A difficult bible passage

Last Sunday (17 August) I visited an English-speaking church here in Santiago. The Pastor preached about Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman (Matt 15:21-28). I believe the Pastor was trying to make a point about the necessity, for all Christians, of growing in discipleship and witness to the world around us.

The passage describes how the Canaanite woman approaches Jesus to plead a deliverance for her daughter, who is demon-possessed. Instead of immediately granting her request, Jesus makes two cryptical (in light of the situation) remarks: (1) I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel; (2) It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.

In his sermon, the Pastor suggested that, at that stage of his ministry, Jesus had a limited vision of  what his Messianic mission actually was. At that point, it was suggested, Jesus thought his ministry was strictly limited to the Jews, and that he could not extend it to Gentiles. This caused him to make a remark (No. 2 above) which was downright rude to the woman, i.e., he implied she was a “dog” which (at least, from a modern viewpoint) is certainly highly offensive.

However, the Pastor said, the point of the passage is that by the woman’s clever reply, i.e., Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table, Jesus had his mind changed by the woman. He learned a lesson from her, which caused his vision of his ministry to widen, so that he then understood that he was also to minister to the Gentiles. The Pastor subsequently went on to draw parallels with other biblical characters, e.g., Peter, Jonah, Thomas, etc., who also had similar limited understandings at some stage of their lives, but had then learned and grew as a result of their mistakes.

I listened to this sermon with profound disquiet. While this biblical passage is certainly a difficult one to understand (afterwards, I read several commentary discussions of the text), I would hesitate for a very long time before using it to suggest that Jesus had such a blinkered vision of his mission that it lead him to blunder so badly, and to deliver a horrible insult. Also, I think that it is very ill-considered, pastorally, to link this purported behavior of Jesus to that of other fallible, and even downright disobedient, people, just in order to make a general point about discipleship.

A more widely accepted interpretation of Jesus’ actions in this story is that, by apparently resisting the plea of the Canaanite woman to heal her daughter, Jesus was actually testing and strengthening her faith in him, by requiring her to persevere in her petition to him. There was no question of him “having his mind changed” by the woman’s persistence. He was actually using the occasion to teach a serious spiritual lesson to her (and, since it is recorded in the gospel, to us) of the importance of persevering in prayer.

However, I suspect, rather, that he already knew what he was going to do (i.e., grant the request), and that his remarks, while directed ostensibly to the Canaanite woman, were actually intended for his disciples, as an indirect way of challenging them to face their prejudices about ministering outside of their own religious culture, to the Gentiles.

Several years ago I recall reading a very engaging and, to me at least, convincing, alternative interpretation of Matthew 15:21-28. It’s in an extended comment on the passage by Don Richardson in an article called “A Man for All Peoples” in the “Perspectives on the World Christian Movement” missionary text book. [I also think it is an excerpt from his famous book: “Eternity in Their Hearts.”] Richardson sees this passage as an acted-out object lesson for the disciples, which is meant to reinforce Jesus’ teaching in the passage immediately preceding it (Matthew 15:10-20), on the difference between real versus figurative uncleanness. Initially, he suggests, Jesus feigns indifference to the claims of the woman. (It must have been feigned, since he had already healed many Gentiles, and to refuse this one would be inconsistent.) Then, when the disciples follow his apparent “lead,” and ask him to send her away, he deliberately makes the two provocative statements (Nos. 1 and 2 above) to set them up.

It is worthwhile quoting Richardson’s exact words here: ” No doubt his disciples thought his [i.e., Jesus’] reference quite appropriate for the occasion. But just when their chests were swollen to the full with pride of race, the Canaanite woman must have caught the a twinkle in Jesus’ eye and realized the truth! Yes Lord, she replied ever so humbly, not to mention subtly, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table! ” Jesus then healed the woman’s daughter, thereby forcing the disciples to question their previous assumptions.

Of course, Richardson, as a missionary and missiologist, would tend to place a mission-oriented interpretation on this passage, but it is enormously better than suggesting that the author and finisher of our faith was confounded in his ministry by a clever piece of human wit.

Some as big as your head

Greetings in the name of the Lord Jesus!
There is a very well known old song called “I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts.” It has, as part of the refrain:
I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts
All alike and standing in a row
Big ones, small ones, some as big as your head …
Well, I’ve never seen a coconut as big as someone’s head, but in Chile I have often seen vegetables as big as someone’s head: cabbages, broccoli, and, best of all, cauliflowers! Just to prove this, I cannot resist sharing the photograph below, which was taken a couple of months ago. Yes, that’s a mugshot of me, and, yes, that’s a cauliflower I’m holding!
The Lord has blessed me by letting me live in a country which has excellent produce: fruit and vegetables, etc. Throughout most of Santiago there is a network of street markets which meet at different locations on different days of the week. There is a market every Thursday and Sunday on a street about six blocks from where I live. Every Thursday morning I walk over with a little wheel cart I have, and buy my fruit and vegetables for the coming week. 
The prices are very competitive (often about 50% of the price in the supermarkets), and the quality is excellent. A kilo (2.2 lbs) of apples can usually be bought for around 350 Chilean pesos (about $0.70 US, or 40 UK pence). The cauliflower in the photograph was about 600 CP ($1.20 , or 70 pence). I love fresh fruit and vegetables, and usually return from the market very happy with my purchases.
A quick glance at a map of South America will show that Chile is a long narrow country on the western side of the “Southern Cone,” about 2500 miles long, and an average of about 100 miles wide. Because of its geographical shape and location, Chile has a wide range of agricultural conditions, which enables a similarly wide range of produce to be grown. There is usually some part of the country where a particular crop is being harvested at any given time, so there is always fresh produce available.
Chile is rightly famous for its fruits and vegetables, which are distributed internationally, and sold in supermarkets in the US and UK. However, as I have personally seen in the UK, where Chilean imports are very expensive, the rest of the world does not have the advantage of being able to buy them at such low prices. It is truly one of the blessings of serving the Lord in this amazing country.

