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Who Is Listening?

Sunday, August 20, 2023 – Pentecost 12

By the Rev’d Canon Andrea Budgey

Readings: Isaiah 56.1, 6-8; Psalm 67; Romans 11.1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15.21-28

Photo by Eric Mok. From

          A few years ago, youth delegates to Toronto’s diocesan Synod were given purple T-shirts with “Jesus loves you” on the front. I thought that was a bit too obvious to be clever, until I saw the back: “But I’m his favourite”. And that did make me laugh, because there, in a nutshell, is the whole problem of exceptionalism: the idea that other people, other countries, other ethnic groups, other faiths, may be all very well, but there’s something deeply special about your own group, something that makes you that little bit better than anyone else. It’s an idea expressed very clearly in a phrase like “chosen people”, but it’s common to almost every human grouping, and while it almost certainly developed, in the first instance, as a survival mechanism, in response to scarcity of resources, it obviously persists in situations which have nothing at all to do with survival, and everything to do with a taste for domination.

            All our readings today address the idea of exceptionalism in some way. The alternative Old Testament reading, which will be read in most parishes, is part of the story of Joseph and his brothers, a set-up for the story of the Exodus, an explanation of the existence of different tribal groupings within that larger “family,” part of the founding myth of the people of Israel, and of their own particular relationship with God. It was almost certainly written a very long time after the period in which the events it describes were meant to have happened, and intended to account for a later state of political affairs. The reading we heard, from Isaiah, offers a far more inclusive vision of God’s house as “a house of prayer for all peoples,” and foreshadows both our epistle and Gospel.

            These are the two streams of inheritance which Paul is wrestling with, in his epistle to the Romans. To account for the obvious misfortunes which have befallen God’s chosen people throughout history – exile and colonization – he pursues the narrative of disobedience, a thread which runs through most of the historical and prophetic books of the Hebrew scriptures. The chosen people of God, in this long and complex saga, have fallen short of their special covenant with God, which is why they have been subjected to violent conquest and the rule of other people. The good news of the Gospel, for Paul, is that a new covenant of faith in Jesus can not only restore the chosen people to their rightful relationship with God, but can also invite other, historically unrelated, people into that relationship, to be gathered on God’s holy mountain, as Isaiah expresses it.

          It is our reading from Matthew’s Gospel, though, which plays with this idea in what I think is the most dramatic and interesting way. So far, Jesus has been carrying out his ministry of teaching and healing among the population of Palestine, but now he takes himself and his disciples to the alien territory of Tyre and Sidon, and it’s no surprise that a woman who is not Jewish approaches him. In Mark’s version of the story, she’s referred to as a Syro-Phoenician, which would have been a more current term, but Matthew chooses to call her a Canaanite, which harks back to the period of the Exodus. It’s as if we were to refer to a Swedish person as a Viking, or a Scottish person as a Celt – it’s something which does happen, but usually because the speaker is trying to make a historical or cultural point. Whatever Matthew may have intended by choosing to call the woman a Canaanite, this name actually serves to draw our attention to the fact that she is a descendant of the people who lived in Palestine before the people of Israel came to dominate that part of the world – the Indigenous people of the region.

            Most contemporary commentary on this Gospel is obsessed with whether Jesus was simply testing the woman, or whether she was teaching him something about radical inclusion, which then influenced the rest of his ministry. It’s not an unimportant question, because it speaks to the relationship between the human and divine natures of Jesus, and the extent to which they informed one another, but I don’t think it’s either fully answerable or really crucial to our learning something from the story. It’s important to stop and notice, though, because at first glance this encounter makes Jesus look like a racist, and the discomfort of that is important for us not simply to brush away. So let’s analyse a bit more closely: Jesus has deliberately come to Tyre and Sidon, an area with a very diverse population, with what people would have thought of as his “Jewish” ministry – he has put himself in a situation where such an encounter is very likely. The woman is clearly a person of courage – she steps over the cultural constraints of race and gender which would ordinarily have prevented any kind of exchange between them – and she knows enough to call him “Son of David”, which is a distinctively Jewish title of respect. He lets his disciples speak out of the cultural assumptions of the society which formed them, and even suggests himself that his mission in the region is only to the Jewish population. The language he uses, comparing “children” and “dogs”, comes out of the same kind of xenophobic vocabulary, but by speaking to the woman directly, he is also treating her as someone worthy of being debated with, an equal of sorts, in spite of the prohibitions against Jewish men speaking to women not directly related to them. And she rises to the challenge, not by asserting her rights in opposition to that language, but by seizing it and turning it to serve the purposes of her desperation. And as a result, Jesus makes it clear to the onlookers that she has “won” her daughter’s healing.

            There are several times in John’s Gospel when Jesus addresses God in public (at the raising of Lazarus, for example), and says, quite explicitly, that he is speaking out loud not for God’s benefit, because God always hears him, but so the onlookers will understand what is happening. I think we can apply a similar sort of lens to Matthew’s story of the Canaanite woman – if Jesus had simply sent her home to find her daughter healed, her life would still have been transformed, but the disciples and the other witnesses to the encounter would have learned very little. The Gospels are an enacted theological drama, and it’s crucial to ask, on every level, “Who is listening?” Who are the characters in the story, and what are they meant to learn? What community was this scripture written for, and how were they to be changed by it? Who hears this story now, and what do we hear? In our own context, for example, we can think about the seizure of land from Indigenous people, and notice that the very concrete “bread” in their story – the natural resources of the region – is rightfully theirs, not to be begged back from an invading power. We can think about how crucial it is for anti-racism to be articulated and enacted clearly, and not simply assumed. And we can be reminded, finally, how dangerous and corrosive the posture of exceptionalism is, how ready to deny marginalized people even those crumbs of survival and comfort and dignity which might fall to them, and learn always, like those first disciples, to examine our own loyalties and assumptions in the light of God’s perfect justice and unconditional, universal, love.