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Second Sunday in Lent: Matthew 15:21-28

His interaction with a Canaanite woman takes Jesus to the north and west of Israel’s ancient boundaries. The region of Tyre and Sidon was never within the promised land, even at Israel’s Solomonic height. King Hiram of Tyre was a friend of Solomon’s and contributed cedars of Lebanon and laborers for the building of the temple. From that it may be inferred that he was a God-fearing Gentile, but nothing is said of how wide-spread his devotion to the Lord ever became in Tyre or Sidon.

The fact that the woman is called a “Canaanite” further emphasizes her foreign status. The Canaanites in their various ways worshiped idols and polluted the land to such a degree that the conquest of Israel was both due to the promise God gave to Abraham and also as a punishment for the sins of the Canaanites. The conversation, if we want to call it that, between Jesus and the woman further brings out the reality that she is a woman of unclean lips who dwells among a people of unclean lips. In this way it will be seen that she is the flip side of the immediately prior teaching of Christ about what truly defiles a man, namely what it is that makes a person clean.

There are many references in the Gospels about word getting around about who Jesus was and what he did. The obvious conclusion, then, is that the woman had heard about him and therefore was coming to him. In this she is not unlike like Rahab who had heard of God’s power at the Red Sea and was given faith. In faith, Rahab hid the two spies, and in faith, the Canaanite woman comes to Jesus for help her daughter’s great need.

Jesus’ silence toward the Canaanite woman furthers the dissonance. The universally comforting promises of Christ to “come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest” do not come with a similar promise about the timing of that rest. “Draw near to God, and at the proper time he will lift you up.” Experience bears out the fact that Jesus, like His Father, can be simultaneously imminent and distant. He is present and hears her pleas, but “answers her not a word.”

The tension between universal and particular is furthered as Jesus discusses boundaries. Still silent to the woman, Jesus speaks to the disciples and tells them he was not sent except for the lost sheep of Israel. Their request had been that he dismiss her, possibly meaning to grant her request so that she subsequently leaves them alone. His response indicates that they must have inferred that he help, or else why the statement about only being sent for Israel?

The more pressing question is whether he means it or not? The woman calling him son of David may factor in here. David’s son brings to view the later prophecies of the Christ which oftentimes have a primary focus on Israel’s restoration from exile. “Behold, the days are coming declares the Lord when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely …. In his days Judah shall be saved and Israel will dwell securely” (Jeremiah 23:5-6). “And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will feed them: he shall feed them and be their prince” (Ezekiel 34:23). Taken in isolation, references such as these may lead one to conclude that the Christ is the hope of Israel only. But this is an overly narrow view of the messiah as some of the key prophecies, especially in Genesis 3:15 and Genesis 12:3, speak of his mission for all of Adam’s descendants and all nations being blessed in him.

Why then does Jesus speak of an Israel-centric mission? Is such a thought wrong? Is he speaking tongue-in-cheek? Attempts to discern sarcasm in the Scriptures are usually a sign of grasping at straws, so it is better to assume he meant what he said and find the rationale in Scripture itself.

St. Paul says that he magnifies his ministry to the Gentiles in order somehow to make his fellow Jews jealous and thus save some. In this, he is only imitating his Lord who magnifies his ministry to Israel in order somehow to make this Gentile woman jealous and thus save her. The magnification of the messiah’s Israel-centered ministry does not exclude Gentiles, but actually draws them to Him. He becomes a light to the nations. As even the most Israel-centric prophecies foresaw: “Then the nations will know that I am the Lord who sanctifies Israel, when my sanctuary is in their midst forevermore” (Ezekiel 37:28).

The context of our reading further emphasizes this point. Jesus’ journey to Tyre and Sidon comes on the heels of a controversy with the Jewish leaders about what makes a man unclean. The Pharisees were upset that Jesus did not observe the traditions of the fathers related to ritual washings. Their thinking was that he and his disciples were therefore unclean to eat. Jesus clearly refutes the error of their thinking to show that it is not what is outside a man that defiles him, but rather what comes from the heart.

What has this to do with the Canaanite woman? In many ways she is the opposite of the Pharisees. She is not only a Gentile, but a descendant of Israel’s ancient enemies. If anyone would have been ritually unclean, it would be her. And yet, from the fullness of her heart her mouth speaks. She approaches the Lord with unwashed hands, and in all likelihood with no knowledge of the traditions of the elders. In that sense, it would not be “right” to give her the bread of the children. Humanly speaking, she is like a dog, an animal that is canonically understood to be synonymous with uncleanliness.

But by faith in the Lord Jesus, she is worthy and well-prepared to receive his blessing. Not only does she receive the crumbs that fall from the children’s table, but the affirmation of the Lord: “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you believe.” The Pharisees earned the rebuke of the Lord as he quoted Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.” By way of contrast, in the Canaanite woman, Isaiah’s other prophesy of the Gentiles also comes to pass: “I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.”

