My House of All Peoples

 sermon delivered August 16, 2020 as Senior Pastor of the Congregational Church of Plainville

The Irish novelist and poet James Joyce, author of the masterpiece Ulysses, in 1939 wrote this: “For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.”

In 1965, from a jail in Birmingham, Dr. Martin Luther King wrote these famous words: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Sometime in the 8th century BCE, a prophet named Isaiah, one of the greatest prophets of his people and of all peoples, wrote these words in the moment of God’s inspiriting him:

“7 …my house shall be called a house of prayer
    for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord God,
    who gathers the outcasts of Israel.”


What do these quotes all have in common? Well, I gave my answer away with the first quote from James Joyce – “in the particular is contained the universal.” These 3 quotes deal with the constant and pervasive tension between the particular – our here and now – and the universal – the universe’s here and now.

Put another way, these 3 quotes probe the relationship between the one and the many, or between one particular group or place here and all groups and places everywhere.

Religion has been dealing with this tension between the particular and the universal, between the here and now and the everywhere and all times, for as long as one religion came across another. Biblical religion, which we discuss every week here, is a great example.

It is clear in the Hebrew Bible, called the Tanakh, that God’s chooses a particular people, Israel. The Hebrew scripture paints a portrait of Creator God, the One and Only true God, choosing a people to be God’s people. It is often quite a lovely portrait. Despite the chosen people’s straying, field-playing, and forsaking of their faith, God again and again doesn’t give up on them. The Bible shows us how God has chosen Israel, and will not choose another.

Then came Jesus. With Christ, we see God expanding divine chosenness to include followers of Christ. The Jewish and the Christian faithful make up the particular peoples that God has chosen, according to New Testament authors.

But what about everyone else? What about the vast majority of people throughout time who were neither Jewish or Christian?

This is a question of the particular and the universal.

Our scripture from Isaiah hints at the answer.

The presumption is that God starts with a particular group. In this case, it is “the outcasts of Israel.” God has chosen and continually choose Israel, a people once enslaved, a people constantly facing threats and bullying by more powerful nations, a people currently occupied and oppressed by the Babylonian Empire. Likewise, in the New Testament, God chose and continually chose a humble nonconformist from the backwoods town of Nazareth as well as his followers, followers maligned by the powers that be and a culture that saw them as nobodies.

God starts with the particular.

But in the particular is found the universal, as James Joyce reminds us. By reading about, pondering, internalizing the story of the nation of Israel as told in the Hebrew scripture, we are able to understand all peoples. By reading about, pondering, internalizing the story of the community called the Christian church, we are able to understand all communities following their own religions that teach love, compassion, and truth.

Isaiah understood this some 2,700 years earlier. Isaiah is speaking from the particular vantage point of a Jewish prophet. He is part of the outcasts of Israel, a particular society and culture of people. From this particular vantage point, Isaiah, inspirited by God, calls for all peoples to join the singular people of Israel. Isaiah suggest, as God moves him, until all peoples see the singular people of Israel and their faith, until all peoples identify with, spiritually join with the outcasts of Israel, then the house of all peoples cannot be realized. Likewise those do see, identify with, and join with these outcasts in their time and place, then the house of all peoples can and will happen.

The larger aim is, yes, to make that house of all peoples, a universal house with God as Love its head, a reality. But this happens only when we collectively see, acknowledge, identify with, and join with the cast-out ones, those whom God has chosen, and start building that house together.

I’d like to close with a story from the Gospel of Mark. Maybe you know it. It is in Mark 2 and comes after Jesus has chosen a tax collector as a disciple. He has dinner with this tax collector along withother tax collectors and sinners, as Mark 2:16 says. Now, in Middle Eastern culture to this very day, to dine with someone means to indicate intimacy between guest and host. You dine with family. If you bring non-family in to dine with, they are in that moment family.

And that term “sinners,” it is actually a category of people, namely those who do not follow Torah. Sinners and Gentiles are synonymous, in other words. So Jesus is eating with and seeing as family both tax collectors, deemed traitors in Israel, and Gentiles innately seen as sinners. To the Jewish hierarchy, Jesus is eating with and declaring as family the outcasts, the rejects, the marginalized of his closed society.

This of course draws huge blowback from Jesus’ religious colleagues in high places. Let me paraphrase Mark 2:16-17. “16 When the religious hierarchy saw that Jesus was eating with the marginalized of his society as if they were family, they said to his disciples, “Why does he choose them?” 17 When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are not well; I have chosen not the acceptable ones but the marginalized.”

What about us? What about us who are doing well enough, in the middle, feeling fine? We are called to humility. We are called to tap our own experiences of suffering and vulnerability, and connect it to others who experience far more suffering and vulnerability.  We are called to lower self to see those at their lowest, those perennially seeking to find a way up and a way in, and be present with and for them.

That is humility. That is compassion. That is the way of Christ.

I close by paraphrasing Isaiah 56, recalling I John’s claim that God is Love.

Those who join themselves to Love,
    to minister to Love, to love what points to Love,
    and to be servants of Love,
all who devote time to and rest in Love,
    and do not profane Love,
    and hold fast Love’s covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
    and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their worship and devotion
    will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
    for all peoples.

