Proper 15

August 17, 2014
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Genesis 45:1-15
Reading 2: 
Psalm 133
Reading 3: 
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-31
Reading 4: 
Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28
By Russell Pregeant

In Matthew 13:53-16:12, the reader encounters a spectrum of responses to Jesus. In 13:53-58, he is rejected in his hometown of Nazareth, and in 15:1-19 and 16:1-12 we find scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees in bitter disputes with him. On the positive side, the people of Gennesaret (14:34-36) show seemingly unqualified faith in him as healer, as do the crowds along the Sea of Galilee (15:29-31). And, once again, we find the disciples in an ambiguous position. In the account of Jesus’ second miraculous feeding of the multitudes (15:32-38), they shown no more faith or understanding than they did in the first instance (14:13-21); and when he warns them against the “yeast” of the Pharisees in 16:5-12, he has to upbraid them yet again as persons of “little faith”—although, in the end, they do in fact understand what he means (16:12). In the midst of these varying responses, we find the two passages that comprise this Sunday’s gospel lesson: Jesus’ explanation of what does and does not defile a person (15:10-20) and the story of the Canaanite woman’s plea for Jesus’ help (15:21-28). The latter illustrates “great” faith (15:28), which the reader will have to contrast not only with the lack of faith on the part of the Jewish leaders but also with the disciples’ “little faith.” And of course the implicit message in all of this is an invitation to imitate “great” rather than “little” faith.

Jesus’ statement in v. 26, in which he refers to Canaanites as “dogs” and seems to be denying the woman’s request for help, has quite understandably raised difficult questions for interpreters. One needs to understand this pericope in terms of Matthew’s sense of salvation-history, however. Although the gospel ends with an unambiguous and resounding endorsement of the mission to the Gentiles (28:16-20), Matthew is particularly sensitive to Israel’s claim to its status as God’s chosen people. The limitation of Jesus’ mission to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (which probably means the people collectively, rather than merely the apostates among the populace) has already been stated definitively in 10:5, where Jesus sends the twelve out with this explicit command: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” This restriction, moreover, is not lifted until 28:16-20, after the resurrection, which means that Jesus’ initial mission (and that of his followers) was in Matthew’s eyes indeed limited to Israel. That said, however, there are exceptions to the rule, which serve to anticipate the eventual extension of the mission to all humankind. The present passage is one of these exceptions, and it is particularly important in this regard in that the woman actually worships Jesus. The healing of the centurion’s servant is another exception, and it is important for Jesus’ contrast between the centurion’s faith and that of the Israelites themselves that includes an explicit anticipation of the influx of the Gentiles (8:10-12).

The application of the term “dogs” to Gentiles in this Sunday’s reading is a function of this salvation-historical perspective. Its force is determined not only by the contrast with “children,” but also by the woman’s reply in v. 27. The “children,” of course, are the Israelites who have a certain prerogative in God’s scheme; and the “dogs” are the Gentiles, who do not share this prerogative but are in various ways in Jewish thought granted secondary access to the benefits of salvation. It is this secondary access on which the woman counts. Although accepting the Jewish prerogative, she points out that even dogs are entitled to the scraps left by children. And her statement reinforces what is already implicit in the specific Greek noun used for “dog.” It is not kuon, which would apply to a street dog, but kunarios, which refers to a house-dog—the only sort of dog that would have access to table scraps. Although Jesus does not comment directly on her retort, his commendation of her “great faith” and his granting of her request imply acceptance, which is perfectly in accord with Matthew’s history of salvation: Jesus’ mission is to Israel, but the proclamation made in his name is to all people.

Many interpreters are intrigued by the fact that the woman seems to be in control here, changing Jesus’ attitude. If we view the matter from the perspective of Matthew’s original readers, however, we can see something else at work. It is not exactly that Jesus is “testing” the woman’s faith, as some have claimed, but rather that the narrator is educating the reader. We have no reason to think that Matthew’s Jesus, who has already healed the servant of a Centurion without objection, does not know from the beginning that Gentiles will eventually be included in God’s promises. It may be different, however, with the reader. It is likely that Matthew was written for a community that was largely Jewish in makeup and either not entirely separated, or only very recently separated, from the synagogue. It was thus, in either case, a community very much “on the margin” between two religious communities; and it will therefore have had many readers not entirely on board with the Gentile mission. For such readers, Jesus’ initial reluctance would have the crucial function of affirming Israel’s prerogative, whereas his eventual compliance would (together with the story of the Centurion) lay the groundwork for the unrestricted proclamation in 28:16-28. Rather than reporting a change in Jesus’ consciousness, the story would thus be a device for heightening the readers’ consciousness.

