August 20, 2017 11th Sunday of Pentecost
Genesis 45:1–15 Romans 11:1–2a, 29–32 Matthew 15: (10–20) 21–28
The uncertainty and even the fear of dealing with people who are different from us, has been around as long as humanity has existed. In both of today’s scriptures we can see some of the uncertainties and uncomfort of those interactions.
In Romans, Paul is addressing the first century Christian community about where Jewish people fit into the scheme of God’s salvation. He is trying to get people to see that God made a covenant with the Jewish people, and remind them that God does not break His covenants. We are brought into the covenant through Christ, but God does not undo the original covenant – He only adds to it. Just because Jewish people are other than Christian they are not less than Christian to God.
Then we have Jesus dealing with the Pharisees criticizing the different behavior of his disciples, and then Jesus’ seems to reject a Canaanite woman, just because she isn’t Jewish.
If nothing else this tells us that relating to someone who is the Other, whether they be of a different race, socio-economic class, religion, culture, political ideology, or just from any unfamiliar territory, is a question that we’ve grappled with for a long time.
Do we learn about who they are, or do we condemn who they are? Do we treat them as equals, or as second-class citizens? Do we evaluate them by our ideology, or by theirs?
Before Jesus preached to the crowds about the mouth and the heart, he had been confronted by some Pharisees who criticized Jesus for allowing his disciples to eat without washing their hands.
One can actually sympathize a little with the Pharisees because their job was to maintain the purity laws, and many of the purity laws existed to keep people healthy. People back then were intelligent – they didn’t know about bacteria and viruses but they knew that there was a correlation between washing your hands before you eat and not getting sick. Even today in the Middle East many people are ambidextrous in their actions because they will only eat or touch clean things with their right hand, but touch dirty things with their left hand. For instance you always pick up something off the ground with your left hand, never your right; and you always eat with your right never your left, even though you wash both hands before eating. And it doesn’t matter if you are a dominate right or left handed person, you’re trained to do it that way from when you’re a little kid.
Now I don’t know the context of the Pharisees complaint. The disciples traveled around a lot. Were they in a place with little water and they couldn’t wash before they ate something? Did they accept food from a kind stranger and they had to eat it right there before moving on? We can all think of similar situations that would lead to this observation. Jesus answers the Pharisees by challenging them: Why do you practice breaking the commandments of God and refused to love your neighbor as you love yourself? Essentially he calls them out for focusing on a small incident as if it defines the entire mind, heart, and soul of the disciples in question. This is why he goes to the crowd and says that what comes out of your mouth comes from the intentions of your heart.
Now I agree that the tongue is an unruly member and that we all say things that we shouldn’t say. Sometimes we just can’t get a handle on our words and we intend to say one thing but it comes out all messy and sounding like it means something else. And then what do you do? You try to correct it, and usually you end up saying something that is even more painful, which you try to correct, and of course that doesn’t work. And then finally, or hopefully, someone will say, “Peggy! Quit while you’re ahead!” “Okay. I’ll shut up now. . . Thank you. . . Sorry about that.”
But Jesus isn’t talking about a little foible of speech. Jesus is talking about believing one thing and saying another. More importantly when Jesus mentions evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander, he is talking about hypocrites. People who have all those desires and power plays in their hearts and use their clever rational words to justify their actions, saying all the time that their actions are for the good of everyone around them.
Justification of unjust actions, by people who think they know what justice is, has been going on for long time. There were people who said that slavery was okay because by removing people from Africa we were going to bring them to Christ. There were people who forcibly removed Native-American children from their parents because, well those people were uneducated and couldn’t possibly raise their children properly. I am not saying that there are not times when drastic actions need to be taken to insure the safety and well being of people, but it better be from a place in the heart of understanding and compassionate love, not from a stand of moral high-ground that doesn’t consider the effects of actions on people.
So it is strange that right afterwards Jesus verbally slaps down the Canaanite woman, who acknowledges that he is the Son of David – implying that he is the messiah – and who is asking for healing for her daughter, not even healing for herself. But Jesus says: Nope. I was only sent here to help the Jews – my people. Why should I give you my time and talents when so many of my children need me?
Wow. But think of the context here. Jesus is surrounded by his disciples, who have just recently been put down and discounted by the Pharisees. And then Jesus gives this lecture on not being hypocritical and saying and doing from what is in your heart. And then along comes this woman in need and what do the disciples say to Jesus about the woman? Make her go away.
The more I looked at this story the more I saw that this is one of Jesus’ brilliant teaching moments. Jesus is deliberately acting and behaving the way we shouldn’t behave. He is using himself as a negative example in order to drive home his point and to challenge his disciples to think about their speech and actions. I think Jesus was going to heal her daughter all along. But he had to get his disciples to see that this gentile woman was just as worthy as anyone else to receive that healing. It didn’t matter that she was a woman, which makes her a second-class citizen, and it didn’t matter that she wasn’t Jewish, which made her a third or forth class citizen in their eyes.
Jesus is putting on the persona of, “I’m going to be a Holy Man who’s above it all. Come on guys, how do you like how I look now?” And just reading that I am uncomfortable with that Jesus, because that is not the Jesus who I have grown to love in the last 14 chapters of Matthew. It’s a visceral feeling of: Who does this person Jesus think he is?
There is relief when the woman zings back at him, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” And then Jesus answers her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Whooh! Thank goodness! This Jesus guy is who he’s billed to be after all.
Who are the children of God for you and how are you going to relate to them?
There has been a lot of nastiness on the news in the last week – caused by a lot of people who think that some other people are not God’s children and that they know better and have all the answers. I’m not here to take a political stand on this issue; I’m here to tell you that this attitude of religious and moral exclusivity is not new. You are all intelligent people and you all know that this separation from Those Other People has been going on since we all began.
But Christ calls us to put down the hypocrisy in our hearts. When we feel that uncomfort and that unfairness, like we did in the story, that is Christ calling us to be courageous and to reach out across the racial lines, the economic lines, the social lines, the culture lines, the, political lines, and into lines of unfamiliar territory, and claim that we are all children of God. Even when those people on the other side of the lines aren’t agreeing with that claim. Christ calls us in our words and actions to be Christians and to be mindful of the caring of all people.
This does not mean that we roll-over, play nice, and accept hateful situations because we have to respect all the Others. This means that we take a stand and say: We will not say or do hateful actions in our lives. We will not accept hateful speech or actions in our presence. We will speak out against such things when we see them, and we will attempt to replace them with words and actions of kindness and love.
And if enough of us do that, then justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness will exist in our lives like an ever flowing stream. And all of us will become like the Canaanite woman’s daughter: healed of our demons, which is our fear of the Other; by our faith; in Christ’s name.