Thus says God who is Love,
    who gathers the outcasts,

I will gather others to them,
    to stand next to those already gathered.

Did Jesus Really Refer to Gentiles as ‘Dogs’?

  excerpted from A Life Lived & Laid Down for Friends

And going out Jesus departed from there into the regions of Tyre and Sidon. And look: A Canaanite woman from those bounds came forward and cried out, saying, “Have mercy upon me, Lord, son of David, my daughter is badly demon-possessed.” But he answered not a word to her. And, approaching, his disciples implored him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out behind us.” But in reply he said, “I was not sent forth except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and prostrated herself to him, saying, “Lord, help me.” But in reply he said, “It is not a good thing to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” And she said, “Yes, Lord; for the dogs also eat, from the crumbs that fall from their masters’ tables.” Then in reply Jesus said to her, “O woman, your faith is great; as you desire, so let it happen to you.” And her daughter was healed from that hour. (Matthew 15:21–28)

The story begins with Jesus in Gentile and Samaritan country. Tyre and Sidon are Gentile and Samaritan towns respectively. Jesus in in this region. The place that the story unfolds matters. That Jesus is in Gentile and Samaritan country is a big surprise and a big tell. Why?

Jesus just a little while ago prohibited his disciples from going into Gentile or Samaritan towns. In Matthew 10:5 he said, “do not go forth on a road of the gentiles, and do not enter into a city of the Samaritans.”  

However, in Matthew 15, here are Jesus and his disciples in the Gentile and Samaritan towns of Tyre and Sidon. Somewhere in between Matthew 10 and 15, Jesus had a change of heart.

I suggest a couple things influenced Jesus’ change of heart that moved him to become more open to ministry to Gentiles and Samaritans and thus go into Tyre and Sidon. The first influence is the death of John the Baptist in Matthew 13. John the Baptist was not just his cousin but also his mentor and baptizer. Grief like this tends to soften hearts. John was excluded and criticized by the religious-political hierarchy, something that Jesus was increasingly experiencing.

And that is the second point. Jesus is getting more and more flak from the religious hierarchy. We see the religious hierarchy coming down hard on Jesus in the three chapters leading up to Matthew 15.

In Matthew 12, Jesus and his disciples are criticized for not keeping the Sabbath the way they think it should be kept. He heals on the Sabbath and receives more criticism which spills over into animosity among the religious hierarchy toward Jesus. A plan is then hatched to “destroy him.”

Also, at the end of Matthew 13, Jesus goes to his hometown of Nazareth and is not received well. The religious hierarchy “took offense” and, according to Jesus, he was dishonored.

The first part of Matthew 15, the religious hierarchy again attack Jesus and his disciples for defiling the “tradition of the elders” and for not following Torah well enough. This seems the final straw for Jesus. He departs the Galilee region and heads for Samaria as if to imply, “enough is enough.” If my people are not going to listen, maybe others will.

In other words, Jesus embodies a command he once gave to his disciples. "When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next.” That the next town is in Samaritan or Gentile country no longer matters. Things have changed now.

Changed Mind or Lesson Taught

As for Jesus’ interaction with a Canaanite woman in Gentile country, the usual reading of the passage is that the brave Canaanite woman changes Jesus’ mind. Upon closer examination, however, the passage shows Jesus teaching his disciples what faith and the Commonwealth of faith looks like by pointing to the woman’s persistent faith.

In the story, Jesus is worn-out and needing rest. He heads to Tyre to hide away. Being a “Gentile town,” Jesus cannot avoid coming across and interacting with Gentiles. This is what ensues in our story.

A Gentile woman pleads that Jesus restore her daughter to psychological and emotional wholeness. Jesus at first doesn’t answer her. Again, he is tired and seeking to rest and take a day off. He hopes she will get the idea he needs a break. He also knows he is unlikely to get it.

Jesus’ disciples, bothered by her screaming in their ears, “implores” Jesus to stop the madness and “send her away.” We know Jesus doesn’t take fondly to his disciples imploring him to choose callousness. We have many examples of Jesus’ response to this kind of nagging.

Jesus once chastised his disciples for their callousness in trying to turn children away (Matt. 19:14). Jesus once grew bothered by his disciples who implored him to send hungry people away. He curtly quipped, “you feed them” (Matt. 14:16). Jesus once grew annoyed by his disciples’ callousness toward a woman offering him a kind a deed, retorting, “why are you bothering this woman [anointing me with perfume]?” (Matt. 26:10).

Jesus responds to the disciples’ imploring him to send the Canaanite woman away with a lesson. A lesson for his disciples. Jesus will lift up this Gentile woman and her faith, knowing motherly love does give up so easily and that she will not go away. He is going to exalt her as a model of faith for his disciples “of little faith.” In fact, we might juxtapose the Canaanite woman’s faithful persistence despite Jesus’ three denials to help her to Peter’s fearful persistence in denying Jesus three times in Matthew 26:69–75.

