Learning from foreigners

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- Foreigners keep insistently popping up in all three of our readings today, and we would do well to listen to the message that they teach us. People are always suspicious of foreigners and wary of contact with them. We like to think that we know best and most definitely that our appreciation of our God is the right one; that ‘God is on our side’ against others. It comes as something of a shock then to discover that this is not the biblical view at all, indeed, that the founding father of Israel, Abraham was a pagan, worshipping his ancestral gods until he discovered the one god on his journeys. Seemingly, he made that discovery via contact with other peoples who had met with the One God earlier! All the major prophets of Israel will in fact speak of the importance of foreigners in bringing the Jewish people back to the one true God – and they do it time after time!


Our reading from third Isaiah, (56:1, 6-7) is precisely about one such moment of discovery, or perhaps recovery, as those exiled in Babylon came to a renewal of their faith in Yahweh precisely through that experience of exile and their deprivation of their temple and their land. Even more importantly, they were able to communicate that faith to pagans, as our reading indicates, and it is they who will thus became guardians of the faith. When the people were eventually allowed to return to Palestine after about 100 years in exile, some of these ‘Jews’ remained in Babylon, and became the compilers of the great Babylonian Talmud; the teachings about the faith. Foreigners, it appears can know more about the truths of the faith than we ‘home-grown’ believers do, and can teach us a thing or two!


In our Gospel, (Matthew 15:21-28) we find Jesus tussling with precisely this issue of where his ministry should be focussed, and to whom it should be directed. He is in fact incredibly rude and dismissive of the Canaanite woman, referring to her and her people as dogs. Dogs in this society were not the cuddly pets of our imaginings, definitely not ‘man’s best friend’, but often rabid and diseased animals which scrounged off the populous and cleared the streets of vermin and discarded rotting edibles which brought rats and vermin. Yet it is this woman, with her rapid fire repartee who plays a vital part in Jesus’ own discovery of his true mission.


We have to cast our minds back over hundreds of years to begin to appreciate the significance of the Phoenicians – the ‘Canaanite’ inhabitants of Tyre and Sidon. Quite unlike the land acquisitive Israelites, the Phoenicians were traders over the Mediterranean from the Bronze Age, from as early at least as 1200 BC. Trade – barter – was their thing, and there is not much indication of conquest and land seizure on their part. They traded metals and pottery from as far afield as Spain at the other end of the Mediterranean. They would survive conquest by the Assyrians, by Alexander the Great and the Romans. Carthage, their great western entrepot Port, would survive to challenge the power of Rome. Clearly during those immense journeys, they met and worshipped many gods. How come then that our Canaanite woman approached Jesus for healing for her daughter? Clearly, her need drove her to a broader outreach and in that move she was able to stand as a signpost for the Lord himself, indicating the outward thrust his saving mission would eventually take to include the pagans of the entire world.


This foreign woman, someone unclean to the Jews, a worshipper of many gods of storm and fertility with all the dubious practices her beliefs required, was able to cross the boundaries of fear and prejudice in her need. It was her vision that this man, and he alone, could cure her sick daughter. Through her divinely given perception she was thus able to give Jesus the insight to unite the faith of his ancestors into an international outreach for the salvation of all, irrespective of whether they were Jew or pagan.


It is left to Paul, (Romans 11:13-15. 29-32) to continue this work of reconciliation as apostle to the Gentiles. Paul lived in a period of increasingly acrimonious relationships between Christians and Jews and the Church was, by the time he wrote his letter to the Romans, increasingly made up of pagan converts. This situation would be rendered even more difficult by the Jewish Revolt in 66-70.  Paul’s own early ministry, as we know, had been dogged by hostility from Jews as well as hard line Jewish Christians who insisted that full conversion to Judaism was the prerequisite to belief in Jesus. Paul fought vigorously against their efforts, insisting that the faith of Jesus did not require acceptance of the Jewish law and practices. Romans 9-11 was his latest work; in which, rather than display hostility to the Jews, he gives a carefully reasoned account of relations between Jews and Gentile converts, and in the section we have here he labours to draw out the intimate and vital relationship existing between the two. It is he says all part of God’s plan whereby since the Jews initially rejected Jesus, God turned to the pagans, and thereby incited the envy of the Jews. This conflict he therefore sees as healthy, a learning encounter in which his beloved people will ultimately be united by faith in Christ. It will be a sharing relationship, a two-way sharing between Gentile and Jew as the rich heritage of Jewry will be made available to the Gentile world, and the Jewish world will learn from pagan converts the final resolution of their salvation in Christ the Son of God; the One unique Son of God the Father – along with the entire cosmos which is being drawn into intimate and perfect communion with Him.


Clearly xenophobia, a fear of foreigners, has no place in our Christian life, no place in our exercise of our humanity and, far from mistrusting the stranger and the foreigner, we must listen to them; for it is very likely they will teach us much of vital importance about our own faith, and serve to deepen and enrich it.


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