issue is table fellowship, he retorts with a statement about food: it is not right to take the children’s (Israel’s) food, and throw it to the dogs.
In good cynic fashion, she turns the insult back on Jesus: “Yes, sir, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Read this as, “You must be awfully stingy, and not very nice to your dogs, if you won’t let them eat the scraps.” Ouch. Jesus’ mind is changed. Nevertheless, she persisted.
I noticed something about his passage that I had never paid attention to before. This occurs very shortly after the first feeding in the wilderness, at which the disciples collected twelve baskets of left-over fragments. That detail should be jarring, because Moses clearly instructed people in the wilderness not to collect extra manna. It rotted overnight. We are never told what becomes of those baskets of fragments. As a narrative detail, it begs for explanation. Here is the resolution. There is more than enough manna in Jesus to feed all the people in the wilderness with twelve baskets left over (one for each tribe). Hospitality can be extended to the other. She begs only the crumbs, and that opens the door.