Canaanite Confrontation

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Matthew 15:10-28

1.

What’s going on in today’s Gospel? Was Jesus a racist?

I mean, he comes across as fairly harsh, doesn’t he?

A Canaanite woman approaches him, shouting for him to have mercy on her and her daughter. And at first he doesn’t answer her at all.

Why not? Why doesn’t he at least turn and acknowledge her? If he can’t help her, why doesn’t he at least let her know?

Instead, nothing.

But she doesn’t leave.

We know this because the disciples start to pester Jesus. “Send her away,” they say, “for she keeps shouting after us.” She’s embarrassing us, they say. Do something to make her stop, they plead.

So Jesus responds—not to the woman but to his disciples—“I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

Only to Israel? But I thought God sent his Son to be the savior of the world. At least that’s what it says over in the Gospel of John! Why does Jesus focus on the exclusive race of Israel here in Matthew?

And if this isn’t already bad enough, after this woman has been calling after him for some time; after she has embarrassed the disciples; after Jesus says he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel; and after she comes and kneels before him and pleads, “Lord, help me”—after all this, Jesus calls her and her daughter dogs.

It is not fair, he says, to take the children’s food—the food that rightfully belongs to Israel—and throw it to those outside of Israel—to those less than Israel—to the dogs, he says.

And if you’re like me, you’re left to wonder: what in the world is going on here?

Was the man Jesus a racist?

2.

Some folks want us to think so.

Jesus was a Hebrew, after all, God’s chosen race; and this woman was not. She was a Canaanite.

And if you know your Old Testament history, then you know that the Canaanites were one of the people groups that God said to destroy totally.

In Deuteronomy 7:1-2, for instance, God, through Moses, says:

“When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you—and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them.”

Men. Women. Children. Animals. Totally destroy. In a word, Genocide.

I’m not talking here about terrorists, cults, or hate groups like Neo-Nazis or Skinheads. This is the people of God’s Old Covenant.

What are we supposed to do with scripture passages like this? What are we to do with today’s Gospel?

Was Jesus a racist? Is God racist?

Some folks want us to think so.

I’ve just named a few groups who twist religious beliefs into the fabric of their wicked ideologies—terrorists; Neo-Nazis; Skinheads; religious cults.

And, sadly, just this week the news has shown us crimes related to these ideologies—and even some serious political fallout!

But—this may surprise you—I’m not talking just hate groups. I’m talking Christians too, some of them mainstream Christians, maybe even Christians living right next door to you.

People you and I know—people we may even study the Bible with—believe that God prefers one group of people over another; or, to speak more bluntly, believe that God is racist.

3.

Now, can I just stop here for a moment and interrupt?

I want to make something clear.

Absolutely and unequivocally: I believe racism is wrong.

Is this not a self-evident, absolute, unequivocal truth?

In the beginning, God created humanity in God’s own image. Whatever else this means, here is dignity.

Dignity: being worthy of honor and respect.

Everyone!

Mutually!

Does this remind you at all of the Trinity? It should. For that perfect, divine dance is what God is calling each of us into; into that perfect image of God.

And how can there be any such thing as racism there, in the co-equal Trinity?

Whatever else you may think about God or Jesus; whatever you feel about those men who used cars as lethal weapons in Charlottesville and Barcelona; whatever grudges you might hold against individuals who in your mind represent an entire race of people; whatever bitterness and resentment you still harbor towards the 9/11 aggressors—hear this truth today: God has created all humanity in God’s image.

God’s image, every single individual human being—regardless of race, skin color, creed, sexual orientation, physical capabilities, attractiveness, intelligence, political ideologies, socioeconomic status, or any other distinguishing category you wish to name.

Is this not a self-evident, absolute, unequivocal truth? Racism is wrong.

And thus, no, God is not racist. God cannot be racist. God’s nature will not allow it.

Yet people make god into their image, don’t they? They fashion for themselves idols after their own likeness.

But that’s another sermon for another day. . . .

4.

