Like the formal Jews of Jesus' and Paul's time, we distort what God says in His word, because we load our cultural expectations on them. We guard our privileges as if we have earned them, and end up managing decline rather than stewarding growth.
See also The Living Word commentary based on the set readings for August 16, 2020.
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 — God’s house will be a house of prayer for all nations
Matthew 15:10-28 — Jesus finds faith in a woman who is a complete outsider
Romans 1-2, 29-32 — Paul says that Gentiles being saved doesn’t stop Jews becoming believers
The problem — we like to keep it for us
As the doctor said, this is going to be uncomfortable. It threatens the comfort zone we have created for ourselves. Let’s be honest here — wherever we worship, whatever sort of church tradition, however it sits on the spectrum from formal and structured to free-flowing and informal, we want to be surrounded by people like us. And God needs us to be reaching out with His love to people who are not like us.
So there’s a tension. Some tension is needed — it is how we grow. God wants us to grow — to be disciples of Jesus, who make further disciples. He wants His church to grow, by reaching others and introducing them to Jesus.
Others! Others like us? No, others who (almost by definition) are probably not like us — and may be very different.
Back in the day…
Here’s where it started. Back in the time of the patriarchs, God made a promise to Abraham. It was a lasting promise, a covenant. Unlike most covenants in the Bible this one is one-sided — God’s statement to Abraham and his successors, of His intention, which is wide-ranging:
I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. ALL THE FAMILIES ON EARTH will be blessed through you.” Genesis 12:1-3
The Nation of Israel was God’s own people, who He miraculously rescued from Egypt, gathered near Mount Sinai, and then. through Moses gave them the covenant. This was to teach them how they were to be different from the surrounding nations. it was always God’s intention that His chosen people would be His light to the other nations of that East Mediterranean world — and beyond.
Moses urged them to :
“Observe (these decrees) carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations who will hear… and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people’.” Deut. 4:5-8
The prophets, in particular Isaiah, took up this call with growing passion, especially when foretelling the Messiah, the Anointed One of God, who was to come.
(God) says, “You will do more than restore the people of Israel to me.
"I will make you a light to the Gentiles, and you will bring My salvation to the ends of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6
Isaiah’s farseeing picture of multiracial worship
But there was also a sense that “the ends of the earth” or at any rate, people from outside the geographical area of Israel’s territory would come seeking salvation — and so they should, the Lord said.
The place of worship was no longer to be a ‘closed shop’ for those who were paid up members of the union. It was to be a place of prayer and worship for all comers:
"Maintain justice and do what is right…
…"Foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord… to be His servants… these I will bring to My holy mountain and give them joy in My house of prayer.
"Their… offering… will be accepted… for My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.
“I will gather still others… besides those already gathered.” Isaiah 56:1 and 6
The ‘foreigner’ who came to worship… Jesus
The message that is coming from these readings becomes clearer in the story of Jesus, a long way from home in today’s southern Lebanon, where he is approached by a woman from that region. She is called a Canaanite in the story. In today’s language she is a Palestinian, whose ancestors were displaced when the Nation of Israel came into their Promised Land.
She has little reason to be well disposed towards this Jewish rabbi who is taking a break from the intensity of Galilee and Judea… except that, she has a pressing need, and she has heard about this Jesus from far off and the miracles that are happening in His presence. She may be a "foreigner" to Him, a rank outsider, but she expresses more faith than many of his kinsfolk, especially in Nazareth.
Here are a couple of verses which carry the nub of the story:
A Canaanite woman (from the region of Tyre and Sidon) came to Him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” Matthew 15:22
As a Jew, He was not supposed to have anything to do with a Gentile woman — especially a woman on her own. But He draws her out a bit. He finds out where she is coming from, in terms of having faith, not just talking up a good appeal. He suggests that the children of the family should get the food first, ahead of the family pet, however well-loved. She retorts that the family pet still gets tidbits from the table. She has made the point that no one loses out if Jesus meets her need. She’s pressing in with faith, refusing to be put off, and we can learn from that.
Relationship trumps religion in what defiles
Earlier, Jesus had taught that what defiles someone is their harsh or inflexible attitudes. It’s not lack of proper ceremonial or being lax over what is kosher. It is what is in us, that comes out what we say and do, that either exalts of defiles. And here is an example — a woman some Jews would consider defiling, just by her presence, and she is asking for help. This is going to give Jesus a purification headache… but no:
Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment. Matthew 15:28
She was that ‘foreigner’ who came seeking salvation, healing, deliverance — it’s all the same word. It’s what Jesus did then. It is what He does now.
This kind of interaction caused real consternation in the Jewish religious community.
No matter that it has been foretold. We hear what we want to hear, and believe what we want to believe.
So in the early churches like Rome. a complete mixture of backgrounds, Jews and non-Jews, tensions could easily rise. The Jews knew they were chosen by God but here were all these Gentiles in the church with their spiritual gifts. That Jewish exclusivity that they prized so much was all broken up — and they didn’t feel good about it.
A Jew corrects the understanding about Jewish privilege
Paul addresses the problem with some testimony of his own. He is speaking as a Jew — with the very best credentials. He writes:
"I ask then: Did God. reject His (Jewish) people? By no means. I am… a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin.
"God did not reject His people [when] Elijah… appealed to God against Israel.
"For God’s gifts and His call are irrevocable." From Romans 11:1-2, 29-32
He makes the point that we all, whatever our background or imagined entitlement, need God’s grace
[All] were at one time disobedient to God [and all] may now receive mercy, as a result of God’s mercy [to everyone]. Romans 11:30-32.
The simple message that we make complicated
It is a simple message — God’s call is to all, but it crashes into the mind-set of a lifetime which is about earned merit and the privileges of club membership. We’re used to things that work that way — exams, job promotions, rewards for long service — and so we have have carried that into the church. But the church exists to show the world the kingdom of God. It’s an alternative kind of society which challenges the everyday one we’re used to. For a start, everyone loves everyone else. The social strata and unwritten rules were are so used to, are turned on their heads.
It’s a test: for us to think differently, to “think kingdom”. But unless we do this rigorously, our church representation of the kingdom way of God will degrade into a ‘closed shop’. Instead of the ‘call to all’ outreach Jesus is leading, we will have turned it into ‘keep it the way we like it’ in-reach.
Many churches are growing apace and changing lives and communities. Others are ‘managing decline’. And it's a choice. Really, it comes down to whether we are intentional about doing what God is doing — or sticking to doing our own thing.