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Sermon for Ordinary 20 Year A

The Reverend Dr Sam Cappleman

God’s Tradition

In last week’s Partnership News there was a review on the book, ‘The Great and Holy War’ which describes how World War 1 had a profound impact on religious thought across the globe and particularly on Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

For many who held the Christian faith old models and perspectives had to be rethought in the aftermath of war. 

Theologians too had to rethink and a whole new way of understanding theology, led by Karl Barth among others, known as neo-orthodoxy evolved.  Instead of the world judging God, as it was seen to have done in the past, God was shown to be the absolute standard by which the world should be judged.

As interesting as Barth’s theology is, were not going to look at it today!

But the principle was clear, old way of looking at the world and God had to be rethought.

This was Jesus’ challenge to the religious leaders of His time.  The Pharisees were respected for the adherence to the tradition and law of the Jews.  But unfortunately they had added to the law, seemingly reading more into it than was actually there. 

The traditions which had grown up around it, often over hundreds of years, were becoming as important as the law itself.  This is what Jesus speaks out about, and about a slavish obedience to these traditions which confused adherence to the law with true faith in God. 

It was as if the traditions and supporting elements of their faith had become more important than faith itself.  They needed to be challenged and corrected because in so doing they were making God too small and restrictive.

Their old models of faith and perspectives had to be rethought in the light of the Messiah who had come and revealed the true nature of God in person.

The religious riles of the time might have expected someone who claimed to be the Jewish Messiah to be fervent in His adherence to the law and the traditions which had grown up around it.  But Jesus, rather than praising the Pharisees for their adherence to the law unexpectedly criticises them.

He does, as He so often did, the unexpected.  He criticises them because they have now moved so far from the intention of the law, they seem to have turned it on its head.  Because in their pursuit of the ritualistic formalism and tradition they seemed not to grasp what made a person truly unclean. 

Jesus is making a fundamental point in this story; sin comes not from failing to perform some minutiae of human making, but from the things, such as the often less than perfect thoughts, words and deeds, that come from our hearts. 

The Pharisees seemed to have confused this bigger picture of moral righteousness with tradition and ritual purity.  As we all know, sin, that which separates us from God, is more than skin deep.  Jesus came to address the problem of sin and evil, and to overcome it, and to reveal the true nature of God.  As he did, sometimes He needed to speak out against traditions and practices which, rather than support this mission, confused and obscured it.

So, having rounded on the Pharisees, it’s perhaps not unexpected that he heads off to the Gentile territory, Tyre and Sidon where He encounters the Canaanite woman.

Not only is the Canaanite a gentile, she’s a woman too.  It’s not surprising the disciples want to send her away, albeit with her request granted.

There is the exchange we are then all familiar with, she challenges Jesus and He grants her request.

But as he does so, he does something else which is unexpected, He commends her for her faith.  Having previously criticised the faith of the (Jewish) Pharisees this must have been somewhat jaw dropping to the disciples and anyone else that was listening.  To commend a Gentile, a woman at that, for her faith when He had recently been so hard on those of the Jewish faith.

What was happening?  It was a further demonstration that the traditions and the practices of the old world order where exactly that, old world order.  The new world order had come and with it new ways of understanding and experiencing God which meant the old had to go, or be rethought and updated at the very least.

The story of the Canaanite woman, who challenges Jesus with the response about dogs being able to eat the crumbs that fall from the table is sandwiched in between two stories of feeding, both with unexpected outcomes.

The first is the feeding of the 5000 with five loaves and two fish we heard about a few weeks ago (Matt 14 v 13 ff), and one which follows on from today’s gospel reading where 4000 are fed with seven loaves and a few small fish (Matt 15 v 32 ff).

In the first case there were 12 baskets of crumbs left over, in the second 7 baskets of crumbs.  If the feeding itself was unexpected, the volume of the leftovers certainly was!  It’s as if creation itself had responded to the presence of God on earth, just as when the water responded by supporting Jesus as he walked over it.

There seems to be no short measure of crumbs in this section of Matthews’s gospel (although the words for crumbs and fragments which are used in the Greek text are different in the different stories).

The message is clear.  God is not a God of shortage, but of overflowing abundance.  He is a generous God who wants to share His riches with all the world, sometimes through the unexpected and generally working through His followers.

And it’s that same generous God who still wants to share His riches with the world, sometimes still in unexpected ways, and sometimes, perhaps even more unexpectedly, through His followers.

In order for that to happen in the manner that Christ desires we too may sometimes need to rethink some of the traditions and practices we hold dear.  Things that have always been that way, but perhaps owe more of their existence to human tradition than to God’s word and ways.

Things that, however inadvertently, have limited God and made Him smaller and more prescriptive than He is.

If we are to be part of the work of sharing God’s generosity with the world, to do unexpected things with and through us, then perhaps it’s time to consider the things that we hold on to, our traditions and our ways, to make sure that rather than limiting the God who created the world and gave it everything He could, including the life of His son Jesus, we are reflecting His story to the world with equal generosity of heart, mind and spirit.