By Elaine Ramshaw
Revised Common Lectionary
Reflection, Proper 15, Year A
August 20, 2023
Decades ago I was a member of a congregation where two men in their 60s, both faithful churchmen and all-around fine humans, often argued different sides of the question of what to do with the congregation’s money.
- J.W. believed that charity begins at home, and that our first responsibility was to care for the congregation and to keep it functioning smoothly.
- J.D. was always pushing for the congregation to give more outside its own boundaries, to send more money through the Synod and Churchwide ministries into the world, and to support local organizations.
This tension is a perennial one in a congregation’s financial stewardship decisions. The story of the Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel speaks to this tension. Jesus is shown thinking in both ways: focus on feeding the community as we know it, or focus on people outside the community who make their own claims on us.
In the Gospel of Mark, where scholars say Matthew likely got this story, the account of the Syrophoenician woman acts as the pivot to Jesus expanding his mission to include Gentiles as well as Jews. After the encounter with the woman in Mark, Jesus immediately heads to the region of the Decapolis (Mark 7:31), a more cosmopolitan, culturally Greek-leaning area. Yet this does not mean that J.D.’s position in the perennial tension wins out over J.W.’s. Jesus continues to see himself as the Jewish Messiah, but with a mission that goes beyond his co-religionists. Like Abraham, he is chosen and blessed to be a blessing to all the nations (Genesis 12:2, 18:18).
When this tension arises in our own discussions about how to direct our financial resources, today’s story might help us get out of the binary “either/or” mindset, where there’s a zero-sum game and the more we send outside our boundaries, the less we have for sustaining and growing our own community. Jesus didn’t stop feeding his original flock. Rather he positioned the community of his Jewish followers and its mission differently in relation to those beyond its boundaries. The resolution of the tension is more of a “both/and,” where the home community needs to be nurtured so as to be able to engage positively with those who are outside.
Also, it’s always salutary for us Gentile Christians to remember that if the mission of the first Jesus followers had not expanded, we might not be Christians! As the Jewish people are encouraged to remind themselves that they were once “wandering Arameans” and aliens in a foreign land (Deuteronomy 26:5), we who are Gentile Christians need to remind ourselves that we would be outsiders if the first Jesus-community had focused only on itself. At the same time, if the members of that original Jesus-community had not attended to each other financially and through praying and caring, the movement would never have flourished.
We are blessed to be a blessing. We are called to tend the blessings we have been given, both for ourselves and for the world beyond our boundaries. It is crucially important to Jesus that we be fed at his table. And it is crucially important that being fed at that table prepares us to go out to the Decapolis, to feed the hungry and heal the sick wherever they may be found.
As the reading from Isaiah has God proclaiming, “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples,” think about the ways this community that unites us across national and ethnic and cultural differences can be represented in worship. This could be a good Sunday to include hymns and prayers and images and styles of music that are not familiar, that originated among people quite different from us. If your congregation already uses hymns or liturgical songs from other cultural settings, this could be an opportunity to point that out as a way our community is made broader by the voice of the other. If there are persons in your congregation whose first language is something other than English, invite them to say the Lord’s Prayer in their first language before it is spoken in English. It is in the sermon that the preacher can make the connection between the breadth of community in Christ with our call to feed and help and learn from and share with those who are different from us.
One picture book that combines the theme of friendship across great differences with the imagery of the dinner table is Arthur Yorinks’ Company’s Coming(Hyperion, 1988, 2000). This short and very funny story tells what happens when a couple of aliens, small buggy-looking creatures, land their flying saucer in Shirley and Moe’s suburban yard. Moe is frightened and eventually calls the FBI, which calls the Pentagon, which calls in troops. Shirley says “maybe we can make friends with them” and invites them to dinner. If the story is shared in Sunday school or in a children’s time at worship, ask the children about the different reactions of the various people to the visitors. Whom do we invite to dinner? You might want to connect the meal shared by everyone at the end of the book to Jesus’ table at Holy Communion, where everyone is invited and there’s food for everyone to share.
Teens can be engaged in the question of how we decide who has a claim on our time, our care, and our resources. For whom are we responsible? Who is invited to eat at our table? What makes us think it’s our table in the first place? Do we always think we get to define who deserves our care, or do we ever let someone else stake their claim, as Jesus let the Canaanite woman redefine for him who belongs at the table? Have the teens had any experience, in their family, their friend groups, their other communities, of an outsider claiming a metaphorical place at the table? What was the group’s response? Another way at this with teens might involve looking at what people in the congregation do for others and where the offering money goes. How much of what is given goes to our own congregation’s needs and to people like us, and how much of what is given is shared with people outside or far away?
Elaine Ramshaw is an author, spiritual director and seminary instructor who teaches pastoral care online from her home in Connecticut.