First Sunday after Christmas: Galatians 4:1-7

Sneaking in behind Paul, certain men troubled the churches of Galatia by asserting that one had to abide by the observances of the old covenant in order to be a Christian. Most noteworthy was the argument that one had to be circumcised, to which Paul alludes in Galatians 5. Such men were persuasive, at least according to human standards, and attacked Paul’s message for being seemingly weak and foolish by comparison (1 Corinthians 2:1-5; Galatians 4:12-16). Had not the Lord Himself commanded circumcision? Why would we not want to obey the Word of the Lord?

However, as Paul argues, they wanted to be “under the law,” so that they would be considered righteous according to the Law. But seeking after a law that would lead to righteousness, they did not attain it, “because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works” (Romans 9:31-32). Christ becomes a stumbling stone for them, because they have fundamentally misunderstood why God gave the Law to them in the first place.

Paul’s dichotomy between law and faith must not be distorted. “Law” as Paul uses it here cannot mean the Law in general, for that would run against passages like Psalm 1:1-2, Psalm 19:7, or even Deuteronomy 30:11. Paul contrasts the “law”—being perfected by the flesh, desiring to be righteous according to works—with “faith”—being perfected by the Spirit, being righteous through Christ. The Law in general, the will of God, is not at variance with faith (Romans 3:31). It is the distortion of the Law, made into something apart from Christ, that Paul condemns in the strongest terms throughout his letters.

But these Judaizers have misunderstood the purpose of the ceremonies attached to the Law. They insisted on the observance of circumcision, because they regarded it as identical with the substance of the Law. Why, then, would it pass away, if God’s will does not change? But “these are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:17; Hebrews 10:1-4). Circumcision was a part of the guardianship of Sinai, not the means of righteousness. The ceremonies attached to the Law pointed toward the coming righteousness by faith, and therefore, properly understood, are expressions of the Gospel. Once Christ came, their purpose came to an end, and the school of Moses was no longer in session (Galatians 3:24). Paul’s opponents, distorting their purpose and mistaking their substance, regarded them as part and parcel of righteousness, which not incidentally left no room for Christ.

In the reading for the First Sunday after Christmas, Paul is therefore using the imagery of an inheritance. The Lord had made a promise of an inheritance to Abraham, something that could not be annulled by Moses 430 years later (Galatians 3:15-18). Moses had not meant to annul it, of course, but regarding the shadow as the light, as the Judaizers had done, makes one forget about the earlier promise. According to that promise made to Abraham, to which the ceremonies of Moses pointed, “in Christ Jesus, you are all sons of God, through faith” (Galatians 3:26).

Therefore, Israel is likened to a child, the heir of the promised inheritance. Moses served as the guardian of this child, teaching him through the ceremonies attached to the Law, until the time appointed by the Father. In other words, the Church has matured into adulthood with the coming of Christ. Such an image of Israel maturing from infancy into adulthood finds parallels in other passages, especially Ezekiel 16, where the Lord compares her to an exposed child on whom He took pity. “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1). This not only shows that God frequently treats a people as one man (or in this case, woman, His bride), but it also shows that there is a progression in God’s revelation and God’s manner of interacting with His people. The ceremonies of the Old Testament belonged to the childhood of the Church, but now with the coming of Christ, she has reached maturity and has put away childish ways (1 Corinthians 13:11).

This is not to disparage the ceremonies of the old covenant! The pedagogy of childhood is not useless by any means. Through such discipline, the son becomes a man. But the one who seeks to remain in childhood, so to speak, is not praiseworthy, but missing the point of his guardianship. The Judaizers sought to hold on to the discipline of infancy, mistaking it for the substance of manhood. Circumcision pointed to the coming promise, the maturity of faith in Christ, and with the coming of Christ, the guardianship came to an end.

But what of those who were not under the guardianship, the Gentiles? What of those who did not have Moses in their infancy, so to speak? We too had a childhood as a people, enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. The child under guardianship is akin to a slave, in that he must serve the will of another, despite being the master of the estate. But God sent Christ into the world as one of us, “born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5). The Gentiles have been made to be sons, even though our guardianship was not under Moses, through Christ by faith. The adopted son and the natural son are not two, but one (Ephesians 2:11-22), and therefore both are heirs through faith in Christ.

Therefore, as Paul continues to say in the remainder of Galatians, there is no need for the adopted son to become as a child again, even though his guardianship was not under Moses. Such a reversion would be tantamount to crucifying the Lord of Glory all over again. Requiring the Gentile adopted son to be circumcised makes the ceremony itself into righteousness, and thus makes righteousness a matter of the flesh. Only by becoming a Jew could a Gentile be saved in such a way. However, as Paul says: “No one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God” (Romans 2:28-29).