Sunday, 17 August 2014


Matthew 15:10-39  Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, "Listen and understand:  11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles."  12 Then the disciples approached and said to him, "Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?"  13 He answered, "Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted.  14 Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit."  15 But Peter said to him, "Explain this parable to us."  16 Then he said, "Are you also still without understanding?  17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?  18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.  19 For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.  20 These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile."  

21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.  22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon."  23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us."  24 He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."  25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me."  26 He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."  27 She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."  28 Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly. 

29After Jesus had left that place, he passed along the Sea of Galilee, and he went up the mountain, where he sat down.  30 Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet, and he cured them,  31 so that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel. 

32Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, "I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way."  33 The disciples said to him, "Where are we to get enough bread in the desert to feed so great a crowd?"  34 Jesus asked them, "How many loaves have you?" They said, "Seven, and a few small fish."  35 Then ordering the crowd to sit down on the ground,  36 he took the seven loaves and the fish; and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.  37 And all of them ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full.  38 Those who had eaten were four thousand men, besides women and children.  39 After sending away the crowds, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan.

Isaiah 56:1   Thus says the LORD: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed.
Isaiah 56:6-8  And the foreigners who join 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, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant--  7 these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.  8 Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.

It has, occasionally, been said of me,
            that I am ‘very English’!

But the thing is, I’m never quite sure whether I should take this as a compliment?…
            I suspect it depends on who is saying it,
                        and also on which particular aspect of my cultural baggage
                        it is that has prompted the observation.

Part of me wants to simply reply, ‘well of course I am, how could I be anything else?’
            After all, I was born in England, to English parents, with English grandparents…
            My native language is English, and I speak it with a home counties accent.

But I don’t think that’s necessarily what is always meant,
            when people tell me that I’m ‘very English’.
There are other aspects to being English beyond parentage and accent,
            that all combine to create the culture that comes into view.

I’m reading an interesting book at the moment,
            called ‘Watching the English’ by Kate Fox;
And she identifies a number of characteristics of ‘Englishness’
            which go beyond the obvious, and into the cultural.
One of these, as you may be able to guess,
            is conversation about the weather,
            which she says has many similarities to a religious or liturgical response,
            between a priest and their congregation:

So, I say, ‘the Lord be with you’,
            and you reply, ‘and also with you’.

I say, ‘Lord have mercy upon us’,
            and you reply, ‘Christ have mercy upon us.’

I say, ‘Nice day isn’t it?’
            and you reply, ‘very pleasant for the time of year.’

I say, ‘it’s a bit chilly today’,
            and you reply, ‘at least it’s not raining.’

And so we could go on, all day if necessary!

Well, earlier this year, Dawn and I attended
            the London Baptist Association ‘St George’s Day’ event,
which was billed as an exploration of Englishness
            in a multicultural city.

As part of the preparation for the day,
            we were asked to fill out an online questionnaire
            which rated us on an ‘Englishness scale’.

Interestingly, on this occasion I didn’t come out at the most ‘English’ person in the room;
            that honour went to one of my fellow ministers,
            a woman of West Indian heritage,
                        whose parents had come to the UK as part of the Windrush generation
                        in the Government sponsored post-second-world-war mass immigration.

She had decided, in her teens, that her West Indian accent,
                        and her Afro Caribbean cultural heritage,
            were going to be a disadvantage to her.
So she had consciously and deliberately bought into
            a very specific perception of what it meant to be ‘English’.
She had changed her accent,
            but more than this, she had changed her cultural values and mores,
and she had very effectively adopted the nuances and attitudes
            of the English educated middle classes.

So, what does it mean to be English?
            And does it matter?

Alternatively, what does it mean to be Scottish?
            And does that matter?
            Well, I guess we’ll find out on September the 18th!

But what does it mean to be Welsh, or Northern Irish,
            or indeed Irish, or Australian, or Filipino,
            or any one of the many nationalities represented here this morning,
                        in our wonderful multi-cultural congregation.

And what does it mean to be Ukrainian, or Russian,
            or Iraqi, or Syrian, or Jewish, or Palestinian…

Does any of this matter?

