Saturday, August 13, 2011

Pentecost Proper 15A

Proper 15 A       Matthew 15:10-28        August 14, 2011            The Rev. Benton Quest
St. Swithin's in the Swamp

There are some readings in the lectionary cycle that just make most clergy want to run in terror and hide in the mountains somewhere.  Well, guess what? Today is one of those days!  Today’s gospel is one of those readings that people have argued about for years and no one seems to have the definitive answer.  Many people have tried to come up with an explanation for it, but most seem to fail.  So, in honor of today’s reading, I think we are going to have a hymn sing!  No?  Oh… Okay.
What seems to be happening in today’s gospel reading is that Jesus appears to be acting in a really uncharacteristically rude manner.  The manner in which Jesus speaks is really what we would not expect.   We usually expect Jesus to be kind, caring and loving; we don’t expect Jesus to be cold and aloof.  But in our gospel reading, the good news of the gospel seems to be missing.
Let’s take a look at the situation: A woman has come to Jesus to ask for help. He daughter is ill and she wants Jesus to help her.  The first thing that Jesus does is ignores her. Then, if ignoring this woman is not rude enough, he calls her a dog and tells her that she is not worthy of his help!  What Gospel truth are we supposed to learn from this?
I have found this interaction to be very troubling. Haven’t we always been taught that Jesus is loving and caring?  So loving, in fact that he gave his life for us, right?  And here, now, we have a situation where Jesus seems to be disregarding the pain this suffering woman, this just doesn’t seem right.
Hearing this story makes me wonder:  If Jesus could so easily disregard this woman’s pain, would Jesus disregard my pain? Would Jesus consider me a dog, unworthy of the divine food if I were to bring my troubles to him? I know that I have not lived up to the standard set by Christ’s life. I have not loved others as I have been loved. I have not freely given. I have placed myself before others. I know that I have fallen short. But I have relied on Jesus’ love and grace to be with me even though I am undeserving. 
Now here we have this story which seems to be showing Jesus being unloving and ungrace-filled; we have this story that seems to show Christ being, well, very Un-Christlike. Now we are presented with a Jesus who is reluctant to even hear the plea of a mother in pain. With what we have in our gospel reading for today, it would seem that the loving and grace-filled Jesus was just a show. As I have said, I find this to be very troubling.
It is interesting to read what various scholars HAVE said about this passage. Some have suggested that Jesus didn’t really mean “dog” as in a stray, mongrel kind of dog but “dog” as in cuddly pet dog. This seems to clear everything up, doesn’t it?  Well, no.  If I were pleading for the life of my child, it wouldn’t matter if you called me a German Shepherd of a Yorkie or even a Peek-a-poo; whatever you call me, your still calling me a dog!  If my child’s life were in jeopardy and you called me a dog, I would be totally offended.
Other scholars have suggested that Jesus and the lady were engaging in some lighthearted banter. I don’t really buy this either.  That would be like going to a cardiologist and having her tell me that she wouldn’t waste her time or education operating on a fat, lazy, slob like me. Ha ha ha.  She would rather save her talent for someone who is in better shape and more deserving. I can tell you, I would start laughing and respond with my best Groucho Marx imitation. “Aw Doc, that is the craziest thing I ever hoird!”  Yeah, sure...   No, again I would be totally offended. No, I just don’t buy the lighthearted banter approach either.
However, up until this point, we have not looked at this incident in context of the other events that were occurring. Most people just focus on the dog part and forget that other things have just happened. Jesus is with the disciples discussing ritual purity and defilement. Now, you need to remember, if a person was ritually pure, then that person could go into the temple. But if a person were ritually impure, it would be blasphemous for that person to step foot into the temple. Also, people were not to touch someone who was ritually impure; to touch an impure person would be to become impure themselves.  So, even if you kept all the ritual purity laws, if you touched an impure person, then all that work to be pure was trashed; that was it, one touch and you were impure.
What Jesus was explaining to the disciples was that it was not the purity laws that make a person clean or defiled, but what comes out of a person’s heart.  If a person is evil, all of the ritually clean food in the world will not make that person good. In the same manner, just eating a pork chop or shrimp cocktail does not necessarily make a person evil. Jesus was saying that a person’s character is more than just adherence to the law.
Then the part that happens next, the part with the woman coming up to plead with Jesus, is a testing of the proclamation:  A gentile woman comes to Jesus and begs for help. According to the law, this woman is unclean, impure, defiled. If Jesus were to touch her, he, then, would become defiled. If the disciples were to touch her, they would become defiled too.
Now we come to the dilemma: Jesus has just talked about what defiles and what does not. Will the disciples risk being socially impure in order to help this gentile woman or will they keep their hands clean? 
The answer that Jesus gets from his disciples is a resounding, “NO WAY!” The disciples would not even approach the woman and requested that Jesus send her away.
Then Jesus gives the response that is so troubling. Jesus responds that he was sent to the lost sheep of Israel and that the children’s food should not be thrown to the dogs.
Now if these comments are directed toward the woman, then they are truly cruel. But it has been suggested that the comments were intended for the disciples to hear. Jesus was following the exact letter of the law to show how a strict, unthinking, adherence to the law can be just as defiling as a total abandonment of the law. Jesus was showing the disciples, and us, that we need to respond to our world with one eye turned to the law, and the other turned to our neighbor.
The first question I have from this reading is, “Who are the people I would like to have Jesus send away?” Who are the people I do not want to touch for fear of becoming defiled in the sight of the world? Who would I rather have Jesus take out of my sight so that I don’t have to think about them? Are there people like this in your life? Messy people? Annoying people? Needy people? Instead of turning them away, how is Christ asking you to reach out? How is Christ asking you to be a blessing to these people?
The second question I think is even more important than the first. How are we like the woman in the story? How have we been loved and lifted by Christ’s love? If we cannot see how Christ has blessed us, then we cannot be a blessing to others. If we cannot see how, even though we were undeserving of forgiveness, Christ has forgiven us, then we are lost. Christ did not ask that we become clean and undefiled before he gave his life for us, he gave his life while we were still outcasts. Christ did not demand restitution from us before he bestowed his forgiveness. It is this love, this grace, this forgiveness that Christ wishes us to bestow upon those we encounter in our lives.
Now although we may not understand Jesus’ actions in the gospel, we do know that he extended love and help to that very person that the law said should be turned away. He helped the woman even though the Pharisees would have cried that she was “unclean.” Although society may have said the woman was unworthy of help, Christ helped her anyway. 
Christ calls us to reach out because even though we may be unclean, we are still loved and forgiven. Even when society looks down upon us, Christ calls us all to the table. Even those whom the world would have us send away, Christ would have us call in. 
So even though at first glance, the gospel lesson looks like Jesus being rude, we can see that Jesus is teaching us to reach out and to love those who would come into our lives. Loving the people who are different can be difficult, but this is the kind of love we are called to give. This is the kind of love we ourselves have received through Jesus. This is the love we are given and this is the love we are asked to follow. Giving this love may be difficult, but through Christ, we can achieve it.

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