Some more thoughts on Jesus and the Syrophonecian woman

Having handed in my exegetical study last week, I’ve had a few thoughts on the implications of Matthew 15:21-28 for us. I think a good starting point is from the exegetical observation that Matthew’s primary accent or concern in his presentation of this episode is salvation-historical; that is, with reference to Jesus’ consciousness of a mission (primarily) to ethnic Israel before Easter (c.f. Matthew 10:5); only after which does a mission to the nations (i.e. non-Jews) become explicitly commanded (c.f. Matthew 28:16-20). In other words, Matthew agrees with Paul’s dictum in Romans that salvation is “first for the Jew, then the Gentile” – and thus the exorcism of the Gentile woman’s daughter in this passage is, as Calvin noted, a prelude to the situation after Easter. (Commentary on Matthew, Mark and Luke, 2:116)

Taking this as the primary concern of the passage, we run into the problem in seeking out the implications for us today that we exist in a predominantly Gentile church, where the “grafting in” of the nations to the people of God (to use Paul’s metaphor) is taken for granted. There is no perception of shock or impropriety for us in this, as in this passage (15:26!). So how would we preach from this passage? We are left only the (subsidiary!) point the passage makes about faith.

Ulrich Luz makes a (helpful, I think!) suggestion in his commentary on Matthew:

“In a situation in which the gentile church was solidly established and Jewish Christianity had practically disappeared, the salvation-history interpretation of our text no longer demonstrated bthe power of God’s love that bursts the borders of Israel; it almost exclusively justified the legitimacy of the church’s status quo in history. It no longer opened new doors; it merely injured the Jews who were not present in the church. What might a new “salvation-history” interpretation that preserves something of the explosive power of the old text look like today? The text might receive new power, for example, ecumenically explosive power, if an interpreting church community were ready to identify with the Pharisees and scribes from whose territory Jesus withdrew, rather than with the Canaanite woman or her daughter as is usually done…”
(Matthew 8-20 [Hermeneia], p.341)

It’s an idea that is both intriguing and pregnant, and subversive/offensive, that we as modern Gentile Christians might have more in common with the Pharisees than we do with the woman in this text. But perhaps we do, if we are too satisfied with largely middle-class churches who do mission to largely middle-class communities. Preaching from this text should remind us again of our responsibility to take the gospel to all people – both people of all nations, and people of all social groups (perhaps Marx and Engels were onto something with the suggestion that, in the modern world, class divides more deeply than nationality? – that’s quite a rare intellectual tradition for me to agree with!) It should also remind us of grace – for in actual fact we shouldn’t have to think of ourselves as more like the Pharisees if we realise that we are actually recipients of undeserved and unmerited grace; like the woman in the text. Realisation of God’s surprising and sovereign grace in the justification of the ungodly should remind us of just why we can and should proclaim the gospel beyond our social boundaries and comfort zone – because if nobody earns God’s grace then everybody should hear the gospel. If we’ve lost sight of the shock this passage presents to conventional religious wisdom then maybe it is time to start reading it with ourselves as the Pharisees, if only to remind us of God’s powerful love and refusal to constrain it to the social or ethnic boundaries we try and impose on it.

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