Friday, February 15, 2013

Opening Doors: Cultural Exchange as Christian Mission

For more information about United Methodist
mission, check out the General Board of Global Ministries.

The following post was adapted from my Interpreting the Gospels final paper from December, 2012. The inspiration for the exegesis of Matthew was reflection on the stated mission of the United Methodist Church as found in the 2008 Book of Discipline: "The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Local churches provide the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs."

The Gospel of Matthew gives a sketch of how powerful intercultural exchange through a mission context can be. Matthew portrays Jesus as the Jewish messiah who fulfills the Jewish scriptures, and the Matthean Jesus talks clearly about the mission of his disciples. There are two passages in Matthew where Jesus commissions his disciples: 10:5-42 and 28:18-20.[1] The important thing to note for this discussion is that Jesus directs the mission to different groups in each commissioning.
The first is called the “Mission Discourse” by New Testament scholars and is quite explicit in the narrowness of its target. In fact, Jesus begins instructing the disciples with a prohibition: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans” (10:5). Jesus instead directs the disciples to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (v. 6). From this instruction the reader can assume that all of Jesus’ previous instructions, from the opening proclamation to repent (4:17) through the famed Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7), are addressed to Jews. Jesus seems to be firmly positioning himself as a Jewish reformer concerned almost exclusively to Jews. We will discuss the exceptions to this rule and their implications to Christian mission later.
The second commissioning is commonly called “The Great Commission”, and as it ends the Gospel, it broadens the scope of discipleship to all nations. The resurrected Jesus tells his eleven remaining disciples to teach the new disciples “to obey everything that I have commanded you” (28:20), which seems to include even those commands that were part of the narrow Mission Discourse. Assuming that the later Great Commission supersedes the exclusivity of the Mission Discourse, then Jesus is including the same people that he had earlier excluded from his reform movement. The mission has apparently changed.
The major part of the commission that changed is the attitude toward outsiders. If one sees Jesus of Nazareth as a rabbi intent on reforming and purifying Judaism, then his attitude towards outsiders seems consistent, even if it is intolerant of the cultural Other. The one interaction with a Gentile prior to the Mission Discourse is with a centurion who asks healing for his ill servant (8:5-13). Curiously, Jesus responds very positively, offering to go and cure the centurion’s servant, which would violate the later prohibition to ministry with Gentiles. However, we know from other stories in the New Testament that centurions were not always excluded from the company of Jews. The prime example is the Lukan account of Cornelius, in whose house Peter has the vision regarding the new cleanliness of earlier ritually unclean foods (Acts 10:1-7). With this in mind, then Jesus may be following the tradition of Jews honoring righteous Gentiles. Considering the centurion’s military authority, this Gentile is certainly not what could be considered the marginalized of society.[2]
In contrast, Jesus acts very differently when a Canaanite woman begs Jesus to exorcise a demon from her daughter (15:21-28). While the woman is crying out, Jesus ignores her. He does not respond until Jesus’ disciples ask him to deal with the woman so that they do not have to. Whereas the politically connected centurion received an offer for a house visit, the Canaanite woman is forced to shout after the disciples who seem to be intent on keeping Jesus’ command to stay separate from the Gentile woman. In fact, Jesus responds to the disciples by repeating the exclusionary tactic from the Mission Discourse (v. 24). The Canaanite woman seizes the moment and goes directly to Jesus, to which Jesus responds by essentially calling her and her race “dogs”, a common racial pejorative in the Jewish tradition. However, the Canaanite woman seems to know Jewish traditions quite well, too, and she answers that “even the dogs get the scraps from the master’s table” (v. 27). This may reference the rabbinic tradition of honoring dogs by throwing scraps to dogs for not growling at the Israelites during the 10th plague of the Exodus (Ex. 11:7).[3] No matter what the Canaanite woman may be referencing, she impresses Jesus enough that he changes his mind, and he praises her faith in a way similar to the centurion.
Beyond Jesus’ treatment of the two Gentiles, there are two other important differences between the centurion and the Canaanite woman. First, whereas the centurion’s origins are never mentioned, the Matthean author is very clear about the woman’s ethnicity. She is Canaanite, one of the races that the Israelites were commanded to exterminate from the face of the Earth during the conquest of Canaan found in the book of Joshua. Though the historical difference between Canaanites and Jews is probably minuscule at most, the cultural differences lead to palpable racial tension. Second, unlike the centurion, she is a woman. While it would be fallacious to label 1st century Judaism as blanket misogynist, Jesus, on the other hand, seems to treat her in a quite misogynist way. This makes the interaction with the Canaanite woman all the more extraordinary in the Gospel of Matthew, and it sheds light on the change in missional attitudes from the Mission Discourse to the Great Commission.
