Trinity 9 - The Canaanite woman's faith

A sermon preached at St George's by the Revd Ivo Morshead, 17 August 2014

Isaiah 56, 1-8; Romans 11 v 1-2a,29-32; Mt 15,21-28

Jesus left that place and went to Tyre and Sidon; Matt 15 v 21

The other day we bought a takeaway fish and chips at the Sainsbury’s Ladbroke Grove Store built alongside the canal. We walked round the corner from the shop leading to the footpath and found that all the canal side benches were occupied. There was just space on a small part of our favourite bench situated in the shade of a pleasant tree. On the bench already were two people, who I am ashamed to say at first sight, we regarded much as the people of Jesus’ time would have regarded Tyre and Sidon or a Canaanite. Namely with suspicion and caution when we asked them to make room for us. Once we got chatting, however, we were astonished at their erudition, kindness and consideration. It was the erudition  and faith of the Canaanite woman in today’s gospel that astonished the disciples and led Jesus to heal the woman’s daughter even though she was not part of the chosen people of God. It is good to be reminded of the biblical background to the attitude of the disciples and words of Jesus to the woman, especially at this present time with the terrible distrust often erupting in violence in the Holy Land.

The thrust of the Bible is God’s love and man’s response to this love. A very good summary of what is required of mankind in response to this love and care is contained in the first verse of today’s Old Testament lesson from the Prophet Isaiah (Is 56 v 1) Thus says the Lord; Maintain justice and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come and my deliverance be revealed.. The covenant relationship between God and his people, as with any relationship, has to work both ways. What we find in the Old Testament is the continual failing of the chosen people of God to maintain justice and do what is right. Right from the time of the Exodus when they built the idol of gold in the wilderness even while Moses was on the mountainside collecting the tablets of stone with the ten commandments, to the time of the prophets, human nature being what it is, they failed. However all through the bible is the promise of God’s salvation.

Why, though, does  Tyre and Sidon come into the picture as the first words of today’s gospel telling us that Jesus has gone to the district of  that name? It is to emphasise perhaps the unexpected worth of those regarded as being beyond the pale. How did Tyre and Sidon be branded as such? We can see this in the prophet Ezekial in the OT with his condemnation and threats against these two city states. In about 587 BC Jerusalem has fallen to the Babylonian king Nebuchadrezzar. The temple was utterly destroyed and the political leaders and educated classes exiled. At that time of the exile, as it was known, the attitude of Israel and the neighbouring city states to Babylon varied between, on the one hand complete cooperation, and on the other hand, outright hostility and opposition to the hated occupiers of Jerusalem. In today’s world events of unrest, violence and resistance with all its horrors, often substantial rewards can be found by those with an eye to the quick buck, selling of arms, breaking of sanctions, smuggling and so forth. The City state of Tyre sought such rewards and was regarded as a quisling as was its neighbour Sidon. Situated is roughly what is now The Lebanon, Tyre had enormous trades to the West across the Mediterranean and to East by land. As they continued to trade so freely they were regarded as having have switched to the Babylonian side to gain immunity from interruption in their amassing fortunes. Ezekiel thundered his wrath as recorded in Ezekiel 28 v 4 by your trade you have amassed wealth for and silver into your treasures and your heart has become proud in your wealth. The whole chapter rants on about their faults and wickedness. The details of Sidons iniquities are assumed to be the same but not listed, instead in verse 22 Ezekiel says to Sidon;. Thus says the Lord God I am against you. O Sidon. It for these reasons centuries later, as with the Irish and their folk memories of  The battle of the Boyne, any mention of Tyre and Sidon would still be a cause for national anger and resentment.

The fact that Jesus sets out for Tyre and Sidon is bad enough, the Gospel today immediately goes one step worse in the mention of the woman from Canaan. The word itself in Hebrew means a trader and was the word used to describe those who lived in or came from the Tyre and Sidon regions. It was for their trading and their skill that they became known also as Phoenicians. Hence we can see the insult of not only going to Tyre and Sidon, but also meeting and  conversing with a citizen of such hated regions. No wonder the disciples said to Jesus send her away, for she keeps shouting after us. Surprisingly Jesus appears at first to agree with the disciples, he remains silent and does not reply to the woman’s plea for the healing of her daughter, finally saying I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

We need to look to an earlier chapter of Matthew to see why the disciples would agree with those words. In Matthew chapter 10 Jesus summons his disciples, their 12  names are listed and then we read . These 12 Jesus sent out with the following instructions, Go nowhere among the Gentiles....but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, as you go proclaim the good news, the kingdom of heaven has drawn near. Ever since the time of Abraham and then Moses and the prophets, Israel had been the chosen people of God who by their example of obedience and holiness would lead all men to come to the ways of God. Ever since the beginning of biblical time, however, whilst God has been faithful to his covenant  of I will be your God if you will be my people, they have failed.  Todays epistle from Romans 11 is a reminder of how the prophet Elijah was hounded by King Ahab at he behest of the dreaded wife Jezebel because he had accused the Israelites of apostasy; Kings 19 v 10; you Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars killed your prophets by the sword.   As Christians we believe that God sent his only Son to be our Saviour. The Jewish people still await their saviour as they did in the time of Jesus, Jesus who came as saviour not just for the Chosen People but also, we believe, as evidenced throughout the New Testament, to all peoples, irrespective of their racial origin known in biblical times as gentiles.

It is so easy for us all, consciously or unconsciously, to put a label on people and have fear or prejudice as the disciples did with Tyre and Sidon and  the woman of Canaan. My wife and I did as such in a way when we hesitated to approach those two people on the bench outside Sainsbury’s because by their dress and appearance they did not appear to conform to people we would wish to be in contact for no particular reason. As it turned out, by the time we had finished our Fish and Chips we were the best of friends. Such was their courtesy  that when they spoke to each other about the cemetery at the other side of the canal they admitted to not speaking about the building opposite as the Chapel of Rest for non-conformists. When I told them what it was, they said that they thought that our advanced age we might be upset to be reminded of those who had gone before!
The world is and has been always suffering from the effects of prejudice. From the effects of labelling such as the massacre of Moslems by the Serbs in the 1990’s to the present day threats to Christians and non Moslems in Iraq and elsewhere. The solution to the present violence, hatred, and fear rests with politicians and statesmen. We can, however in our prayers for peace echo the words of the Canaanite woman to Jesus, Lord help me, and pray not only for peace in the world and an end to prejudice but also look to our own inner thoughts about others recalling the words of Jesus to the woman today: Woman great is you faith.
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