First Thoughts on Passages from Matthew in the Lectionary

Pentecost 10

William Loader

Pentecost 10: 17 August Matthew 15:(10-20) 21-28

Today's reading is about boundaries and boundary crossing. The passage in brackets belongs to a larger section, 15:1-20, in which Matthew revises Mark 7:1-23. There Mark had used an anecdote about controversy over washing hands ritually before meals which had become a vehicle for a general attack on the validity of outward observances, such as washing and observation of food laws. This set aside not only tradition but significant portions of scripture itself (7:19). It was done in the name of a gospel that sought to be inclusive of Gentiles who were alienated by such practices. It reflects the position one might find in churches which had been under Paul's influence. There are aspects which go even further than Paul and imply ridicule of concern with such externals which 'cannot possibly' affect a person's purity.

Matthew is happy to take over the passage, but removes all elements of ridicule and especially the implication noted by Mark in 7:19 that Jesus effectively declared all foods clean. How could Matthew say such a thing in his strongly Jewish congregation and how could he say such a thing having affirmed that Jesus had not come to abolish even the slightest detail of God's Law in scripture? Thus Matthew reduces the controversy to one about the over punctiliousness of the practice of ritual handwashing before meals, not a command of scripture. 15:20b makes this clear where it reiterates the main point of the passage in these terms. Luke was also uncomfortable with Mark here and acted more drastically: he omitted it along with related material from the context, so that his story jumps immediately from the feeding of the 5000 to the episode at Caesarea, leaving out Mark 6:46 - 8:26!

In Mark the encounter with the Syrophoenician woman (7:24-30) illustrates the crossing of boundaries which the setting aside of food laws implies. Barriers to the inclusion of Gentiles are dropped. The feeding of the 4000 (8:1-10) will celebrate the inclusion of Gentiles and Mark has Jesus quiz the disciples to see if they pick up the matching symbolism in the feedings of first the 12 baskets and then the 7 baskets (8:16-21). In Matthew the transition to what becomes the encounter with the Canaanite woman is less significant. What precedes is no longer about removing barriers, so the episode no longer functions to illustrate what precedes. The story now serves to shame Israel for its poor response to Jesus in much the same way as Matthew had used the encounter with the centurion to the same end. This Gentile acclaims him, 'Son of David'! Calling her a Canaanite, the biblical pagans, serves to heighten the contrast. Matthew would have had difficulty portraying Jesus' actions at this stage as representing openness to Gentiles because that commission comes only after Easter (28:18-20) and Matthew preserves traditions which limit the mission, at least initially, to Israel, including Jesus' own mission during his ministry (10:5-6).

The story in Matthew is no less painful that Mark's. In Mark Jesus initially refuses to give his attention to the Gentile woman and her child. Israel are God's children; Gentiles are dogs. While the Greek word could mean 'puppies', it commonly meant dogs and here it is disparaging, hardly affectionate. It is after all ground for refusal, not a sentimental comment about pets. 'Let the children be fed first' (Mark 7:27). This first at least implies there will be something left over for the dogs. In Matthew this first receives fuller explanation: Jesus is not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (15:25). In Matthew she pesters Jesus three times. Jesus' initial response both in Mark and in Matthew is hardly tongue in cheek. Matthew's additions appear to have taken it seriously and offered a rationale.

Originally the anecdote innocently portrays Jesus expressing a racist stance only to abandon it when put under pressure. The abandonment of prejudice, the crossing of the traditional boundary, is the good news of the story and why it was told. It is hard not to draw the conclusion that Jesus, himself, had to make a transition, had to learn. His response was more typical of the rather conservative Judaism of the time. Is it embarrassing that Jesus was human, too? Does it make the gospel any less valid if the historical Jesus also had to struggle to come to terms with the negative in his upbringing? At least this is the assumption of the anecdote.

Matthew tailors Jesus' final response to the woman. He adds the words: 'O woman, great is your faith. Let what you wish for happen for you.' Similar words came from Jesus' lips when he addressed the centurion (8:13) and again when he addressed the woman suffering from vaginal bleeding (9:22). We should read the story from its end, not its beginning. At its beginning it is discriminatory. At its end it affirms the despised. Women and Gentiles - just as already in the genealogy. Seen from its end it becomes a celebration of inclusion of women and of Gentiles.

The anecdote was doubtless told in the first place as a story to live by. It was certainly a risky story, because it achieves its point at the expense of Jesus' past. Obviously this did not matter to the story teller whether it is history or fiction. Its redeeming feature is its redeeming feature. In Matthew it also celebrates radical inclusion, even if, unlike Mark, Matthew sees no need to set scripture aside to achieve this. What extraordinary power the woman exercises - over Jesus! But then Jesus came to enable us to learn from others and discern God's call and not to assume we can never learn or that we know it all.

Epistle:  Pentecost 10: 17 August  Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

Return to Home Page