Whereas Jesus’ interaction with the centurion apparently does not change any of his ethnocentric attitudes (hence the narrowness of the Mission Discourse), the exchange with the Canaanite woman seems to have had a radicalization effect on Jesus. Shortly after the exchange there is a discernible shift in Jesus’ ministry. Before the interaction with the Canaanite woman, Jesus had only been leading a reform movement of Judaism in Palestine. Afterwards Jesus begins taking a more messianic role. Jesus draws out Peter’s messianic declaration (16:13-20), starts to speak of his death and resurrection (16:21-28), and is transfigured (chapter 17). The interaction with a man of authority, a bit like Jesus himself, allowed Jesus to remain narrow in his scope. The interaction with a woman of a different ethnicity, who was quite different than Jesus, forces Jesus to repent of his ethnocentrism.
This transformation of Jesus, whom Christians call the Messiah, through his exchange with his cultural Other has important implications for discipleship both in the 1st century Mediterranean world and today. From the Great Commission, Christians understand Christian mission to be global, and the words that end the Gospel of Matthew are commonly used to commission missionaries for their service. However, what missionaries and missiologists often miss is that the global nature of Christian mission is a product of cultural exchange between different peoples. Too often mission occurs from an imperialist motivation to impose 1st World values on majority-world peoples, serving only the interests of the already powerful in the missionizing group and the missionized (i.e. colonial) group. Colonial action is often hidden in missionary action, and the wolves often earnestly believe that they are the sheep they are impersonating. This model of mission is uni-directional, where the missionary assumes that he knows right and must provide for the missionized community.[4]
True mission, however, is not uni-directional; instead it is mutual. This is evident in the exchange between Jesus and the Canaanite woman. Jesus and his disciples do not even recognize the exchange as mission work until the cultural Other breaks through their dominant culture assumptions. When that breakthrough occurs, Jesus opens up and fulfills his own unrealized missional purpose. While Jesus assumes that he must remain within his stated mission (i.e. the lost sheep of the house of Israel), the Canaanite woman is the truly active mission agent in the story. This phenomenon is akin to the church group who returns from a mission trip and reports that while they expected to bless others through their service (and material resources), they were surprised that they received the greater blessing. While the experience is powerful and important for the spiritual development of the missionizing group, how weary the missionized group must get as they have to repeat the process again and again!
It is important to note that the cultural exchange that takes place between Jesus and the Canaanite woman is not in an exotic, far-away destination which is often the center of short-term mission trips. Jesus and his disciples are in “the district of Tyre and Sidon”, which was the district next door to their native Galilee. The importance of the mission experience was not the exotic location but the relationship with the cultural Other that Jesus and the disciples encountered. Likewise, while Mission Central sends flood buckets to inundated areas of the country and mosquito nets to Africa, the truly transformative experiences will likely occur much closer to home. Only by mutual exchange can transformative discipleship play out.
The first line of the Unite Methodist Church’s mission statement is what often gets the prime space in newsletters and websites, but the second part of the statement is just as important: “Local churches provide the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs”.[5] While the disciple-making process in the local parish can be a transformational process toward greater personal and social holiness, it can be an oppressive and alienating process. If the new disciples receive instruction like that in the Mission Discourse, then many neighbors will be left to the margins and the homogenization process of the church only accelerates. However, if local churches engage in mutual mission work with cultural Others, then the disciple-making process moves toward the salvific project that Jesus of Nazareth embarked on after his exchange with his own cultural Other. The goal of disciple-making is an opening up of the individual disciple and the discipling community, which is a process that can truly transform the world.

[1] All biblical references use the New Revised Standard Version translation.
[2] Kayama, Hisao. “The Cornelius Story in the Japanese Cultural Context”. Voices from the Margins: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World, 129-141. Edited by R.S. Sugirtharajah. New York: Orbis. 2006.
[3] Ken Stone. “The Exodus and Other Pentateuchal Stories”. Class lecture at Chicago Theological Seminary, Chicago, IL, Sept. 26, 2012.
[4] Soares-Prabhu, George M. “Two Mission Commands: An Interpretation of Matthew 28:16-20 in Light of a Buddhist Text”. Voices from the Margins: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World, 331-346. Edited by R.S. Sugirtharajah. New York: Orbis. 2006
[5] The Book of Disciple of the United Methodist Church—2008, 87. Edited by Judith E. Smith. Nashville, TN: The United Methodist Publishing House, 2008