Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity 2023

There is no gap or limit to God’s mercy.

The Reverend Ralph Godsall Priest Vicar

Sunday, 20th August 2023 at 11.15 AM

I doubt it will surprise you to know that here at Westminster Abbey we take Jesus pretty seriously. When the Gospels tell us Jesus says one thing or another, we tend to back him up. We try to go along with what Jesus says and does. That obvious point being made, we turn to the Gospel for this morning (Matthew 15.10-28) where, speaking personally, I have a problem following the Abbey line. I struggle to follow Jesus, to stick with him, at this point.

A Canaanite woman, which means she was not Jewish, not part of Jesus’ community of faith, not in his orbit, asked that her daughter be healed. Jesus tells her that it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. She replied that even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table. Jesus then agreed to heal the little girl.

People who do a better job of sticking with Jesus than I do say he was inviting her to reflect on her relationship with God and not just her immediate concern for her child; that Jesus knew all along that he was going to heal the child. Maybe, but I agree with Helen Reddy that “That ain’t no way to treat a lady.”

Whether Jesus was broadening the Canaanite woman’s perspective or just having a bad day is not the real point. What is important is the gap that existed between them and the difficulty they had of bridging it.

Does the fact that Jesus did not identify with the Canaanite woman constitute a limit to his obligations to her? Put another way, does the kingdom of God have boundaries? Are some people objects of God’s concern and others not?

We know instinctively that the answer is NO. There are no limits to God’s compassion, mercy and love. God is Creator of All, Lord of All, Father of All, Judge of All. Today’s readings all push us in this direction.

Israel understood herself as a chosen nation—distinctive, unique, holy—and yet, as we heard this morning, her prophet Isaiah tells them that, at the last, foreigners will join themselves to the Lord, will keep the Sabbath with them; and God’s House will become a ‘house of prayer for all peoples.’ (Isaiah 56: 1,6-8)

St Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, was dealing with a new, predominantly Gentile Church that thought it had taken the place of the Jewish nation in God’s affections—that the divine covenant had shifted from the old Israel to the new. Paul would have none of that. He reminds them that the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable, and that God’s mercy is for everyone. (Romans 11: 1-2a, 29-32)

We know instinctively that this is the way God wills things to be. But that is not the only instinct we have. There is another that is more practical and more applicable to our daily lives. We are basically tribal. We know that we need boundaries and limits for ourselves. What is more, we like them. We like the clarity that comes from knowing where we stand. We want to know that we are in something, that we belong to something. That results in an essentially tribal instinct that creates gaps like the one in this morning’s Gospel.

Christianity is full of some people who maintain that if you don’t know Jesus the way I know Jesus, then you don’t know Jesus at all. And if you don’t love God the way I love God, then God doesn’t love you at all. If you don’t think what I think about abortion, sexuality, the Bible, the end of the world, the beginning and end of life — then God doesn’t want you on the team. The one thing that religious fundamentalists have in common is their certainty that God has no use for the other side.

Yet despite these tribal instincts—or maybe because of them—the Canaanite woman will not go away. She stands before us as she stood before Jesus, across the gap that separates us, wondering if we will dare to reach across it. The confidence of the Canaanite woman was that she did not address the essential disconnect that Jesus held up to her. She ignored the gap between them. Instead, she asserted their essential connectedness. Even if it is crumbs from the table, it is shared hunger and shared food. Even if we are separated by great difference we are bound together by a common humanity. Even if we do not like each other, we can still love and tend a sick child.

Children and dogs, the chosen and the outcast, still define the way of the world around us - nationally, politically, socially, and economically. But God, who never seems to leave things well enough alone, maintains a universality that refuses to bend to exceptionalism or tribalism. God interrupts our tribal identities with those we find a bit disturbing—those we might rather exclude: with ‘Canaanite women’, who ignore our disconnectedness and assert their rightful place in a shared and common humanity.

Jesus lets the Canaanite woman, the hated foreigner, and her astonishing confidence take centre stage. She is the undoubted hero of this encounter, coming back again and again, refusing to let her faith in Jesus be shaken, no matter what he says to her.

This is a genuine moment of transformation in the ministry of Jesus—a change in his human heart. It is a seminal moment, like that found elsewhere in the gospels with the Samaritan woman at the well and the Centurion and his slave. Another moment in a developing narrative of inclusion, of salvation, that is for all, not just for some.

There is no gap or limit, in the end, to God’s mercy. That is what is happening in today’s Gospel. It begins with obvious differences being questioned which enable a Jewish rabbi and a Canaanite woman to affirm their connectedness in the confidence that all can and will be included in the end. That is the path God wants us to take this morning with the ‘Canaanite women’ in our lives.