In Jesus, Exceptionalist Ideology Falls Away – Dennis Ormseth reflects on a global scope for the vision of well-being.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday August 14-20, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023, 2026)
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28
Constructing political agreements to address on a global scale the degradation of the earth’s ecology is proving to be a nearly insurmountable challenge. As James Gustave Speth writes, an “anatomy of failure” of global environmental governance, environmental deterioration “is driven by powerful underlying forces; it requires far-reaching international responses; and the political base to support these measures tends to be weak and scattered.” These forces are quickly identified: “the steady expansion of human populations, the routine deployment of inappropriate technologies, the near universal aspiration for affluence and high levels of consumption, and the widespread unwillingness to correct the failures of the unaided market.” But the strategies needed to deal with these forces are very difficult to put in place. They need to be far-reaching and complex: new energy policies, new transportation strategies, changes in agriculture and the management of forests around the world. The required actions “demand international cooperation on a scale seldom achieved” (James Gustave Speth, Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, pp. 98-99).
The politics of such cooperation are exceedingly difficult: the issues are increasingly complex and difficult to understand; the impacts are remote or difficult to perceive; they concern future problems more than current ones, and problems that may be felt more immediately by other people in other places rather than close to home; and the problems tend to be chronic rather than acute. The political institutions needed for sustained and effective action are rarely strong enough. Economic needs regularly trump the needs of the environment. The wealthy global North protects its world dominance over against the poorer South. And particularly problematic is the persistence of the government of the United States in its arrogant attitude of exceptionalism, which undergirds a “pattern of unilateralism and of staying outside the multilateral system unless we need it—a la carte multilateralism” (Speth, pp.98 – 99, 107-11)
Can Christian churches contribute to the effort to meet this immense and daunting set of challenges? Without addressing specific issues identified by Speth, the lectionary lessons for this Sunday nonetheless point to resources within the tradition for helping the world deal with important, perhaps even crucial, aspects of them. The readings evince a powerful determination on the part of God to overcome the divisions that separate peoples from each other and work against their mutual well-being. Psalm 67, for example, reminds us that God’s people are to pray that God’s “way may be known upon earth, [God’s] saving power among all nations” (Psalm 67:2; our emphasis). There is global scope to the vision of well-being for which we commonly pray, as in the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.”
Furthermore, the challenge of bridging divisions between peoples is clearly addressed in the lesson from Isaiah 56; through the prophet, God promises to gather “the outcasts of Israel” and “others . . . besides those already gathered” (Isaiah 56:8). To the “foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—these,” the prophet promises on behalf of God, “I will bring to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer.” Interpreted in terms of the mission of Jesus, the Lord, the Servant of Creation, this promise means that those who minister to God and act as God’s servants will be co-servants with him in serving creation. Together with these strangers the people of God already gathered embrace the restoration of creation adumbrated in Jesus’ ministry: keeping the Sabbath rest, which encompasses all creatures in God’s own shalom, they join his ascent of the “holy mountain,” which is to say that, the representative ecology in which God, the creation, and the servants of creation are brought together in prayers of joyful praise and thanksgiving. “For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7).
In the Gospel reading for the day we see how such promises might actually begin to be realized. The encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman offers a vision of how such deep divisions that prohibit the healing of creation might be overcome. Warren Carter describes the situation as follows:
Just as Jesus “came out” or left one place (Matthew 15:21), the woman also “came out.” They meet in an unspecified “nowhere” place in the boundary region of Galilee and Tyre-Sidon, the interface of Jewish and Gentile territory. It is a place of tension and prejudice: Josephus declares “the Tyrians are our bitterest enemies” (Con Ap 1.70), and there were clashes between Tyrians and Jews in the 60s (JW 2.478). Along with ethnic conflict, there are competing religious understandings (Israel is God’s chosen people), economic needs (the urban centers Tyre and Sidon require food from rural areas), and political goals. Tyrian political aspirations for further territory and resentment of Roman rule ran high. Josephus notes that many followers of John of Gischala, who revolted against Rome, came from ‘the region of Tyre” (JW 2.5888; cf. Vita 372). The woman comes not from the cities of Tyre or Sidon but from that region, suggesting perhaps her poverty as a rural peasant (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. London: T&T Clark, 2005, pp. 321-22).
Thus, in her appeal to Jesus as he enters the conflicted territory that separates her people from Jesus’ people, the woman confronts many of the complex factors that render political accommodation of any kind difficult, today no less than in the first century: rival populations struggle for control of contested territories and the resources they contain; the power and prerogatives of empire trump local concerns; and the resort to military power to guarantee access to material resources adds to the people’s sense of vulnerability and hopelessness. And figuring most prominently in their exchange is the challenge of the imperialistic ideology of Israel that, astonishingly, seems in the first instance to be even Jesus’ own point of deep resistance to her appeal.
