Proper 15, A
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
May de lord bless dem dat loves us,
an’ for dem dat don’t love us,
may He turn their ‘earts,
an’ if He canna turn their ‘earts,
may He turn their ankles,
so we’ll nu dem by their limpin’.
So easy to divide the world that way, isn’t it? Dem that loves us, and dem that don’t. Them that threatens and them that doesn’t. Them that think like us, them that don’t. Them that share our religion, or up-bringing or social status, them that don’t. Us and Them.
Isaiah’s author was very familiar with us and them. He was writing for a mix of exiles returning from Babylon, Jews left behind at the time of the exile and foreigners who never had any status in either group all struggling to form community, jockeying for position, vying for place, praying for peace. He brought no words of preference or exclusion to this chaotic soup. “Maintain justice and do what is right”, Isaiah says. And with that he strives to bring all humanity into relationship with God. “Whoever you are, you are human.” says Barbara Brown Taylor. “Wherever you are, you live in the world, which is just waiting for you to notice the holiness in it.” All the human race is invited to share in the holiness, to cling to the covenant.
You hear sometimes of professed Christians acting in an ungodly manner. No. Really. It happens. It may even happen to us…How easy is it for lies or slander or the all-encompassing “evil intentions” to creep into our lives? How easy is it to miss the holiness, and succumb to the all pervasive “dem” and us? We are human, after all.
But here’s the question. Can Jesus be unChristian? ‘Cause he seems to be making a good stab at it today. The canaanite woman. She doesn’t even rate a name in Matthew’s story. She breaks any number of rules, coming into public, talking to a Jew, talking to a man. She is begging, pleading, for help – not even help for herself, but help for her daughter. She’s desperate. He.walks.away. Doesn’t even respond. She tries again – it’s her daughter’s life! He talks around her, still not recognizing her – to the disciples. ‘She’s not my problem. She’s not one of us‘ And she isn’t one of them. She’s a Canaanite, an ancient enemy – she wouldn’t worship the same God, observe the same customs. ‘She’s not who I came to help‘ Maybe he was setting his own limits, but to us this seems cold, callous.
But it doesn’t stop there. This persistent foreign mother is kneeling at His feet. “Help me.” “Lord, help me.” Who could resist that sad plea? Far from succumbing to his own melting heart, our Lord and Savior turns to insults. Calling someone a dog is not kind in our world – in Jesus’s it’s downright nasty.
To be fair – Jesus is having a tough few days. He’s just learned of the death of John the Baptist and went from straight from there to host a dinner party for 5,000. He just wants to be alone for a while. But a storm comes up, and he ends up taking a long and watery walk. He has to fish the soggy Peter out of the drink. Then the pharisees actually follow him out of Jerusalem to Gennesaret to complain about the poor hygiene, or more accurately poor purity practices of Jesus’s followers. Gennesaret having proven a poor choice for a get-away, He leaves Jewish territory altogether. Enough to make anyone cranky. Even still, it’s disturbing. Cranky or no, Jesus has clearly been “caught with his compassion down.” The Wisdom and Wit of Rabbi Jesus – William E. Phipps
So how do we get Him off the hook, explain Christ’s un-Christlike behavior? We’ve been trying for centuries. We’ve amassed quite a series of explanations:
- A real life parable. Jesus said what he did to echo the pervasive prejudice and divisiveness of his society for his followers. The disciples would see how intrinsically wrong it sounded. He could correct it, explain it. This is the “He didn’t really mean it” theory.
- He said it to test the canaanite woman, to bring out her faith, make it real and strong and incontrovertible. This is the “For her own good” theory.
- It’s an inauthentic statement – somebody put these disturbing words in the mouth of Jesus. This is the “He didn’t say it after all” theory.
- According to homilist Delmer Chilton, “Others say Jesus was not referring to her as a dog but was simply using an old saying or a village proverb. Does anyone get offended when we “The early bird gets the worm,” is used in such a way that they are obviously the worm? This is the “We don’t really get it,” explanation.”
(Thanks to Rev. Delmer Chilton for the basic delineation of the explanations from which this is adapted)
So, which one is right? Dunno. None of them, maybe. Any of them really ring true to you?
What if we don’t get Him off the hook? What if we let Him be human? Fully divine, fully human. He lived 30+ years in a society where honor and shame were paramount, where being God’s chosen ones constituted the entire underpinning of identity, where outsiders, women, persons exposed to illness were ‘less than’, inferior, sub-human. He had to internalize some pieces of his environment. What if , in the face of the holiness of this mother advocating in all humility, all love for her child, what if he changed that day? What if Jesus, the Alpha and the Omega, the incarnation of our immutable God grew that day? learned that day?
Oddly enough, I find this explanation not only the most true to the text, but also the most comforting. If Jesus himself had to expand his thinking, expand his love, bust his pre-conceived notions, perhaps I am not such a hopeless case if I have some growing and changing to do.
Maybe it was a parable, maybe it was a test, but I think Jesus’s interaction with this strong, fiery, quick-witted, desperate mother that he never “should” have listened to changed him, opened a broader relationship to all the world, the us’s and the thems. Our faith calls us to follow Jesus through life, into death if necessary. God’s love is unlimited – a crumb is enough. WE place the limits. Might we not follow Jesus into eschewing those limit – stretching our our arms to those who love us, and those who don’t; seeking justice and doing what is right. As German theologian Jurgen Moltmann once wrote, “The nearer we come to Christ, the nearer we come together.”
Let your ways, oh God, be known upon earth, and your saving health among ALL nations. Let ALL the peoples, upon whom you have poured out your mercy and your blessing, praise you, and honor you by extending that mercy to all.