Faithful Name Calling

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There’s quite a lot of name calling in this week’s gospel reading from Matthew. Name calling is not generally the sort of thing we associate with Jesus, and this particular example feels harsh: he called a woman a dog (at least by implication). While he didn’t mean this with the same sense borne by the English idiom, it still wasn’t a sweet thing to say, and don’t we all like our Jesus to be sweet? 

There are other names used in this passage too. The woman used “Lord” and “Son of David.” These are personal titles, names that apply to Jesus individually. They reference Jesus’ power and authority, as well as his messianic role and his fulfillment of Israel’s story. With the names she used, the woman was acknowledging something specific about Jesus and asking for him to step powerfully into her life.

Jesus used several names too. There’s “lost sheep” and “children,” in addition to “dogs.” These are not personal titles. They are collective names, metaphors used to describe the contours of salvation offered by the God of Israel. With the names he used, Jesus was not saying anything specific about the woman herself. Rather, he was explaining how God’s favor and grace came first to his chosen people of Israel.

Jesus was speaking to a key theological issue, namely the relative positions of Israel and the Gentiles in the plan of salvation. In contrast, the woman — who was a Gentile herself — was simply speaking to Jesus. Speaking directly to him, she overcomes the collective categories. What happened in this story is that promised blessings made to God’s chosen people, “the house of Israel,” were made available to a Gentile though the one person Jesus.

Jesus’ ministry beyond Israel did not negate God’s promises to the people of Israel, it was rather an extension of those promises. That’s why Jesus was so explicit about the sheep and children (the people of Israel) and the dogs (the Gentiles). He went to some length to explain that the blessings and power in His name were a fulfillment of God’s work among his chosen people. God had not changed his mind and chosen new people. God had not gone back on his promises. What was different in this story is that now, through faith in Him (v. 28), even those outside the covenant with Israel could receive God’s blessing.

This week’s reading from Romans explores similar themes. Paul was writing some thirty or more years after Jesus’ conversation with the Canaanite woman. In that time, many Gentiles had embraced the good news about Jesus Christ, and many Jews had rejected it. Paul was struggling to account for that — how could this be so, if the Israelites were God’s chosen people? Had God rejected Israel? By no means, Paul writes. The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.

Our churches today are nearly entirely Gentile, so much so that the “Jew and Greek” distinction means very little to us. We hardly see the world through Jewish categories of identity, and so we don’t often spend our time anxiously wondering about the relative positions of Israel and the Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation. But it does matter very much that the Father kept his promises and sent his Son, born of the house of David, to the people of Israel. It matters because God’s promise of salvation to us Gentiles in the name of that Son is only worth anything if God keeps his promises.

That Jesus would emphasize the priority of Israel to the very face of a woman in deep suffering is a reminder of how serious God is about the promises he makes. No, it’s not really a sweet a story; but Jesus is more than sweet. Jesus is faithful.


The Rev. Andrew Van Kirk

Posted by The Rev. Andrew Van Kirk with

Getting Ready for Sunday by the Rev. Alina Williams

My children and I have recently discovered the glory of the trampoline park industry that booms in major cities.  There’s a particular park in Richardson that we enjoy going to on a regular basis.  At this park, there are two special features: the first is a battle beam that transcends a foam pit, and the second is a trapeze that swings out over a similar foam pit.  My older child is fairly fearless when it comes to the trapeze.  We attended a birthday party in June at this park, and she was on the trapeze for at least an hour.  Perhaps it is the feeling of freedom she attained from swinging repeatedly, or perhaps it was the security in knowing she wouldn’t hurt herself when she let go of the bar; either way, she kept returning time and again to this feature.

The beam, on the other hand, had only one chance to impress her.  Mind you, the battle beam feature also comes with the opportunity to shove your opponent off the beam into the foam pit in order to traverse the beam.  Although my daughter is fearless when it comes to the trapeze, the possibility of someone hitting her off the beam into the same style foam pit was terrifying.  She even grew anxious when she was the only person on the beam—the narrow, long and difficult road to the other side was scarier than sailing through the air at twelve feet above the foam pit of the trapeze.  Halfway through her trip across the beam, with no threat of someone knocking her off, she jumped into the foam pit of her own volition.

How often do we find ourselves in a similar situation… walking along a narrow and difficult path and instead of trusting that we will make it to the other side with a bit of concentration and hard work, we sabotage ourselves with self-doubt, distractions, and isolation.  Much like Peter in Matthew’s Gospel lesson for this week, we let something as simple as a gust of wind distract us from the reward of walking with Jesus on the water.  Don’t get me wrong, I, too, would be terrified if I was on the boat—a storm arises on the sea and is overcoming the boat, not to mention the fact that someone is walking on the water toward the boat.  But I am not sure I would have the guts to test the waters myself.

Peter, on the other hand, is just that gutsy.  “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  This may well be the first theological bargain we hear about, but we know from personal experience it is not the last—God, if you help me pass the test… God, if you help my team win… God, if you take away the cancer… God, if you make it stop hurting… God, if you can fix my marriage…  God, if you will heal my child…

And Jesus bids him, “Come.”  But not without hard work and concentration and focus.  How can we walk on water in the midst of a storm?  Well, we must be as gutsy as Peter is, but more trusting of the one who calls to us in the storm.  We cannot expect Jesus to do all the work, either: we should expect to work harder than ever before, focus more on God’s presence within the storm, and remember who it is that is calling us in the midst of the chaos.  We can’t let the fear that comes from walking across the narrow and difficult path determine whether we jump off of the beam or stay on—we must remain focused on who is on the other side of that beam cheering us on.

Posted by The Rev. Alina Williams with

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This is a blog of essays meant to prepare parishioners for an upcoming Sunday reading.