Well, it seems to, doesn’t it, given how much of the trouble in our world
            finds its origins in disagreements between people
            who are at loggerheads over issues of cultural, ethnic, or national identity.

From casual or institutional racism, to ethnic cleansing,
            questions of who is ‘in’, and who is ‘out’,
                        questions of tribalism and protectionism,
                                    questions of nationality and ethnicity,
            dominate and determine so much that goes on in our world.

And it has always been the case, it seems,
            that ethnic, cultural and national identities carry troublesome baggage.

Take the story of Jesus the Jew and the Canaanite woman,
            a story loaded with ethnic tension if ever there was one.

As we spend a few minutes unpacking this story,
            and considering how it might speak to our contemporary situation,
                        I’m going to be drawing on some material
                        by Brian McLaren[1] and Grant LeMarquand,[2]
                        and if you’d like to know more, I’ll happily point you to what they’ve written.

But firstly, I’d like to tease out the differences
            between ethnicity, cultural identity, and nationalism,
            because whilst they are often treated as the same thing,
            I don’t think they are the same thing at all.

Someone’s ethnicity is a simple matter of genetics;
            it is something over which we have no choice.
And it is often denoted by physical characteristics shared by genetically related peoples.
            So, things such as skin colour, shape of the eyes and nose, or height,
            can all be markers of ethnicity.
I was born looking like this,
            and have had very little choice in the matter.
My ethnicity is probably best described as Caucasian,
            meaning that I am descended from a particular tribal group from central Europe.

But someone’s cultural identity
            is more a matter of where someone was born,
            than it is to do with who their parents were.

So, I speak English this way, because I was born and raised in Sevenoaks.
            If I’d been raised in Yorkshire, I’d still look the same,
                        my ethnicity would be the same,
                        and I’d still be culturally English,
            but I’d speak with a different accent,
                        and probably like cricket more than I do!
Similarly, if I’d been raised in France, I’d still look the same,
            but I wouldn’t be culturally English at all.

So my English culture,
            is a function of the society within which I was raised,
            and to some extent of the choices I have made.
There are English people who look like me,
            and there are English people who look nothing like me.
We may have different ethnicities, but we share a common culture.

And then there’s the issue of nationality,
            which is less a social construct,
            and more a political construct.

So, my nationality is British,
            which, at the moment, includes those who are Scottish,
            as well as the Welsh, and the Northern Irish.

Britain, the United Kingdom,
            is a political entity, comprising many ethnicities, and a variety of cultures.

I can remember being taught Geography by a Welshman,
            and he used to get very upset if any of us English lads
            ever used the word ‘England’.
“It’s ‘Britain’, boy!” he would shout,
            demonstrating both his commitment to the political union of the nation,
            and also his pride at his own Welsh culture.

He was, I am sure, also very aware, although he never said it,
            of the history of English suppression of the Welsh.
Where over many centuries, for political reasons,
            the Welsh culture was devalued at the hands of the English
            to the extent that the Welsh language was almost entirely wiped out.

A similar narrative of conquest lies behind the current debates
            regarding Scottish independence.

And the troubles in Northern Ireland
            owe much to the activities of a certain Oliver Cromwell
                        who seemed to need to do something with his army
                        once he had overthrown Charles the First of England.

All of which points to an important observation:
            when ethnic and cultural identity become fused with national identity,
            we create the recipe for dangerous and demonic nationalism to emerge.

In recent centuries,
            both within these Islands, and on a global scale,
The culture of Englishness has acquired implications of imperialism,
            connotations of conquest.

And this political ascendancy took the form of an expansionist political ideology,
            backed by an efficient military,
                        facilitated by a strong economy,
            and legitimated by a mythology of divine approval.

And it was ever thus.

Before the English it was the Romans,
            the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Egyptians, even the Israelites.
And in more recent times we have seen the rise of other empires,
            from communist block to global capitalism.

And this is the context within which we read
            our story from Matthew’s gospel this morning.

