Isaiah 56:1,6-8, the first reading for Sunday August 20, was written approximately 20-25 years after the first exiled Israelites returned from Babylon to Judea.
While the Persian king Cyrus had freed the Israelites when he defeated the Babylonians, he imposed Persian rules and taxation on the Israelites to pay for his continuing wars with Egypt. Within Israel, the people were struggling to rebuild the temple and different factions debated a variety of religious matters, including how to treat foreigners.
Speaking on God’s behalf Isaiah tells them,
This is what the Lord says:
and do what is right,
for my salvation is close at hand
and my righteousness will soon be revealed.
The Israelites were to live justly because my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed. It is a hopeful instruction promising righteousness.
At the same time God’s message must have left the people wondering what this salvation would be… military independence from the oppressive Persian rules and taxation, or health and wealth. Another question might have been, what do you mean by righteousness. Will God’s rules become more obvious? Will goodness become natural? Will a model king reappear to lead the Israelites?… And, when is soon?
The passage we read on Sunday skips verses 2-5 which provide further elaborations, Blessed is the one who does this— the person who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath without desecrating it, and keeps their hands from doing any evil. Faithfulness, not just intellectual assent, is what matters.
God’s instructions focus on the essential job of the Israelites, his chosen people. The message bypasses the Persian oppression and the struggle to rebuild the temple. Instead it draws people’s attention to the time for worship, thanksgiving and compassionate behavior in the present. Moreover, the prophet begins to address the issues of foreigners.
The next verses shift the focus to outsiders and speak to the debate about foreigners.
And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord
to minister to him,
to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,
all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it
and who hold fast to my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain
and give them joy in my house of prayer.
In other words, acting as God has instructed is more important than tribal background or national identity. Foreigners who love and serve God will be rewarded with joy in God’s house.
This first reading for Sunday was chosen because it addresses the theme of the gospel Matthew 15: 21-28 in which Jesus meets the Canaanite woman. Canaanite was the ancient name the Jews applied to the original inhabitants of Israel. (Mark 7:26 refers to her as Syrophonecian by birth.) The debate about how Jews should deal with outsiders continued in Jesus’ day. While Jesus initially appeared to adopt the customary approach to the woman, that salvation was only for the Jews, he eventually changes his heart. Here is a portion of the reading.
A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
Jesus’ way of dealing with the woman is out of character with how he usually spoke to people who were on the margins of society, as this woman was. She was a Canaanite and a woman approaching a group of Jewish men. Her behaviour was bold.
Jesus’ comment, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs,” suggests that he, too, held some of the stereotypical responses of his society. He clearly intends for word children’s to be understood as the Jews and for the dogs to be read as foreigners or Canaanites.
His reference to dogs (some translate the word as bitches. Others translate it as puppies, thereby softening the reference.) tells her that he thinks caring for her concerns is as inappropriate as feeding dogs the food prepared for children.
The woman’s clever reply, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table seemed to catch Jesus and cause him to reverse his opinion with his next phrase. “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
Matthew wrote to a Jewish Christian community that also included Gentiles. As we know from other passages in both Acts and the epistles, there was an issue about whether and how much of Jewish law such as circumcision and dietary laws the Gentile Christians had to follow. His inclusion of this episode was doubtless intended for their instruction.
- In Isaiah’s day the Israelites suffered under Persian domination, struggled with reconstruction of Jerusalem and the temple, and were beset by internal strife over how to follow God’s laws. Yet God instructed them to maintain justice and do what is right. As we consider our contemporary world with forest fires, landslides that bury whole villages, terrorist attacks, wars, 65 million refugees and politicians who encourage extremists, does God’s instruction feel as relevant to us as to the Jews of Isaiah’s day?
- What do we make of devout foreigners or First Nations people’s of Canada, who follow God’s ways as they understand God wants them to? Do we respect their devotion? Are the issues of how we should deal with them different today from the issues of Isaiah’s, Jesus’ or Matthew’s communities?
- Are you bothered by Jesus’ initial response to the woman? How do you resolve it?