Worship leaders in the making

For the last three years, or more, I have been teaching a weekly guitar class at our church’s children’s ministry outreach to the local community. During this time I have had about 10 students in total pass through the class. I try to restrict the class to no more than three children at any one time, because, if I have any more than that, then I cannot give each of them the individual attention needed. I also take children only of about 10 years and older. We have many smaller ones who come to the children’s ministry, but when they are younger than 10, I find they don’t have the attention span and powers of concentration needed to make progress. Each child also needs to have access to a guitar, to practice at home.

My approach is very elementary. I start off by teaching the children basic chords, using chord diagrams, and then give them simple praise songs to sing which use these chords. I start off with a song that requires knowledge of (say) only D and A, which they can usually pick up quite quickly, and can get joy out of singing to their families at home. I also start off with a very basic strum pattern to accompany the song. Then comes the next big challenge, i.e., to learn the G chord, which requires a much bigger stretch of the fingers of the left hand. This usually takes several weeks, depending on how much they practice at home. When this is accomplished, it opens up a wider choice of new songs for the children to learn. Following this, I go on to teach them the C chord, which also takes some time to master, and then they learn their first minor chord, Am. All of the time I try to incorporate new songs which use the new chords, and to have the children learn other ways to strum the guitar. At each stage I try to enable them to obtain some little reward for their work, which is to actually enjoy their playing and singing praise to the Lord. Recently, I also taught them how to play “Cumpleaños feliz” (“Happy Birthday to you”), which they absolutely loved!

My main difficulties with my guitar students have been maintaining consistency of attendance at the classes, and getting them to practice regularly at home. I continually emphasize the importance of this, both to the children themselves, and to their parents, upon whom a lot depends. My current students have very supportive parents who encourage them to come to the children’s center regularly, not just to learn guitar, but to participate in the other activities and classes. They are all doing quite well, and the first photo (above) shows them playing together in the church and leading a song for the offertory.

Although my approach is simple, it has been quite successful. Two of my former students, one of whom knew nothing about the guitar when she started, are now playing in our church youth band. Together with two other young people, they have already provided all of the music for several of our church services, and want to increase their involvement in the future. This is very encouraging. They have now progressed to the stage where they understand enough music to be able to select their own new music, and teach themselves the chords and playing techniques required to perform it. However, at this stage, another aspect of the learning process becomes important. This is to recognize that, as church musicians, their main function is not just to perform the music for its own sake, but to see their playing and singing as a ministry to lead other people into worshiping God.

The years fly by

I had practically forgotten that I have this blog! I have now been in Chile almost eight years, and the only post on it has been the initial one, that is, the one I made the day I retired from my job in Mississippi in 2006. I must resuscitate it!

It’s going to be about my life as a missionary in Santiago. Not just events, and activities that I am involved in, and things that happen to me; but also thoughts that my experiences engender, and interesting features of life in the capital city of Chile. Many are good, and a few are bad or infuriating, but most are worth talking about.

I want to talk about the Chilean people, especially those close to me in the Anglican church where I serve. I would like to share about the different aspects of life in our church community, and the ministries I am involved in, so that people outside of Chile, particularly those who pray for me and support my work here, can gain a better understanding of Christian life in Chile.

Winter has not quite arrived here yet, but today was very wet and cold nevertheless. We had “una gran lluvia” (that is, “a big rain”) this morning. Gran Avenida, the major thoroughfare near where I live, has a river of rain water running down one side of it. I couldn’t cross the road, but had to go down through the Metro (subway) entrance, cross underneath the road, and come up the other side.

I was in the University this morning, giving a test. During the test, one of the secretaries rushed into the room, shouting in an excited voice: “está nevando!” (“it’s snowing!”). Sure enough, when I looked out of the window, large flakes of snow were falling amidst the rain drops. It didn’t last long, and the snow didn’t settle, but it caused a small sensation while it was here. People went outside, under the balcony, to have their photos taken against the backdrop of falling snow.

I should explain that, while it is frequently possible to see snow on the tops of the Andes mountains which border Santiago on its eastern side, it almost never snows in the city itself. On the rare occasions that snow does fall, it is really big news!

This afternoon is much brighter and dryer, although still cold. I keep myself warm indoors with the help of a little portable propane gas heater. Many people have them in Santiago, and they’re very useful. During these cold months I keep mine in my small “office” in my rented apartment, which is quite a small room, and heats up quickly. I practically live in my office during the winter.

May God bless you abundantly!

First post

This is my first post. Must be short, since I’m retiring today. Clearing my office etc, and much to do at home before leaving for Chile. More later. God bless.