Time and again,[3]
            religious communities have demonstrated their capacity
            to become complicit with the imperial narratives
            of the host nation that offers them protection or advantage.

Christians have been no exception to this,
            and there are plenty of examples of times and places
            where people have edited their version of Jesus
            to fit their nation’s narrative of imperial conquest.

However, one of the themes that we keep coming back to here at Bloomsbury,
            is the idea that Jesus’ life and message are centred
                        on the articulation and demonstration
                        of a radically different framing story
            – one that critiques and exposes the imperial narrative
                        as dangerous to itself and to others.

Jesus does not proclaim the kingdom of Israel,
            or any other earthly power.
Rather, he says repeatedly
            that through him a different kingdom is coming into being;
one that is defined not along national, cultural or ethnic lines,
            but by values of peace, justice and reconciliation.

The story of the Canaanite woman from Matthew
            is just such a story which challenges the nationalisms of the first century.
We know that Matthew is re-writing Mark’s version of this story,
            and he makes a surprising change to Mark’s language
            as he retells it for his own readership.

Matthew is often thought of as the most Jewish of the four gospel writers,
            and yet, surprisingly, he identifies the woman in this story as a ‘Canaanite’,
            unlike Mark, who calls her a ‘Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia’ (7.26).
Matthew’s use of Canaanite here is surprising,
            first, because the term appears nowhere else in the New Testament,
            and second, because Canaanites were, strictly speaking,
                        non-existent at that time!
To call someone in Jesus’ day a Canaanite would be an anachronism,
            like calling a contemporary Norwegian a Viking,
                        or a contemporary Scot a Celt;
            it was a word from the past.

This gives us a strong clue that in using this term Canaanite,
            Matthew is wanting to signal something more than simply her ethnicity,
                        or even her culture.
We’re in the world of nationality here, the world of politics and empires.

Canaan was not only a place name,
            it was an ideologically loaded geographical marker.

You see, the term Canaanite was a direct evocation
            of Israel’s violent conquest of Canaan at the end of the Exodus.
It’s a story found in the biblical books of Exodus and Deuteronomy,
            and it’s a disturbing story of violence and nationalism,
            all legitimated by a mythology of divine approval.

According to the old story, the land of Canaan was good,
            but the Canaanites were evil.

So why did the Israelites kill the Canaanites?
            ‘Because God told them to’, says the Old Testament story.
And Matthew knows this,
            and his use of the term Canaanite for the woman is quite intentional.

His use of this term denotes the woman and her daughter
            as the worst kind of outsider.
They are Canaanites, the quintessential enemies of Israel.

And Matthew tells the story this way
            to show Jesus deconstructing the violent conquest narrative
                        that had previously dominated the relationship between the Jews
                        and the descendants of the original inhabitants
                                    of the land flowing with milk and honey.

Matthew is wanting to show that the Kingdom of God
            is not the same thing as the national identity of the people who worship God.

Matthew has already included non-Jews in his story in striking ways,
            from the naming of the Canaanite women Tamar and Rahab
                        in the Genealogy of Jesus (1.3,5),
            to the visit of the Gentile Magi (2.1-12),
                        to the healing of the Roman centurion’s servant (8.5-13).
And Matthew will include Gentiles in an even more striking way
            at his story’s end, affirming that Gentiles
                        must be included in the circle of disciples (28.18-20).

But here, in between, during Jesus’ unique excursion into Gentile territory,
            Jesus encounters this woman identified by Matthew as a Canaanite.

Their encounter is disturbing, not least because Jesus appears to be racist.
            He responds to her request for mercy and healing for her daughter,
                        first by ignoring her,
                        then by saying, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel’ (15.24),
                        then by using language that to our ears sounds indefensibly dehumanising
                                    and, I’ll say it again, racist:
                        He refers to her people as ‘dogs’ (15.26).

Some readers, trying to ‘save’ Jesus from the appearance of racism,
            along with the appearance of changing his mind,
            would say that Jesus was simply engaging in wordplay with the woman,
                        that he knew all along that he was going to heal her daughter.
However, playing with a distraught mother,
            and using dehumanising language to do so,
            doesn’t seem to ‘save’ Jesus from much, if we’re honest.