Nevertheless, the woman draws on virtues she intuitively knows she can depend on for the response she seeks from Jesus: she cries out persistently, as in prayer, to one she acknowledges as Lord and son of David, challenging, as Carter puts it, “Jesus’ very identity and mission.” Her petition squarely confronts the ideology implied by that mission:
“her request has challenged his ideology of chosenness, which restricts his mission and his disciples mission to Israel. In the tradition of Abraham, she demands her share in God’s blessing for all the world (15:29-39; 1:1-2). Her request protests an excluding focus on Israel and reclaims her place as a Canaanite and a Gentile in God’s purposes” (Carter, p. 323.)
When Jesus persists in his resistance she matches him with both wit and courage. In the crux of their exchange, so offensive to contemporary ears attuned to politically correct standards of speech, he supplies a metaphor that provides an impetus to transcend their conflict.” It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” he says. “Why does he use a food metaphor when she has not asked for food?” Carter astutely asks, and observes:
“Bread or food has also been an issue in two previous stories (12:7-8; 15:1-20) that have involved conflict between traditions and God’s will. Here the struggle concerns whether Jesus will be bound by cultural and historical conventions in resisting this woman from around Tyre and Sidon (see 15:21-22), or understand that faithfulness to his commission to manifest God’s saving reign does not violate Israel’s priority if he extends the reign to Gentiles. Food, then, is a metaphor for God’s empire or salvation (1:21, 23; 4:17)” (Carter, p. 324).
So while his comment persists in maintaining “the status quo of ethnic, cultural, religious, gender, and political division, her response lays claim to his metaphor for her own cause: “Yes Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Thus, she reaches out
“beyond these barriers to possibilities that are faithful to God’s promises to bless all the nations of the earth (Gen 12:1-13). Without questioning the priority of the children (Israel), and while recognizing the authority of the masters, she reframes the significance of dogs (Gentiles). It is not a matter of food or no food (Jesus’ alternative), but food for both. . . . She demands a place at the table, not under it.”
What Carter calls attention to is the relationship between a master of the household and its domestic animals. Not only the children of the household receive the master’s care; the animals belong to the household as well, and cannot be denied the food that is appropriate to them. And, we note, this wild metaphorical stratagem of the woman triumphs!
Jesus has a name for her persistence: “Woman, great is your faith!” he exclaims. “Let it be done for you as you wish.” Indeed, the narrative has made the greatness of her faith very clear; she has overcome every obstacle. But it is important to see precisely what that faith is. It is clearly not faith in Jesus as the one who delivers special privilege and power to Israel among the nations, or, for that matter, to Christian believers. It is rather a faith in the gracious mercy of God that transcends all such “ethnic, gender, religious, political, and economic barriers.” And even more: we would suggest that her metaphor expresses a faith that overcomes the commonly assumed division between humans and their animal companions. Here, we might say, is faith in God as the creator of all who provides food for all. Her appeal is to a God for whom, in the vivid image of the woman’s plea, dogs are as welcome at the family table as are the children!
The implication for people of faith in the context of contemporary care of creation is clear: in the face of this woman’s faith in the God of all creation, whose healing servant she recognized in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the exceptionalist ideology of Israel or any other nation falls away. For this God, there is no barrier to restoration of all creation. This truth comes hard to Americans or citizens of any nation who expect from the rest of the world subservience to their unilateralist conceptions of fairness and justice. To embrace such faith can be painfully difficult, and especially so for those who have taken special pride in being recipients of God’s salvation. Indeed, in the reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we see how painful this recognition was for even the great apostle of justifying faith. God, he acknowledges, has given everything to his people, and yet he must relinquish their exclusive claim in favor of God’s transcendent compassion and all-inclusive mercy. Even Jesus would seem to give up his people’s privileged status with great reluctance.
So we should not be surprised that it comes with great difficulty for a nation such as ours, so wonderfully blessed as America has been in this place, to acknowledge other nations’ claims on ecological equity and justice. Nor, for that matter, for the human species in relationship to the needs of the rest of God’s creation. The woman transformed Jesus’ understanding of his mission in relationship to the purposes of God; who will change ours, so that the creation God so loves can be truly and finally restored? The Christian community has this transformation of perspective and orientation to offer the nations of the world, in their quest for policies that address the dreadful reality of our degradation of God’s creation, with both compassion and justice for all.
Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.