11th Sunday after Pentecost
August 20, 2017
Matthew 15: 10-28 You can click on this link to read the text in Oremus Bible Browser.
There are so many ways that the Lectionary – that list of readings we are supposed to use- drives me crazy. But sometimes, like today, it puts two readings together that you are not used to seeing in the same spot, so your eyes are opened to a totally new way of seeing the story that’s been there right along, except you missed it.
When we listened to a recitation of the whole book of Mark in Wednesday Bible study, we got a graphic rendition of Jesus’ illustration that what you put into your body just goes right through it, it is not what defiles you. What defiles you – what keeps you from living as God’s people – is what is in your human heart and what comes out of your mouth. In your heart are the things that make you loving and compassionate, but there are also the things that make you cruel, hateful, miserly, greedy, sexually immoral, destructive of other’s reputations, and deceitful. Jesus condemns the religious authorities for being so proud of themselves for the purity with which they keep the tiniest rules of the Law, but totally miss the point of being compassionate, of being welcoming, of being helpful to those who cannot keep the rules as well because they are poor, disabled, sick, or have some other pressing need. Nice sermon, Jesus.
And then we have a story that serves as a sermon illustration. As Jesus and the disciples are traveling in Syria, he is accosted by a pagan woman who wants him to heal her daughter. His disciples want her to just go away and stop calling attention to them. Jesus himself is dismissive: I was sent to the Israelites. He is following the rules like a good Rabbi. But she begs for her daughter’s life. This time Jesus is rude: it’s not fair to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs. But this woman will not be deterred: even the dogs get the crumbs. Jesus’ heart is moved by her faith that he can help, and by her desperation for her daughter’s healing, and he grants her the healing she asks for. He doesn’t simply abide by the rules; his heart leads him to see this woman as worthy of the gifts Gad has sent to God’s chosen people. Jesus provides the perfect example of his sermon by stepping beyond the rules himself and granting to this woman the full status he would automatically have given to one of his fellow Jews.
My brother John, and I had a rather heated discussion about what happens to Jesus in this encounter with the woman. Is he converted from his own racial bias for his own people to seeing this woman as a full child of God deserving of the healing only God gives? Or is he actually using her as an example to his disciples to show that even such an annoying foreigner is included in God’s compassionate response to the effects of evil. Either way, what strikes me in this story is the sense of privilege which comes with the idea that ‘we are God’s chosen and you are not.” Even across the border in a foreign country, Jesus and the disciples exhibit a sense of superiority. They carry a tradition and an anointing as God’s chosen that makes them less than gracious to a citizen of the country in which they travel.
I guess my sensitivity to people’s sense of privilege has been heightened by the destructive turmoil around race in these last few years, culminating in the events last weekend in Charlottesville with Neo-Nazis parading with torches and showing up as armed militias on the streets. It makes me super aware of the privilege that comes with being white in the US. Everything in my history, from where my family could live and send their children to school, to the assumption that I would go to college and the ease with which I could apply for jobs was never anything to worry about. It was easy because I had the right color skin and the right middle-class background. My family was never prevented from getting a loan to buy a house in any neighborhood they chose because of their skin color. I was never prevented from getting a job because of my skin color or ethnic background. It’s easy for me to forget that I am the norm, the written and unwritten rules I have always lived by were created to be comfortable for me. It’s easy to forget that my comfort was often at the expense of the comfort of others that didn’t look or act like me. White people like me are free to carry guns on the street and in their cars. Black people who carry guns, even with a permit are immediately suspect. White militias can stand on the street corner in camo with automatic weapons at the ready, but when Native Americans gather unarmed to protest a pipeline on their land they are met with water cannons and teargas. Our European forebears came to this land with the permission of the Church and their governments to take possession of it, even if there were already people who lived here. Indigenous people were considered savage and less than human. And we have built our country by mistreating people who are not like us from the very beginning.
I think this morning’s Gospel tells us that God’s heart is open to all people, and that God’s compassion and healing are meant for all who ask for it. Jesus goes beyond the privilege of being God’s chosen people to include this pagan woman in God’s love for sinners. Maybe if we could keep all God’s commandments from the heart, we could claim some privilege, some standing that would make us exceptional in God’s eyes and in the world. But we cannot. We fail to love God with our whole hearts. We fail to love our neighbors as ourselves. Our hearts are hard and turned most often toward our own advantage. We can claim nothing that would recommend us for forgiveness or membership in the Body of Christ. So we live in God’s forgiveness and love purely by God’s grace. We fall at Jesus’ feet begging for restoration, knowing full well we don’t deserve it. And we are healed. We come as beggars. How can we possibly be judgmental? We are invited by God’s grace alone. How can we possibly feel more deserving than anyone else? Our work is to reach out to all people with God’s love and compassion, and we fail; we fall on Jesus’ mercy seeking a place at God’s table. It is only through the power of God’s love that we can open our hearts to the struggles of others, and assure them that they are invited to God’s table too. It is only through the power of Jesus’ love that we can make room for others to stand beside us as we ask for healing and blessing before we go on our way. Our hearts are filled with gratitude when we remember that Jesus came to bless us, the descendants of pagans, and invite us to be adopted into God’s family. We are blessed to be a blessing and to scatter those crumbs of Jesus’ healing love to all with abandon. Amen