In Jesus defence, we should note that he doesn’t say,
            ‘I was sent only to the elite people of God,
                        the chosen ones, holy Israel,
                        not to you hopeless dogs.’
No, rather Jesus identifies his fellow Israelites as ‘lost sheep’,
            hardly itself a great nationalistic affirmation or compliment.
Jesus is no Zionist here.

In this light, Brian McLaren suggests that maybe Jesus is saying something like this:
            ‘Woman, I’m sorry about your daughter.
                        But I have enough problems with my own Jewish people.
            Herod, a Jewish ruler, just killed the prophet John, my close colleague.
            The Pharisees are misleading the people,
                        and we just had a very harsh confrontation.
                        In fact, they’re plotting my assassination as we speak.
            So my own people have lost their way, and I’ve been sent to them;
                        that’s why I can’t help you.’

Her clever and persistent reply, however,
            seems to convert Jesus,
            so that he gains new insight into the God-given scope of his mission.
It may be that this Canaanite woman knows the original call to Abraham,
            that God will bless Abraham and make his descendants a great nation
            so that they will bring blessing to all nations.
If so, her statement about dogs eating scraps that fall from the table
            would then mean:

‘Yes, I understand that your calling is to your people.
            But since your people are supposed to bring blessing to the rest of us,
            wouldn’t it be good to let this scrap of blessing fall to my daughter?’

It’s telling that the woman isn’t interested
            in recapturing the lost wealth of her ancestral lands.
She merely wants the crumbs of bread that fall from the conquer’s table.

And whatever she knows or doesn’t know,
            in this encounter, instead of a Jew violently and mercilessly
                        conquering a Canaanite in harmony with the old stories of Exodus and Joshua,
            the Canaanite wins and conquers the Jew
                        so that he responds to her request for mercy.

Jesus then utterly reverses his earlier statement.
            ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel’ recedes into the past,
                        and he now moves dramatically forward to care not only for one Gentile girl,
                        but for literally thousands of Gentiles.

In the following episode, in verses 29-31, he dramatically heals multitudes,
            and they are quite obviously Gentiles,
            because Matthew specifies that they ‘praised the God of Israel.’

And then, even more dramatically,
            Jesus feeds the Gentile multitude in a way that perfectly parallels
            his earlier feeding of five thousand Jews.

But there is one critical difference.
            When Jesus feeds five thousand Jews, there are twelve baskets left over.
                        The number clearly signifying the twelve tribes of Israel.
            But when he feeds four thousand Gentiles, how many baskets are left over? Seven.
                        Many have debated what that number might signify…
            For the probably answer, we need to turn to
                        one of the more terrifying passages in the Hebrew Scriptures,
                        certainly in terms of its justification of religious violence.

According to the Hebrew story, in about 1,400 BC,
            Moses gave the word of the Lord to Joshua, his successor in leadership,
            instructing him what to do when he leads his people into Canaanite territory:

Deuteronomy 7:1-5  When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you-- the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you--  2 and when the LORD your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy3 Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons,  4 for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the LORD would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly.  5 But this is how you must deal with them: break down their altars, smash their pillars, hew down their sacred poles, and burn their idols with fire.

What seems to be happening in Matthew’s story,
            is that Jesus takes the old ‘destroy the Canaanites’ narrative,
                        and dramatically turns it around.
The reversals are striking.
            Jesus does not follow Deuteronomy’s ‘no mercy to Canaanites’ policy,
                        but rather shows mercy to this Canaanite woman and her daughter.
            According to Deuteronomy, seven nations are to be destroyed ‘totally:
                        yet seven baskets of loaves are gathered as a symbolic testimony
                                    to the fact that through the ministry of Jesus,
                                    Canaanites are not to be destroyed, but fed.
            According to Deuteronomy, Canaanite daughters are dangers,
                                    and will lead Israelite sons astray,
                        but Jesus, an Israelite son, sees a Canaanite daughter not as a danger,
                                    but as a person in need, and heals her.

