Williamstown Uniting Church
20th of August, 2017
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Australia is a land of drought and flooding rains; of bushfires and cyclones and the occasional earthquake. We know the pain of the death and destruction caused by natural disasters, and so we can imagine the pain of others around the world when the natural environment seems to attack them. This week a mudslide in Sierra Leone is thought to have killed at least 300 people. The death tolls from our natural disasters are usually nowhere near that number, but we can empathise with the feelings of the people affected.
As Australians we have much less experience of the death and destruction caused by war and terrorism. In world terms our country is safe. Earlier this week the siege of a cafe by suspected al-Qaeda militants in Burkina Faso killed almost twenty people. Among my community at Bossey in Switzerland were a couple of men from Burkina Faso, so as soon as I heard the news I thought of them and I was extremely relieved to learn that they were alright and saddened for their country. This week there was also a terrorist attack in Barcelona, with 14 people dead and 130 people injured, including two Australians. Our response to this sort of human violence has an extra layer of outrage to it, even when the death toll is less than that caused by a natural disaster, and so it should. Human beings are made in the image of God, and so the killing of humans by other humans is blasphemy. Natural disasters don’t target people; wars and terrorism do, and so they always raise questions about how and why human beings can do something so utterly unnatural as to kill their fellow human beings.
The violence that caused me the most outrage this week happened in Charlottesville, in the United States. ‘Only’ one person died, although I have to put that ‘only’ in inverted commas, and yet I am angrier about it than about the events in Burkina Faso and Barcelona. That’s because some of the people who committed the violence in Charlottesville, who marched with torches shouting “Blood and soil,” a Nazi slogan, and “Jew will not replace us,” were people like me, white Christians. The President who took two days to condemn them and then said that there was fault on both sides was, according to exit polls, voted into office by white Christians. It was the faith that I hold that they were perverting, and the cultural background that I have that they were claiming to protect, and I take that personally.
Christianity has an appalling history of racism and antisemitism, which we’ve had to apologise for. The Uniting Church in Australia apologised to indigenous members of the church in 1994 and in response to that apology the Chairman of the United Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress reminded us that: ‘Your ancestors came to us in different ways and we saw little of our caring God in them. They did not come to us as God’s will would dictate, but to dispossess us, take our children, rape our women, kill our men and boys and destroy our culture, reject our values and beliefs and ultimately claim our lands as their own.’ In 2009 the Uniting Church Assembly agreed to a statement ‘Jews and Judaism’ in which we acknowledged ‘that antisemitism in all its expressions is an affront to the gospel of Jesus Christ’ and repented that ‘an anti-Judaism … developed in Christianity creating fertile ground for the spread of antisemitism culminating in the Shoah (Holocaust)’. Throughout history Christians have been racist and anti-Semitic, but racism and antisemitism are perversions of the gospel.
Look at today’s readings. The story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman is the story of Jesus over-coming his own racism. Until the very end of the story Jesus behaves in a way that I’d describe as sexist and racist, and normally those are some of the last words I can imagine using about him. But as a thirty-something Jewish man, accosted in public by a loud Canaanite woman, Jesus is behaving completely properly. He first ignores this noisy, disruptive woman, and discourages his disciples, who suggest that he send her away by just giving her what she wants, with a bit of wisdom that no one could question: ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’. Then, forced to engage with this woman because she has the temerity to approach him and kneel before him pleading, he rejects her: ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,’ basically calling her a ‘bitch’.
Some commentators have suggested that Jesus was just testing this woman’s faith, which seems to me to be unbearably cruel. A Jesus who tests the faith of a desperate mother like this is no better than a Jesus who turns away from her because she’s a Canaanite, one of the indigenous people of the country, one of the enemies of Israel. Either way this is not the Jesus we know. The simplest explanation of this story is that Jesus, as someone born fully human, had learned the same sort of prejudices that we all learn, in this case the prejudices against an indigenous woman who does not share his faith. Then, in his encounter with her, Jesus heard something that made him change his mind.
The argument that the woman makes is a clever one. She doesn’t challenge Jesus’ characterisation of her and her people as dogs when compared to the children of Israel. She doesn’t demand that Jesus treat her as an equal of his own people. Instead she takes up Jesus’ use of the description ‘dogs’ and turns it to her benefit: ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table’. There is room for even the Gentiles at the feast of the kingdom. The Jews may come first, but there is a place for Gentiles, too, at the banquet. And Jesus accepts her argument: ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’
Jesus’ first response to this woman might have been dismissive and cruel, but we need to give him credit for being able to recognise the truth when he heard it, even if the speaker was a Canaanite. He was able to listen to someone that other people would have ignored, and he then chose to act compassionately in a situation where no one would have blamed him for simply moving on. Because of this, Jesus was converted to a larger vision of God’s kingdom and a fuller revelation of his mission. His powers were not given to him only for the Jews, but for the Gentile world too. Earlier in the gospel Matthew described Jesus as fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy about the coming of the Messiah in whose name the Gentiles will hope. (Matthew 12:21) Here we see that prophecy in action, as Jesus the first-century Jewish male is challenged and converted by a determined Canaanite woman. One of the things Christians learn from Jesus is that God’s love and care is infinitely more inclusive and extensive than even he first thought; that neither race not gender nor faith makes a difference.
Then we have today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans in which he reflects on the position of Jews who do not become Christians. For centuries the church not only demanded that all Jews convert to Christianity, in an utter misreading of the gospels they blamed those Jews who didn’t convert for the death of Jesus. We know where that led to – the Holocaust. And there is absolutely no justification for Christian antisemitism. Jesus was a Jew, the Twelve were all Jews, the Apostle Paul was a Jew. Paul himself points that out in today’s passage: ‘I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.’ He follows Jesus while remaining all these things. Paul also points out that the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. With the coming of Christ, Israel remains beloved of God; the change is that Gentiles now find ourselves beloved too. And we Gentiles have no reason to exalt ourselves over Jews. Everyone, Jews and Gentiles, have been disobedient, and all of us have received God’s mercy.
At the heart of both today’s readings is the remarkable, inclusive, compassion and love of God; a love and mercy that goes beyond any limits we humans try to create. Jesus realises that God has sent him to Gentiles as well as Jews; Paul reminds Gentiles that God’s love of Israel continues. Christianity asserts that every single human being on the face of the planet is made in the image of God and so is to be treated with respect and love, regardless of race or religion or gender or nationality or sexuality or age or abilities. In the face of every single human being we see the face of Jesus. And so there is never any excuse for racism or sexism or religious discrimination. But we are only human and so we might, like Jesus, discover that we have been narrow-minded and discriminatory. Then we need to follow Jesus’ example, learn from those who challenge us, and change our ways. The God who is merciful to all will forgive us. Amen.