Weekly Bible Reflection
Matthew's Communities of Justice
Sundays after Trinity (9)
Matthew 15, [10-20] 21-28 :
"Justice instead of Prejudice"
Begin by using the Bible Study method as outlined
Have you or your Christian community ever been asked for help by people of another race or culture? What were they asking for? Did you consider them to be a nuisance?
Reflection on the text
This short gospel story is packed with explosive power around the theme of exclusion and embrace as a female foreigner, desperate for her daughter’s release from demonic powers, persistently confronts Jesus.
Tyre and Sidon don’t appear far from Galilee on a map, but they were, and still are, in a foreign land. Jesus has left Israel and taken the disciples into Gentile country. Nowadays, we know it as Lebanon. The ministry of the disciple community has begun to reach beyond its Jewish exclusivity. Here, two very different social worlds meet.
A Syro-Phoenecian (Canaanite or Palestinian) woman approaches Jesus and immediately issues of race, nationality, ethnicity, gender and religion are apparent.
From the time when Joshua led the Israelites into the Promised Land, they understood that it was to be theirs alone and that they could ‘ethnically cleanse’ the land of its native residents (Hivittes, Hittites etc.) or at least enslave them. (See Joshua 3v10, 5v12, 16v10, 17v18). Does this sound familiar?
Breaking with all convention, the woman initiates a conversation with Jesus. Gender and racial prejudice come to the fore. The disciples dismiss her cries as those of an interfering beggar. Even Jesus ignores them at first. He is wrestling with all the negative stuff he had been fed in his upbringing as a Jewish male?
Displaying an extraordinary degree of faith (cf 8v13 and 9v22), she begs for mercy. Jesus responds by saying that his duty of mercy is confined to his own people, thus revealing a surprising degree of ethnocentricity. But her courage, faith and conviction that the God of Israel, the God of the whole creation, must also offer mercy, justice and healing to her, finally wins Jesus over. Through sheer persistence the woman’s daughter is healed. But, more remarkably, there is a breakthrough in understanding that God’s mercy and love knows no bounds.
some questions for group discussion:
- How open are you and your Christian community to learning from others? Share some examples of such learning.
- Can you think of surprising examples of faith in people who are not Christian?
- Who are the people crying out for mercy in your town, city or neighbourhood?
What is the nature of the justice which they demand?
How might you as a community respond to their cries?
- In what ways do people of other faiths, ethnicity, nationality or sexual orientation challenge your community boundaries? What might that say about your community’s understanding of God?
Say the Lord’s Prayer, pausing at “forgive us …” to name the prejudices which have been revealed by the discussion. After completing the prayer, go on to pray for the people and situations which challenge your community.
John Bell’s hymn, “Inspired by love and anger”, might be used as a prayer at this time. It’s available in Hymns Old and New (various editions – No 325 in Complete Anglican Hymns Old and New, 2000) and No 63 in Common Ground (published by Saint Andrew Press and used by the Iona Community).
More background information
- This passage has an important place in the life of the Christian church. This was probably an upper class Greek speaking Gentile woman. The late second century Clementine homilies name the woman Justa and her daughter Berenice. The story provided a rationale for the Gentile character of the early church. The Jews rejected Christ and so the treasure of the gospel was handed over to Gentiles.
- There was no love lost between the people of Galilee and Phonecia. Galilean peasants grew food for these wealthy cities and regarded them as oppressors. Jewish historian Josephus described the people of Tyre and Sidon as "notoriously our bitterest enemies."
- Jesus lived in a society where honour and shame mattered immensely. By responding to this woman’s pleas and engaging in conversation with her, Jesus placed himself in a position of equality with her in the eyes of everyone who witnessed the encounter. She broke a number of social taboos for the sake of her daughter.
- Mercy in the context of this passage (see also in Matt 9 v 9-13) means a willingness to pay back one’s debts of interpersonal obligation to God and fellow humans. (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, by Malina and Rohrbaugh, Fortress Press 2003)
- Mercy is to take precedence over the offering of sacrifice (worship), as in the parable of Matt 5 v 23-24.
- See also Micah 6 v 6-8.