Grace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
I’ve gone back and forth all week on what I felt called to proclaim this morning. I mean – it’s been a heck of a couple of weeks. So much drama, violence, anger, lament, and sadness all packed into a very short span of time. Just over a week ago we all saw the protests that were taking place and getting very ugly – ugly to the point of injury and death – in Charlottesville, Virginia. I’m sure many of you were thinking the same things that I was – how is this our country? How has it come to this? How can anyone spew that much hate rhetoric? How can anyone claim that God has sanctioned and condoned words and actions such as these? Why as humans are we so conditioned to hate one another – purely on the basis of being different. Purely because someone else is the “other”. Where is God in all of this? Where is love?
When situations like this occur scripture is often one of the first places I go for comfort and understanding… I’m not saying that I singlehandedly flip through the Bible and find the perfect passage that applies… I’m fairly biblically literate, but I’m not a perfect passage savant. Besides, I have plenty of Facebook friends who do that for me! But somehow, in some way, that is always one of the first things that happens. This week – I didn’t actually have to look very far for that passage that spoke to me and to the situation I was praying about. As it so often does – our Gospel story this week is prophetic in its ability to speak to our modern world and these situations today.
Jesus is teaching his disciples that true purity is a matter of the heart rather than outward religious observances. You see – they were being criticized by the religious authorities for not washing their hands before eating, and sharing meals with those members of society who were considered “unclean.” Cleanliness codes were institutionally obsessed over. The slightest wrong move could cause you to be physically, emotionally, spiritually, and/or ritually unclean. The book of Leviticus is full of all of the ways that one can potentially fall into the uncouth and shameful realm of the “unclean.”
According to the religious authorities, by not washing their hands before eating, the disciples and other followers of Jesus had defiled their food therefore defiling their inner selves by consuming said tainted food. Jesus’ response to this accusation – “well that’s just crazy talk!” “Listen – and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” He’s then pressed to explain himself further, because the disciples are often dense, literal, and slow to pick-up on things, and most likely think when he says it’s what comes out of the mouth that defiles, that Jesus is speaking to some gross bodily function. So, he further explains – “Whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer.” (Because – we haven’t had enough bodily function imagery already in this text. Lovely. Thanks Jesus!) He then goes on to say – what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and that’s what defiles. We can externally put up a great front. Amazing projections of ourselves. Look at me – I’m pious, I’m pure, I’m a dedicated servant. I’m a good person. It’s easy to fake the world into believing these things.
But what we harbor internally – well that’s where we find evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. And these are the things that defile a person. To eat with unwashed hands??? Nah… not so much.
As I read these words all I could think about was the angry, ugly, judgmental comments I’ve read and heard almost non-stop. From all sides and all people. Now don’t get me wrong – I will NEVER condone the words, actions, mindsets, and behaviors of White Supremacists and Neo-Nazi’s. There is nothing about what they stand for that correlates with the God that we profess to believe in. And we are called as loving Christians to speak out against oppressive forces such as these, but there are ways in which we can do so without stooping to the level of those whom are acting in the role of the oppressor. And this is something that I’m sorry to say I failed to see anyone execute well.
Hatred seemed to be met with hatred. Anger with anger. Fear with fear. Judgment with judgment. We are right and you are wrong. Defiled from within. Where was God in all of the responses? Where was love?
Fortunately for all of us – we have Jesus – God and love all combined into one awesome package. And if this were ANY other story in the book of Matthew, that would come with some great life lesson or parable or human interaction where we can look to Jesus to be the model for us on how we should behave and how we should respond.
However – this week, we get the stand-out story. The story where Jesus doesn’t come across so hot. In fact… he comes off quite poorly. Almost immediately, after the lesson on what defiles, Jesus’ teaching is tested when a gentile woman, considered to be all kinds of unclean, approaches him for help.
This woman is said to be a Canaanite. It’s of note to know that in Mark’s version of this same story, she is identified as a Syro-Phoenician. During the time that Matthew was writing his Gospel, Canaanites were no longer a functioning independent civilization. The term “Canaanite” was basically just a dirty word, or ethnic slur, meaning Gentile. This word choice would have invoked a visceral emotional reaction similar to what we experience when we hear ethnic or racial slurs today. Only that audience would have most likely used, accepted, and agreed with said slur.
The woman’s daughter is sick. Tormented by a demon. I’d imagine she has done everything she can. Exhausted every option. What loving parent wouldn’t? And here comes, as luck would have it, not just a great prophet and healer, but the Lord… son of David himself. She recognizes and acknowledges Jesus as Messiah before his disciples do! And in response – Jesus gives her the silent treatment. Completely ignores her. She is afterall – just an unclean Gentile.
She keeps on – won’t be deterred. Finally, the disciples ask Jesus to make her stop. Send her away. Shut her up! So, in an attempt to do just this, he tells her he only came to save the house of Israel. She still will not be deterred… She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless she persisted. Jesus’ next argument is that it is not fair to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs.
That’s right – Jesus just called this woman a DOG. I don’t know about all of you – but I would not take terribly kindly to being referred to as a canine. (Particularly of the female persuasion.)
With what I’d imagine to be a profound amount of sass and swagger the woman responds – “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat crumbs that fall from the table.” Awww snap. Take the shame – Jesus – take the shame! Jesus responds “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter is healed. Jesus’ mission is impacted by this brave Gentile woman.
In this story we see a very human Jesus. Marilyn Salmon states “We see ourselves mirrored in Jesus’ attitude toward the woman, but not our best selves. We know very well the tendency to define and fear an “other” on the basis of skin color, nationality, class, or creed, deeply ingrained stereotypes that go back centuries. We resent being bothered by the concerns of those people… we are very good at justifying our actions rather than admitting the prejudice that persists. The story is about Jesus, and in Jesus we see the very best of human potential in relationships with others, even those we avoid and fear. We see in Jesus the possibility of perceiving common humanity where we could see only difference. And when we encounter the “other” as one who shares our humanity, we can never see them as “other” again.”
This exchange broadens Jesus’ mission in the world. At the end of Matthew when he commissions the disciples – he sends them to ALL nations, not just to Israel. Jesus heals this woman’s daughter just as Jesus heals us too. In these times of trouble and torment we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves – even those neighbors whose ideologies and mindsets we find abhorrent. This is not an easy task. Particularly while simultaneously living into our call to speak out in the face of oppression. To stand up for the metaphorical Canaanite Women of today. All we can do – is our best.
Fortunately for us, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we all have redemption. We all have salvation. We all receive grace and forgiveness and mercy. God is always present. Love always wins. Amen.