If Jesus’ first feeding miracle and its twelve-basket surplus
            suggested a reconstitution of the twelve tribes being led through the wilderness
                        with a new kind of manna,
            [as we explored when we looked at that story here a couple of weeks ago,]
then this second feeding suggests a new kind of conquest,
            not with swords and spears, but with bread and fish;
                        not to destroy, but to serve and heal.
Jesus seizes the old narrative, shakes it, turns it inside out,
            and offers a new story that reframes a future radically different from the past.

He rejects the narrative of nationalism,
            and proclaims instead a common citizenship
            within the kingdom of heaven.

And in so many ways, in our world today,
            the nations of the earth are still living out the old story
            of conquest and imperialism and violence and subjugation.

Nationalism still has the capacity to unleash the demonic,
            and recruit the indifferent and unaware to its cause.
From the rise of the far right in Europe,
            to the recent successes of the British National Party,
            to the dis-assimilation of minority ethno-religious groups
            and the consequent rise of extremist groups and associated Islamophobia…

Whether it’s the English oppression of the Welsh, the Scots, or the Irish,
            or warring factions in Iraq,
            or tensions in the Ukraine,
            or ongoing violence between Israel and the Palestinians,
                        or Canaanites as Matthew might refer to them!

We live in a world where empires dominate, and people are subjugated,
            where militarism and money are soul-mates,
            and where the mythology of divine approval provides the necessary legitimation.

And I find myself wondering what Jesus would do…

I wonder what might it mean for the powerful to discover
            that power is only meaningful when it is used to bless the weak,
            rather than to protect the vested interests of the powerful.

I wonder what might happen if the followers of Jesus
            started calling the powerful to account,
refusing to offer the narratives of divine legitimation
            for the violence and oppression offered on our behalf.

I wonder what it might look like if more Christians
            rejected the politicised narratives of nationalism,
                        and celebrated instead the glorious, God-given diversity
                        of ethnicity and culture.

I wonder what might happen if more churches were inclusive of those
            whom others would want to reject,
rather than setting themselves up as the last bastions of legalism
            in a world gone to the dogs.

I despair sometimes that we have such capacity to get it so wrong.
            It is too easy for us to become like the Pharisees,
                        convinced that purity is more important than mercy,
                        and that religious observance is more important than justice.
            It is too easy for us to enter into our alliances with the powers that be,
                        justifying our compliance on the basis of holiness.

And cutting through this comes the story of Jesus,
            rewriting the script, retelling the story of what it means to be human,
            and what it means to belong to one another.

To be a follower of Jesus is a far different affair than many of us were taught.
            It is a long way from the vision of little England
                        that we sang into being at my school in Kent
            as we weekly intoned the stirring words of Blake’s Jerusalem.

The Kingdom of God is not England,
            nor is it America, or Israel, or any other nationally defined entity.

Any nation that claims to be doing the work of God as it kills his enemies,
            has taken for itself that which belongs only to God.
And any religion that aligns itself with such activity,
            proclaiming the blessing of God on the smiting of the ungodly,
            is a long way from the kingdom of Heaven.

Rather, to be a follower of Jesus means to join
            what McLaren calls Jesus’ peace insurgency:
it is to see through every regime that promises peace through violence,
            peace through domination,
                        peace through genocide,
            peace through exclusion and intimidation.

Following Jesus means forming communities that seek peace
            through justice, generosity, and mutual concern,
            and a willingness to suffer persecution but a refusal to inflict it on others.

To follow Jesus is to become an atheist
            in regard to all bloodthirsty, tribal warrior gods,
            even those that call themselves by the same name
                        as the God we proclaim and worship.
To follow Jesus is to become a believer in the living God of grace and peace
            who, in Christ, sheds God’s own blood
            in a manifestation of amnesty and reconciliation.

To follow Jesus is to repent, to believe, and to follow . . .
            and together, these mean nothing less
            than defecting from the empire’s campaign of violence
                        to join Jesus’ divine peace insurgency.

[1] Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change, 2007, 154-160. See also
[3] The following is heavily derived from McLaren