The Test

First, Jesus tests her resilience. Jesus already intuits that her pain and hurt and motherly love and faith is not going to be turned away. Her test is to publicly show that love-soaked faith.

This test is meant for her. It’s also meant for his disciples. Jesus wants to show how her faith is so much stronger than the disciples’.

Jesus first ignores her, his first denial. Then, he directly denies her initial request with a verbalized no and rationale. Both denials are a test to the tenacity of her faith.

In the Zen tradition, the first step to entering the monastic life is finding a teacher and proving to that teacher that you won’t be turned away. Stories are told of a would-be novice monk being denied and ignored in various ways by a would-be teacher. Rabbi Jesus is doing a miniature version of this.

In the background of all of this is the fact that Jesus is acting the way the Pharisees would act. This pharisaical way is evident earlier in Matthew 15. He is also acting in a way the still relatively new disciples might expect any faithful Judean to act toward a Gentile. Jesus is acting in a way Jesus himself claimed was kosher in Matthew 10 (i.e., avoid Gentile and Samaritan regions).

Jesus gives a “no” because that is what is expected of the messiah. Any worthy Israelite messiah, according to Jesus’ religious-culture, is sent forth to the lost sheep of Israel and Israel alone. Basically, Jesus’ faux answer mirrors this religious-cultural understanding of what a messiah does. He mirrors that religious-cultural understanding in order to shatter the mirror.

She Persisted

As Jesus intuited, the woman persists.  “Lord, help me,” she begs. Jesus gives a third denial, once more testing her faith. He gives this rather pointed quip: “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

The lost sheep of Israel are the children in his statement. The bread he has come to give is for them. It is the children’s bread and no one else. The “no one else” are called the euphemism, “dogs.” Sharp, harsh words for Jesus! He doubles-down on his Israel first and foremost test.

The Gentile woman’s reply is a perfect one and just as pointed. She basically says, well, even dogs need to eat, even if its crumbs from the children’s tables. The gist of her response is that Gentiles are people too and need the bread of heaven. She subverts Jesus’ euphemism and turns it on its head. It is something Jesus is usually expert at in the gospels. The Canaanite woman is standing in for Jesus in this moment.

Jesus likes her answer. Her faith passes the test and teaches his disciples in the process. Her faith is a pure model for his disciples to see, the disciples who initially wanted her sent away but who Jesus instead engages and exemplifies. Jesus calls her faith “great.” When does he ever say this about his disciples? He grants the Gentile woman her request. He heals her daughter.

The Teaching Moment’s Rationale

Why do I think Jesus’ conflict with the Gentile woman was a teaching moment? Well, Jesus never resorted to using a euphemism like this (unless he is talking to the religious hierarchy). Jesus’ statement seems so out of character otherwise, especially when you compare it to the compassion he shows the Samaritan woman at the well (which we will discuss later).

What’s more, if Jesus did not expect to be approached by a Gentile and have to turn her away, why did he go there in the first place? Why not head to the mountains and hills? Jesus expected a Gentile to approach him.

More than this, I believe Jesus was hoping for such a teaching moment. He needed to make it clear that his and his movement’s mission had turned a corner and was heading in a different direction.

By merely going to a Gentile town, Jesus is saying in no uncertain terms just that. He is saying things have changed now. In Jesus’ interaction with the Gentile woman, he makes it plain that things indeed are different now.

Jesus also wants to show the promise and hope in this new mission field to “the Other,” to the dismissed and ignored Gentiles. The Canaanite woman shows this promise and hope perfectly. She perfectly pictures a tenacious faith for the disciples to see. She becomes a lesson of faith, humility and compassion. In the woman’s not being turned around, she proves that this new mission field is ripe and ready for the Commonwealth’s spread.

Confronting Particularism

Alycia McKenzie, professor of homiletics at Perkins School of Theology, suggests this reading of the text. Writing of the parallel text in Mark 7, she writes:

Jesus spoke as he did, in the mode of rabbinic argumentation, to satirize the attitude of the Pharisees with whom he had just been arguing and to offer a lesson to those around him and the woman. We have no inkling of his facial expression or tone. We do have a record of his pattern of relating to supplicants, and it is with unfailing tenderness and poignancy.[1]

As McKenzie points out, Mark is written for a Gentile Christian audience and seeks “to confront Jewish particularism.” What this says is that Jesus is on the “Gentiles’ side”’ in this case. He is confronting the religious exclusivism found in the religious tradition Jesus was born into. 

A common reading of the text, especially among progressives, is that Jesus basically concedes the point and admits his wrong, learning a lesson himself in the process. This is certainly a fair interpretation, and one I appreciate.

Even with this common interpretation, the confronting of particularism and the focus on pluralism remains. Jesus in the end agrees that the good news of wholeness and healing is not just for the lost-sheep of Israel but for all.

Jesus’ core message throughout the gospels adheres to this pluralistic reading of Jesus and the Canaanite woman interaction. As we saw with Jesus and the centurion, Jesus consistently dismisses attempts to minimize and particularize the reach of God’s commonwealth.


[1] Alycia McKenzie, “Commentary on Mark 7:24–37.” pt. 3, par. 3