“You will be my people and I will be your God” Those are the words of a covenant, an oath, forever binding God and the descendants of Abraham, binding all who would believe. It is a covenant renewed some 400 years later under the leadership of Moses. It is the covenant that prophet Isaiah speaks about in the first reading – only it’s now another 700 years passed. For more than 1,000 years the people of Israel had understood that they, and they alone, were qahal Yahweh, the people of God. Understood that they, and they alone, were the inheritors of salvation and God’s justice. They were the people of the divine manifest destiny, privileged, and the chosen people.
When the prophet Isaiah speaks, revealing God’s intention, they are expecting their understanding to be reaffirmed. “Thus says the LORD: … my salvation is about to come, my justice, about to be revealed.” Can you imagine the shock when the narrative they have understood for more than 1,000 years is challenged? Isaiah reveals what was always true from the beginning, the covenant oath was for all the descendants of Abraham, all who would believe. The people of divine manifest destiny, privilege, a chosen people now have to change their narrative to understand that salvation is going to include foreigners, the others. It will include Canaanites, Moabites, Edomites, Assyrians, Amalekites, Midianites, Persians, Philistines. The Israelites begin to ask: Those people are going to be part of the covenant? Their sacrifice acceptable at our altar?
When such a long-held narrative is challenged by the Word of God, the choices are few. It is the challenge that Moses put before the people Israel about to enter the promised land: “I have today set before you life and prosperity, death and doom… I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the LORD, your God, heeding his voice, and holding fast to him.”
The prospect of all the “those people,” people not part of the cherished understanding of the narrative, now crossing over into the covenant is a dangerous thing. What is even worse is the prophet Isaiah will go on to say that Israel is to be a light to the world, a light that illumines that way for the people to cross over. Dangerous stuff, this crossing over. Cross over and carry that light to the others, and you risk being called a traitor, seen as unprincipled, unfaithful, perhaps even being called “no longer one of us….” Crossing over is something that always challenges our very identity, challenges what we believe, and who we believe in.
Crossing over can bring old fears, grudges and biases into play. You know, when St Mark describes this same scene from the district of Tyre and Sidon, he refers to the woman as “Syro-Phoenician.” Not Matthew. He digs back into Jewish history and dredges up a name unused in centuries – Canaanite. A name that speaks of “other,” of enemy, of the ones who offered up child sacrifices to their false gods. And this one,….. this Canaanite… dares to cross-over and approach our Messiah: “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David!” The apostles respond, send her away. She is other; we’ve no time or energy for her.
Jesus finally says something: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” In that moment, I suspect the apostles were thinking, “Yeah, yeah – that’s right, he was sent only to us – not them. Just send her away.”
But what did the woman understand? Not later, when Jesus affirms her great faith and steadfastness, promising to heal her child, but in that moment. The moment when again she is put down, ignored, diminished and all the other prejudicial slights that have been part of centuries of dealing with these Israelites. The moment when she thinks “I, too, am a descendant of Abraham – the promise was also given to me. How long will I have to endure this…” Maybe the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr answer:
I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?” Somebody’s asking, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?” Somebody’s asking, “When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?” … I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because “truth crushed to earth will rise again.” How long? Not long, because “no lie can live forever.” How long? Not long, because “you shall reap what you sow.” How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
The gospel scene is a covenant moment. Before the woman and the apostles, Jesus has placed the age-old choice: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse.” In her faith, her perseverance, the woman choses life “Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the LORD, your God, heeding his voice, and holding fast to him.” But what will the apostles choose? Their long-held narrative or the Word of God.
The apostles – desperate to believe this one is the Messiah, the one who will bring salvation – need to cross over from their narrow belief about who will receive the offer of salvation. Because, in the end of things, the Risen Jesus will tell them to cross over – to go to the ends of the earth – to the Canaanites, Assyrians, Moabites, Persians, Philistines – to the Romans, the Americas, to China, to the ends of the earth and proclaim salvation to all, the salvation they once thought privileged to themselves and their own.
Overlooking the river to the promised land. In the market place in the district of Tyre and Sidon. On the streets of Charlottesville. In the city of Tampa. We face the same choice: choose live or death, blessing or curse – and choose in the context – not of the narrative you always assumed to be true – but in the light of the only narrative that matters in the end: “God so loved the world he gave his only Son.” Believe in that narrative and choose life – no matter how long it takes – because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. It ever bends towards Jesus.