The relation between Judaism and Christianity has long been highly problematic. Anti-Semitism was the great stain on European Christianity in medieval and early modern times, and perhaps this even paved the way for the monstrous hatred of the Jews exhibited in the secular, post-Christian ideologies of Nazism and Communism. On the other hand, from a very early stage, Christian theologians insisted, against those who claimed that the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles were sufficient, that Christians could never dispense with the old testament of the Jewish Scriptures, because these were essential to understanding the new testament (or witness) that had been made manifest in the life and death of Jesus.
The Epistle and the Gospel for this Sunday reveal that the question of how the relation between 'old' and 'new' testaments to God's work in the world should be understood, was a pressing one right from the start. It confronted not only Paul, but Jesus himself. Both faced the charge that embracing the Gospel meant abandoning the ‘faith of their fathers’, and by implication rejecting the God of Israel. Both of them emphatically denied it.
Their response makes it plain that the Christian Gospel is not about propagating a new religion and displacing the old, but about renewing faith in God’s promises to his Chosen People. ‘I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham’, Paul declares. ‘God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable’. And then he adds an interesting twist. It is through witness of the Jews that the Gentiles have been lifted out of their sinful ways, and it will be thanks to the witness of the Gentiles that the Jews will be restored to God.
This line of thought echoes the sentiment expressed in this week's Old Testament passage. God declares through the prophet Isaiah that “foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
At the heart of the Gospel passage from Matthew, we find the same message. While it seems to fall into two quite separate parts, they are in fact connected. In the second part, Jesus travels to Tyre and Sidon, both notoriously sinful cities from a Jewish point of view. There he encounters a Canaanite woman who shouts at him for help. The Canaanites were not Israelites, and initially this makes a difference to Jesus’ response. His principal mission, he tells the woman, is "to the lost sheep of the house of Israel". Why is Israel lost? The answer is, ‘Phariseeism’, which is to say, it has come to be dominated by a complex labyrinth of ritualistic practice and social conformity As a result, the spiritual guidance given by the Jewish teachers no longer has any value for anyone who would walk in the ways of God. It is tantamount to the blind trying to lead the blind.
The faith and persistence of the Canaanite woman, however, extracts from Jesus an important concession. While the fresh ‘bread’ he has to give is intended first and foremost for the ‘children’ of Abraham, the spiritual nourishment it offers is available far more widely. Grace will be extended to anyone who has the faith to ask even for a few crumbs. Here we see the ultimate answer to the question about Jews and Christians. Through the Body of Christ, God’s promises to his ancient Chosen People become the promises he makes to all humanity. Ethnicity no longer matters, because the tribal identities that figured so prominently, and so brutally, in the history of Israel have been transcended. This crucial truth makes both anti-Semitism and Jewish nationalism, along with racism and tribalism, wholly unacceptable from a properly Christian point of view. What the Crucifixion shows, however, is that this did not mean they went away.
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