We should not, however, ignore the counter-cultural significance of the passage. The main actor in the story is after all not Jesus himself but a doubly marginalized person in ancient Israelite society, as a woman and a Canaanite. If she does not change Jesus’ consciousness, she initiates an important exception in his stated policy and momentarily re-directs the course of his mission. And for Jesus not only to accept her request but to commend her faith as “great” (greater than that of the disciples!) is implicitly to elevate the status of women and challenge the prejudice against Gentiles.

The optional verses, 10-20, offer an opportunity to reinforce the counter-cultural element in 21-28 by connecting the woman’s Canaanite ethnicity to the issue of clean and unclean and Jesus’ willingness to break with tradition in the form of the teaching of the Pharisees. Alternatively, one could focus on vv. 10-20 in connection with vv. 1-9, which provide the background for Jesus’ proclamation that nothing outside a person can defile. In any case, his internalization of the notion of pollution would be a good launching pad for sermons exposing the hypocrisies and outmoded assumptions behind our contemporary delineations of clean and unclean (whether conscious or unconscious) with respect to differences in race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, or culture.

In the Genesis passage, the long and tension-filled story of Joseph and his brothers comes to an end. The high point, theologically speaking, is in vv. 4-8, in which Joseph makes the point that God has been at work in this saga, even through the evil intentions of human beings. Although his brothers sold him into slavery, it was God who actually sent him to Egypt in order to prepare for troubles to come and preserve them. And their preservation was of course a crucial link in the larger drama stretching from the promise to Abraham, through the exodus, to the entrance into the Promised Land. It is problematic, however, that some of the language in this passage could be taken to mean that God actually engineered the evil actions of the brothers. And any sermon from a progressive theological perspective needs to guard against taking such a suggestion literally. It is one thing to believe that God can work for the good through human misdeeds; it is something else to put God in the position of “doing evil that good might come.”

A somewhat similar issue arises in the epistle lesson. In Romans 11, Paul brings to conclusion his long and tortured attempt to make sense of majority Israel’s non-acceptance of Jesus as Messiah in light of God’s promises. In 11:1-2a, he asks whether God has in fact rejected Israel and answers with a definite negative. In the course of the chapter, he reiterates some of his arguments in chapters 9-10 to the effect that Israel’s “stumbling” resulted in the “grafting in” of the Gentiles (11:11-16), makes it clear that in the end “all Israel” will be saved (11:25-27), and concludes with a resounding declaration of God’s mercy in 11:33-36. This Sunday’s selection, situated between the last two elements, proclaims God’s calling to be irrevocable and then lectures Gentiles on how God’s mercy toward them is a result of Israel’s disobedience. V. 32 sums the matter up: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience that he may be merciful.” By now, the readers will know that both Jews and Gentiles have access to salvation, even though the latter sinned apart from the law and the former sinned under the law (1:18-3:31). For righteousness before God comes through faith/faithfulness rather than through obedience to the law. The problem with how Paul plays out this scenario, however, is that it makes God responsible for Israel’s misdeed and in doing so seems to undermine human responsibility with a deterministic approach to both history and individual action. This is clearly not something that a progressive, most especially a process-relational theological perspective, can understand literally. His belief that “all Israel will be saved” (v. 26) also seems to involve a deterministic perspective, but it remains important as an indication that Paul is not at all willing to concede that the chosen people’s non-acceptance of Jesus will have an ultimately tragic outcome. It is unfortunate that this verse is not included in the reading, since it—more than any other verse in chapter 9-11—expresses Paul’s confidence that God has not in fact abandoned God’s people. I believe that any sermon on this Sunday’s epistle selection should stress this point and find ways to work around, or propose alternatives to, the deterministic aspects of Paul’s reasoning.

Psalm 133 is a beautiful celebration of the closeness, both geographical and emotional, of family and clan life, which probably came to be used in connection with communal worship. It could thus be the basis for a sermon on the family or on the familial aspects of religious community. It could also be used in connection with the gospel and epistle readings to express the hope that a diverse community, bound together in Christ, might also experience such a sense of harmonious unity. The Jewish-Gentile divide is no longer an issue in the Church, but other aspects of diversity are!


Russell Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus, at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts and Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, he has served as Associate Pastor at Rayne Memorial U.M.C. in New Orleans and as interim pastor in Carter Memorial U.M.C. in NeedhamMassachusetts. He is the author of several books, including Knowing Truth, doing Good: Engaging New Testament Ethics, and Christology Beyond Dogma: Matthew's Christ and Process Hermeneutic, and Mystery without Magic, which is a basic introduction to process thought. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University Ph.D., 1971), Yale DivinitySchool, (S.T.M., 1963), Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University (B.D., 1962), and Southeastern LouisianaUniversity (B.A., 1960).