August 20, 2017

11th Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 56:1-8

Matthew 15:10-28


Australian politics is yet in another turmoil. I’m talking of course about the dual citizenship kerfuffle that affects some of our federal politicians both in the Senate and Lower House from all sides of politics. According to section 44 of the Australian constitution, no one who is a citizen of a foreign power can be elected as a member of the federal parliament. That means, an Australian with dual citizenship cannot sit in federal parliament.

To date, the highest ranking politician to be embroiled in this drama is no other than the Deputy Prime Minister and the leader of the National Party, Barnaby Joyce. Even though he was born in Australia, he inherited New Zealand citizenship from his Kiwi-born father. And, of course, he is not the only one. To date, there are at least seven members of the federal parliament who have been referred to the High Court to determine their eligibility to sit in the parliament due to their citizenship status.

Well my son would soon become a dual citizenship holder and I hope this will deter him from entering into politics. But, if he one day decides to become a politician, God forbids – no offence Neil and Gwen – I’ll make sure he does his paperwork properly.

Friends, identity and status are important in our society. Our rights in this country is dependent on the status that we have. A visitor in Australia, for example, have less rights than people who are residents. And residents, whether temporary or permanent, have less rights than citizens.

Fortunately, our status does not mean much in God’s Kingdom. The two readings that we have today remind us that it is not who we are that matters; it is what we do.

The prophet in our passage from the book of Isaiah talked about two particular groups in Israel who were often excluded: the eunuchs and the foreigners. Apparently, the Hebrews, just like us, liked to put labels on people and treat them accordingly. According to the book of Deuteronomy, no one who had been castrated or whose penis had been cut should be accepted into the people of God (23:1). The same book also forbids particular foreigners, especially the Moabites and the Ammonites, from joining the assembly of God’s people (23:3).

But the message from our passage today from Isaiah challenged this old law. The prophet prophesied a message of inclusivity not exclusivity. Even though other people may often exclude these two groups of people, God did not. Eunuchs and foreigners who did what was right and just, who kept the Sabbath, and who followed God’s covenant were welcomed as members of God’s family.

Indeed, in God’s eyes who we are matters less than what we do in our lives. No one chose to be a eunuch or a foreigner; each was an identity that society either gave forcibly or came automatically with one’s birth. As such, no one should be treated according to the status that no one could change.

We encounter a similar issue in our reading from Matthew’s Gospel. In this passage, Jesus and his disciples were approached by a Canaanite woman. She begged Jesus to heal her daughter.

This episode in the Gospel is one the most bewildering episodes in all of the Gospels, for me at least. When the Canaanite woman approached Jesus, the disciples did not only ask him to send her away; they ‘begged’ him to send her away. Apparently, she had greatly disturbed them by the loud noises that she made.

But there was one underlying reason why the disciples treated her poorly: the woman was a foreigner. They disciples looked down on her because of her status as an alien. They believed that Jesus was the Messiah who came to liberate the Jewish people, but he had nothing to do with people from other nations.

But the disciples forgot, or perhaps chose to ignore, many parts of their own tradition that reminded them that the Holy God of Israel called not only the Jews, but all nations. Our reading today from the book of Genesis was one of them. Unfortunately, even decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the same problem still lingered in the church. Even, during the time of the Apostle Paul, the church was still struggling with the question whether salvation was for the Jewish people only or for all people in the world.

Well, the passage today could not be clearer. Jesus seemed to be harsh with the woman at the beginning, but in the end, he gave what the woman was looking for. By healing her daughter, he proclaimed that the identities of the woman and his daughter as foreigners were not a barrier for them to receive his blessing. In the eyes of most Jewish people at the time, the woman and her daughter were no more than animals. But for Jesus, the ones who called others as dogs and the ones who were called as dogs were on the same level because they were all recipients of God’s healing.

This was exactly what Jesus meant when he proclaimed previously that it was not what people ate that defiled them; it was what they said or did. As a non-Jew, the Canaanite woman was seen as ritually unclean because she ate all kinds of non-Kosher food that was forbidden by the Jewish law. But for Jesus, her worthiness to receive God’s healing depended not on what she ate or did not eat, but depended on the kind of faith and courage that she showed.

Indeed, the Kingdom of God is never about status or identity in society. The Kingdom of God is about what we do with our lives. One of the most attracting thing about the Good News of Jesus Christ was that it breaks down all the barriers that we often create to divide ourselves: racial, social, economic, even political barriers. The church must be a home for all kinds of people who loves God and who wants to follow God: black or white, poor or rich, male or female, left or right, gay or straight. It is not who we are; it is what we do that is important.

Friends, God does not look at our status or identity in society; God looks at our hearts and attitudes. God accepts all those who love God.

Today, as we baptize baby Faith, we are reminded again about this eternal truth. Just like the daughter of the Canaanite woman was healed because of her mother’s faith, baby Faith is here with us today because of the faith of her father and mother. Nigel is originally from the United Kingdom and Magdalene is from Zambia. But here, we don’t worry about their status in this land; we don’t worry about their citizenship. We don’t worry whether they have dual citizenship or triple or quadruple citizenship!

We welcome everyone who wants to follow God. That’ the only requirement that matters and, I believe, that’s the only requirement that matters to God. Amen.

Toby Keva