Proper 15, A
Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28
Many of you here are mothers or fathers or grandmothers or fathers or aunts or uncles, or at the very least have at some point in your past, however distantly, been children…with parents. I know the gist of this interaction sounds familiar. “Johnny, Mrs. Smith is talking to you. Don’t just play with your food. You need to answer her.” Or “Susie, we do not call people mean names. I don’t care if you don’t like her. It’s not respectful and it’s not how you would want to be treated.”
And so we find ourselves in a bit of a conundrum today as we meet up with Jesus, arguably the primary progenitor of the best of our code of conduct, here acting in manner for which we would would not tolerate from our children. He first ignores a desperate woman’s pleas, then calls her a dog (if possible an insult worse even within Jesus’s culture than in our own – the translation from the original would actually be closer to “dirty mutt”).
What do you do when Jesus acts in an unChristlike manner?
The question gives theologians a great deal of intellectual exercise. One teacher enumerates the possible theological thought calisthenics thus (paraphrased from Delmer Chilton):
1) Some see this as an acted out parable. Jesus verbalized what he knew his followers thought. He wanted to show how bad it sounded so he could then correct it. This is the “He didn’t really mean it,” explanation.
2) Others contend this represents an inauthentic saying, words put into Jesus’s mouth by the early church and the Gospel writer. In that case the key to our understanding lies in discerning why the early church would tell such a story of Jesus. This is the “He didn’t really say it,” explanation.
3) Others say Jesus was not referring to her as a dog but was simply using an old saying or a village proverb. No-one gets offended when we say “The early bird gets the worm,” even if it is used in such a way that they are obviously the worm. This is the “We don’t really get it,” explanation.
Some authors posit a fourth alternative to the “He didn’t mean it”, “He didn’t say it”, “We don’t get it” possibilities. They suggest the “He grew” hypothesis. He changed, He came to understand Himself and His own mission, His own words more deeply by the grace of God and the example of a passionate, desperate, faithful Mumma bear of a woman who would do what she had to do, endure what required enduring in order to protect her child.
This is the point in the sermon where I should really tell you which of these options represents truth. I’m not going to. I’m not going to because I don’t know. I don’t know if this is teaching Jesus or inscrutable Jesus or genuinely grouchy Jesus. I do know that by the end of this story there is no doubt that Jesus stands irretrievably with the Truth that the Kingdom of God knows no limits. All means all.
I read a snippet somewhere that suggested that if you go to church this Sunday; if you walk into church and sit down in your pew and listen to what the preacher has to say, and that preacher doesn’t talk about Charlottesville – about the ugliness and hate that marched openly through downtown America – if your preacher doesn’t talk about that, you need to get up and walk out. After the domination the subject has garnered in the news and on social media lately, others might be more likely to walk out if they have to hear one more word about it.
It’s tempting to me, because you are here, because you come and hear a message of love and inclusiveness, of compassion and justice week after week; because of the beautiful, loving work you do at Ruby’s, at Community Cafe, at the Christmas dinner, in outreach, in countless unseen ways; it is tempting to me to assume that we are all of one mind that Naziism, White Supremacy, antisemitism, racism, hate speech, deliberately plowing cars into people even if you don’t agree with them – are wrong. Just plain wrong without qualifier. They are not loving or compassionate or living according to the Gospel of Christ. I want to just assume that and move on and not talk about these things, but I then risk ignoring the kernels of festering fear or hatred or apathy toward the other that we may not even see in ourselves.
You may have heard this widely quoted (and widely paraphrased) poem:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak for me.
It was written by Lutheran pastor named Martin Niemöller. Rev. Niemöller, this eloquent voice for empathetic activism, supported Hitler’s rise to power. He was also, by some reports, an anti-semite. He came eventually come to oppose Hitler and the Nazi platform, largely because of their stance against baptized Jewish converts. In 1938 the Nazis imprisoned him in Sachenhausen then Dachau for this opposition. He was released only when the concentration camps were liberated by the Allies in 1945. In 1959, he was asked about his former antisemitism by Alfred Wiener, a Jewish researcher into racism and war crimes committed by the Nazi regime. In a letter to Wiener, Niemöller stated that his eight-year imprisonment by the Nazis became the turning point in his life, after which he viewed things differently.
I told you I don’t know which interpretation for Jesus’s behavior was correct, but I can tell you that it is the “He grew” version that gives me the most hope for human-kind.
Jesus had just finished a powerful discourse when the Canaanite woman arrived. He eloquently illustrated that the externals don’t matter, rather what proceeds from the heart defines us. Then a brave mother fighting for her child falls at His feet. She’s a foreigner, different religion, minority, female, unclean. He lived into the culture He had always known. He ignored, then dismissed, then insulted her. She persisted. His eyes were opened to the truth of His own words, and He grew.
May God open my eyes to the kernels of festering fear or hatred or apathy towards “other” within me.
May God grant me the courage to confront and lovingly eradicate them, that I might grow in love.
May God open our eyes – the eyes of our church, our community, our culture, our nation, our world to patterns and systems and actions built on hatred and fear of “other”
May God grant us the courage to confront and lovingly eradicate them, that we might grow and heal in love.