Something for Sunday

Matthew 15: 10-28

Sometimes in our Bibles we have cross headings: Jesus walks on the sea last week, the five thousand fed a fortnight ago and so on. What heading might be given that would link the two parts of our gospel reading. In the first part there’s a discussion about what defiles someone and in the other Jesus encounters a foreign woman who importunes him for her daughter and earns Jesus’ praise for her great faith or perhaps for her sheer cheek. So what kind of cross-heading might we devise? Remember it’s got to unite both stories under one heading. How about this: The scandal of the gospel.

Scandal in the usage of the New Testament is something that is a difficulty-a stumbling block-an obstacle to belief or godly living. The old baptismal service used to say: Let no stumbling block be put in the way of this child. That doesn’t mean what I took it to mean when I was a child myself namely that a child can do what it likes-on the contrary it expresses the hope that the child will be well brought up and find no obstacle or difficulty in coming to faith in Jesus.  In this gospel Jesus says: “Blessed is he who is not scandalised by me”. In some modern translations this is rendered as “Blessed is he who takes no offence at me”. So in our gospel passage the Pharisees do take offence but the foreign woman does not take offence. And that’s a real surprise because Jesus calls her a dog. Well let’s not be mealy mouthed about it lets attempt a bit of paraphrase. She says; “Lord help me”. He says; “I’m not bothering with a foreign bitch like you”.

And she comes straight back at him with a disarming witty rejoinder. It’s as if she’s been on assertiveness training or attended a NHS course on how to handle difficult people. But the most important thing is that she’s not offended. The person and words of Jesus are no scandal to her.

The Pharisees are offended-scandalised by Jesus. The Pharisees have a point. Quite apart from considerations to do with e-coli covid 19 and mrsa it is good to wash ritually before meals. It reminds us as to who we are and what we are about. Besides it’s hallowed by tradition.

The disciples too are rather uncomfortable about this wholesale dismissal of a traditional religious practice. Almost offended.

But Jesus makes no concessions at all. He makes a joke, rather a dark one about blind guides. He insists that the central point is that we should live faithful and Godly lives and that questions of religious custom are secondary. No doubt the disciples continued to be somewhat sceptical. We’d be sceptical too!

Part of our trouble with all this is that we are aware that the cost of discipleship is a real cost. We’ve heard many sermons about that and no doubt we’ll hear more. Walking the way of the cross is the term that covers it all. The central symbol of the faith is the cross and the way of the cross is the way of suffering love. We all agree.

The difficulty is that the way of the cross is too easily confused with scrupulous religious observance. This is a confusion that religious professionals are always happy to indulge in.

It’s important not to misunderstand the Pharisees in these passages Easy to think of Jesus as confronting a worn out, failed religion which is about to be superseded by the gospel. Easy but dangerous. It’s unfair to the Pharisees historically and it also encourages anti-Semitic sentiments. Better by far to think of ourselves as the Pharisees and the debate as a debate within the first church. We all know from experience how often these debates are replicated in the modern church.

As for the Greek woman she is not offended. She has every reason to be offended but she is not offended. She won’t let Jesus go until he blesses her. Some have said that this is Jesus transcending the racism of his own background and that of the disciples.

In the end all I feel I want to express about this strange episode is surprise. Jesus is surprised and impressed. In Matthew he is surprised and impressed by her faith but in Mark’s version he is surprised and impressed by her wit and argumentation.

Rather than imposing an anachronistic meaning on these words let’s just be surprised, as Jesus was surprised. Perhaps the good news ought to surprise and perplex us more than it does. Be surprised. There’s a blessing in being surprised. And we are surprised. Why is Jesus so gratuitously offensive to this person? We know that the gospel with its radical demands will strike many as offensive but why is this?

Jesus says that those who are not scandalised by him are blessed just as the foreign woman was blessed. What might it mean for us to be blessed in this way? And what might it mean to be scandalised by Jesus and how do we suffer if we are.

You know there’s a great deal of the Pharisee in all of us and by us I don’t mean occasional visitors or outsiders. They are most welcome but they should be warned, they are in great danger-from the rest of us.  For we have a tendency to be offended by the radical freedom offered by Jesus, to reject the new wine and retreat into the old wineskins. To put in the place of the gospel a heavy religious superstructure devoted to the worship of a pitiless god who demands endless sacrifice. This god will really make you suffer. The good news of Jesus is that there is no such god.

We are offended by the notion that God doesn’t fit into the scheme into which we think he ought to fit. We want to make burdens for ourselves and for others because freedom is just too much for us. The real good news comes quietly, kindly and slowly. Blessed are those says Jesus who can receive this and are not offended.

Jesus does not offend the foreign woman. She is prepared to risk being offended. She’s not trapped inside a system of religious and social obligation as the Pharisees are. She’s prepared to cross a boundary, speak out of turn, risk a snub all for a great reward. How many of us would be willing to do that. The prize is a blessing and the fulfillment of faith. The cost is the likelihood of hearing a word that takes us to the limit of what we can receive without offence.

Perhaps the message here is that we should all be a little bit bolder. Respond to those hard sayings. Give God a witty answer-express our faith in questions and arguments-not worry too much about the pieties.

Kierkegaard, the Danish writer, was not afraid of giving offense-indeed he made a career of it. Once he said this. Take away from Christianity the possibility of offense – or take away from the forgiveness of sin the battle of an anguished conscience. Then lock the churches, the sooner the better or turn them into places of amusement which stand open all day long. Yes Christianity can and should give offence sometimes. Blessed are those who are not offended said Jesus.

Kierkegaard also wrote parables. Here’s one he didn’t write. A close encounter with the Kingdom of God is like a visit to the circus. We are fascinated by the clown’s performance and yet we fear that we may be selected as the object of his next trick. So as he approaches our ringside we look away.  What a lot we miss!

Blessed is he, says Jesus, who is not scandalised by me!

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