Today in the Spirit: Proper 15A

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At this point In our walk with Jesus in Pentecost Year A, we come near the end of his ministry in the north (Galilee) before he journeys to Jerusalem and the cross. The Collect for the week is yet another plea to God for preservation in our earthly life: “Keep us from all things hurtful, and lead us to all things profitable for our salvation.” In the assigned Gospel reading out of Matthew 15:21-28 we receive in our worship the encounter of Jesus and his disciples with a Canaanite woman, the only exposure to this event recorded in Matthew or Mark that we have in the three-year cycle.

The intention of God the Father to reach the whole world through the revelation of the Son is clearly evident in this passage, presenting the common theme in other assigned readings. The corresponding OT reading is Isaiah 56:1-8 in which the prophet gives voice to the declaration of the Lord God: “I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered” (Israel). From the appointed Psalm 67 we will recite: God shall bless us; let all the ends of the earth fear him (7). I

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ronically, upon hearing of the stubbornness of Israel to welcome the Gentiles in the other assigned readings, the NT reading from Romans 11:13-24 has Paul exhorting the Gentiles not to despise the unbelieving Jewish people:  [The Jews] were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear (20-21).   

The Collect

Keep your Church, O Lord, by your perpetual mercy; and because without you the frailty of our nature causes us to fall, keep us from all things hurtful, and lead us to all things profitable for our salvation; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Not Cut Off (Isaiah 56:1-8)

Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say,
    “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and let not the eunuch say,
    “Behold, I am a dry tree.” 
For thus says the Lord:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
    who choose the things that please me
    and hold fast my covenant, 
I will give in my house and within my walls
    a monument and a name
    better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
    that shall not be cut off (3-5).

In this section of Isaiah, YHWH through the prophet begins to address the Judeans who have returned from exile and begun to think about new worship procedures in the new temple under construction. Should they look to the old regulations such as Deuteronomy 23:1-6 which strictly forbid foreigners and eunuchs? Here is a new word for a renewed nation to help them deal with the curious phenomenon of foreigners, many of them Persians who were castrated to serve as court officials, who lived in the land when the exiles arrived. That new word is “Welcome.”

The LORD addresses the Gentiles themselves in the text, saying in effect, “Do not say, you are unwelcome.” But the exhortation is indirectly for the Judeans: “Do not make them feel separate or cut off (picking up on the language of the old law). Do not make them say to themselves what I do not want them to say.” Just as the people of Israel must face their old-world prejudices, so must we. 

Today, through the Spirit who is speaking to us a new word of welcome, and following Jesus who ministered to the Canaanite woman featured in our Gospel reading, let us recognize and overcome our prejudices in the church that communicate an unwelcoming air.

God Shall Bless Us (Psalm 67)

May God be gracious to us and bless us
    and make his face to shine upon us, Selah
that your way may be known on earth,
    your saving power among all nations.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
    let all the peoples praise you!
Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
    for you judge the peoples with equity
    and guide the nations upon earth. Selah
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
    let all the peoples praise you!
The earth has yielded its increase;
    God, our God, shall bless us.
God shall bless us;
    let all the ends of the earth fear him!

How do you imagine the setting for a psalm like this one? Is it in a moment of peace and stability and confidence, say in celebration of a national victory or in the course of festival worship on the Lord’s Day? Maybe. But let’s picture ourselves instead, singly or together, in a moment of panic, like on a runaway train. Everything is moving frighteningly fast, and completely out of control. No other outcome can be imagined except collision and death.

Can you with eyes of faith imagine Jesus seated at the controls in that situation? Can you see him there enough to shout, May God be gracious to us and bless us, please good Lord!? And can you then turn to others and declare as if supernaturally your vision of the bigger picture (if you can imagine such a thing seated on that train) beyond yourself and your fellow riders, Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you!?  And can you say it again, louder this time, like the psalmist, Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you!? What runaway train do you find yourself riding on at this moment?

Today, Holy Spirit, even as I am seated holding on for dear life, my friends and me, enable us all to see you at the controls even at this trying time. Help me beyond logic to praise you, and to conclude with the psalmist, God shall bless us; let all the ends of the earth fear him!

So Do Not Become Proud but Fear (Romans 11:13-24)

So do not [you Gentiles] become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree (20-24).

Since the selection of Epistle readings during Pentecost is on its own sequential schedule, it is interesting to see the natural connection between this reading from Romans and the others assigned for this Sunday. Paul is addressing you Gentiles on the matter of spiritual pride concerning the wayward Jewish people in much the same way the other readings address the Jewish Christians about arrogance toward the foreigners (see my comments above on Isaiah 56:1ff).

Notice the exhortation: So do not become proud but [instead GNT] fear. Fear here (phobeomai in Greek, which is used to communicate either “fright” as an impediment to faith in God or “reverence” as an aid in belief) appears in this passage as the opposite of pride and arrogance. The fear Paul encourages in his readers is for recognizing God cannot always be figured out and for readiness for him at any time to do the very surprising thing—like grafting back some Jewish people into their own olive tree.

Watch out that your understanding of the love of God does not become watered down so as to think Jesus in his gentleness can never show us any harm. ‘’Gentle Jesus,’ my elbow!,” writes C.S. Lewis to a friend, “The most striking thing about Our Lord is the union of great ferocity with extreme tenderness…One shows one’s greatness not by being at an extremity but by being simultaneously at two extremities and filling all the space between’).” And, of course, Mr. Beaver’s line concerning Aslan in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”: “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Today, in the Spirit, under the conviction against pride in this Sunday’s readings, I lay aside my arrogance which excludes others and supposes that I have God all figured out.  

O Woman Great Is Your Faith (Matthew 15:21-28)

And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

The main project of the Gospel writers is, of course, the divine revelation of Jesus of Nazareth in the world. A secondary one, related to the first, is the narration of Jesus’ own characterization of people’s faith in him. In Matthew Jesus describes people as having faith (Greek pistis), great faith (Greek pistis megale) and little faith (Greek oligopistos). It is critical, in each case, that we devotionally meditate as deeply as possible from the text on what lies behind our Lord’s estimation of people’s faith.

In this week’s reading there is something about the woman’s response to Jesus’ final statement, it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs that causes him to reply, great is your faith and pronounce the healing. (Note: the parallel in Mark 7:29 reads: For such a reply, you may go NIV). What is it in her prayer to Jesus? Is it her cleverness? Well, maybe not, though he must have been impressed. Is it her persistence as in the parable of the widow and the judge (Luke 18:1-8)? That may have played a part. But is there something more?

Consider just her tenacity to focus on Jesus throughout this dialogue. She calls him Lord three times. Though ridiculed, she is not defensive in the least; whatever she hears, she will not look away from him. (Consider her the antithesis of Peter attempting to walk on the water in last week’s Gospel). Nothing deters her from her mission to save her daughter, certainly, but even more nothing will deter her from believing in the man standing before her.

Today, in the Spirit, receiving in your worship what Jesus estimates to be the great faith of the Canaanite woman, pray for her tenacity to cling to belief in Jesus as Son of God, persevering through every challenge against it.           

Today in the Spirit

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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