To return then, what is happening in this episode with Jesus, the Canaanite woman, and her daughter? What do we make of Jesus’ apparent harshness towards them? Why does Jesus refer to them as “dogs”?

Here’s what I think is going on—I’ll just name it; and then I’ll attempt to explain it:

I don’t think Jesus is being harsh with the woman and her daughter at all—or racist, or prejudiced, or bigoted, or arrogant, or whatever.

I think, instead, Jesus is demonstrating just how harsh the Jewish leaders had made their own religion.

Now, my attempt to explain: from the broader context.

This episode in Matthew is the third time Jesus has had some kind of confrontation with the Jewish leaders.

In the first two episodes—both times—Jesus answers his opponents by referring to Hosea 6:6; which says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

Two times before, Jewish religious leaders confronted Jesus because he had violated their traditions in some way. And two times before, Jesus had responded with words. It is not your traditions that matter, he said, as much as a heart for God.

Today’s passage follows a third confrontation.

His opponents just asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.”

Why do your disciples break our religious traditions, Jesus?

Jesus has already answered this question—in the past; twice already, as a matter of fact. God desires mercy, not sacrifice.

So this time he doesn’t answer—not with words, anyway.

Instead, the first thing Jesus does is explain that it is not what goes into a person that defiles, but what comes out.

To overlook a human tradition—not to wash one’s hands before eating—is not going to defile or corrupt someone. But to overlook God’s true law of love and mercy—that defiles and corrupts.

Thus, when the Canaanite woman confronts Jesus, he does not answer his opponents a third time verbally. Instead, he shows them that God desires mercy, not sacrifice.

When the Canaanite woman first approaches Jesus, shouting, “Have mercy on me,” his silent response shows the Jewish leaders and his disciples how they themselves would have responded.

When he says that he has come only for the lost sheep of Israel, he is espousing well-established Jewish traditions, which maintained that the coming Messiah would save Israel alone.

And when he says the word dogs, he is saying exactly what the Jewish leaders would have said if they were in Jesus’ shoes.

Yet this is not where the story ends. Jesus shows the Jewish leaders and his disciples their folly by demonstrating where their traditions take them.

This is not where the story ends: Jesus then goes on to praise the Canaanite woman beyond anyone’s expectations.

“Great is your faith!” he exclaims. And in an act of divine mercy, he heals her daughter then and there.

Then and there he shows his opponents, those lovers of tradition: God desires mercy, not sacrifice.

God’s infinite and unbounded mercy extends to all peoples. God’s love cannot be bound by race or any other human invention.

5.

So, let’s get practical.

Racism is wrong; we’re agreed on that.

Yet throughout history, people—even in our own day; even some of our very neighbors; maybe even some of us—have utilized religious beliefs and traditions to support their heinous racist practices.

We saw this play out recently in Charlottesville and Barcelona.

Yet if racism is wrong—and it is—then utilizing our religion to support our racism is doubly wrong.

So what can we do about it?

It begins with us as individuals. Each of us must examine his or her own heart. Where do you find yourself expressing subtle prejudicial tendencies? In your words? In your actions? In both?

Look for them. And where you find them, repent.

Next, we must examine ourselves as a corporate body. Do we—and here I mean St. Thomas of Canterbury, and more broadly TEC—do we unconsciously practice favoritism toward one group of people over another?

Again, where we find these tendencies, we must repent.

And a third suggestion is to look around the community—your family, your workplace, your church, local organizations—and confront racism where you see it.

Ugh! Did he say confrontation? But some of us don’t like confrontation.

Yes, I did. And, yes, I know: I’m one of them.

My counsel to those who fear confrontation, including me, comes from last week’s message: Who Needs a Board when your Eyes are on the Lord?

Jesus has left us with a mission. It’s not beyond our capabilities. But sometimes storms arise.

Individual and societal racism is one of those storms. Confronting it is frightening. So frightening, even, that it can wreak havoc on our faith!

Yet what does Jesus say to his disciples?

“Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

Beloved, through Jesus, we shall overcome our fears; through Jesus, we shall overcome racism.

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