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Canaanite Confrontation

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2017 by timtrue

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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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The Parable of the Half-dead Wretch

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2016 by timtrue

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Luke 10:25-37

Ah, yes, the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  This is comfort food for the soul.  We’ve heard it hundreds of times, sure, just like so many other parables of Jesus; but this one never gets old.  It’s the perfect picture of the love God calls us to believe in and act on.  It’s memorable.

And so it works on us like this—true story:

One night I was driving home from a class I was taking at Moorpark College.  I was nineteen years old, still living with my parents, still trying to decide what to major in, still trying to figure out a lot of things.

I was new to the Christian faith.  I hadn’t yet been baptized; hadn’t yet really even begun attending church regularly.

But even by then I’d heard this parable.  And it stuck with me.

So, there I was, driving home from a class that had ended at 10pm, down the two-lane backroad between Moorpark and Camarillo—it was late, I was tired, eyes a little blurry; it was black outside, no moon, no streetlights, only stars—when up ahead a sudden glare illuminated the tops of the trees.

I couldn’t see where the glare had come from, for there were railroad tracks between me and it, and the tracks were elevated a little, on a levee, meaning the source of the glare was below my line of sight.

In any event, now my attention was riveted; now I was wide awake.  So I drove on, crossing over the railroad tracks, slowing down a little as I approached, and rounding a blind turn.  And then and there, all at once, I saw the cause.

To the right of the road, in a turnout, was an upside down car; a human body lay some thirty feet from it, unmoving; and, some fifty feet from both, illuminating the scene, a fire burned at the base of a telephone pole.

Now, I wish I could say I stopped and rushed to the aid of the victim.  But I didn’t—kind of like the priest and the Levite from the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Instead, as I drove by, looking out my passenger window in shock and awe, all at once a million thoughts began to collide in my head, you know, a kind of inner dialog, or inner argument rather.  It went something like this:

Dang!  Poor guy.  I wonder if he’s okay.  How could he not have seen the telephone pole anyway?  I wonder if he’s drunk.  Yeah, that’s probably it.  Ah, serves him right then.  Oh, but that’s harsh, Tim.  What if he’s badly hurt?  What if he dies because of you, because you didn’t stop and help him?  I don’t want to read that in tomorrow’s paper.  Ugh, guilt forever!  What should I do?  Well, I’m already well beyond him.  Maybe I should just keep driving to the nearest police station and let them know what happened.  No, too far.  Maybe I should drive to the ER.  Yeah, that’s closer.  Oh, but even that’s still a few miles away.  Really, I should just turn around.  But I don’t know this guy.  It was his own fault, after all.  Oh, but this is exactly what that Parable of the Good Samaritan is all about!  Dang you, Jesus.  Now I’ve got to turn around!  If I’m a Christian at all, now I’ve just got to go help this poor soul.  Lord, you’re testing me, aren’t you?

And so that’s what I did: turn around.  All the way back to the scene of the accident I worried about what in the world I would do alone on the side of the road with a corpse, or, perhaps worse, a mangled, half-dead person.

But, as providence would have it, in the few minutes it had taken for this inner dialog to take place and for me to turn around and return to the scene, two police cars and an ambulance had arrived.

So I turned around again.  And I drove home.

By the way, there was nothing in the paper about it the next day, or the day after, at least as far as I saw.  I never did find out who the person was, or what happened.

But, more to my point, the Parable of the Good Samaritan is memorable.  It comes up every three years in our lectionary.  And it comes up every time, at least in my mind, I don’t love my neighbor as I ought to.

And so, because this is such a memorable parable, my work is done here.  We are to love our neighbor just like the Good Samaritan loved his neighbor.  Sermon over.  Time for me to take my seat and get on with the rest of the service.  Right?

Um, well, actually, no.  While it is true that we are called as Christians to love our neighbor as the Samaritan loved the man who’d been beaten and left by the side of the road half-dead, that’s actually not the point of this parable.

You see, whenever we hear this parable we tend to put ourselves in the shoes of the Samaritan.  And I’m not just talking about me here.  We do this as humans, as a culture.  We name some of our churches after the Good Samaritan; we even name automobile clubs after Good Sam.

But Jesus’ original hearers would not have identified most closely with the Samaritan.  And for that reason, I don’t think we should identify most closely with him either.

Well then, with which character would Jesus’ hearers have identified most closely?  With whom should we identify most closely?

Just prior to Jesus telling this parable, recall, the scriptures tell us that a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.

A lawyer.  Other versions read expert in the law, which is perhaps a better translation.  Others say scribe.  Better still is the German schriftgelehrter, which translates, roughly, scholar of literature, or, in this context, scholar of the scriptures.  So, here was a bona fide Old Testament Professor standing up to test Jesus.

And he asks a question to which he already knows the answer: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

I wonder, what kind of mockery was in this lawyer’s tone of voice when he addressed Jesus as teacher.  Really, if I were in a seminary classroom with my Old Testament professor and she stood up and looked at me and said, “Okay, Tim, teacher, you tell me what the Old Testament teaches us,” I’m sure her address to me as teacher would be dripping with sarcasm.  Was it the same when this schriftgelehrter stood up and addressed Jesus?

Whatever the case, Jesus is unfazed.  He turns the question back on the lawyer—“What is written in the law?”—who then eloquently sums up the law: love the Lord your God; and love your neighbor.

But then, seeking to justify himself, this lawyer clarifies: “Yes, teacher, I understand what the law says.  I am an expert in it, after all.  But tell me, good teacher, who, exactly, is my neighbor?”

Now, for perspective, the Jewish law had specifics about this.  Specifically, Jewish scriptural specifics specified that certain sapient species were simply specious; and therefore Jewish scriptural specifics stated that good sons of Shem shouldn’t associate with such specifically specious albeit sapient species.

In other words—in plain, non-lawyer talk—anyone who did not descend directly from Noah’s son Shem was suspect, most definitely not to be considered a neighbor.

Yes, sadly, racism is nothing new.  And racism based on religion is nothing new.

Still unfazed by this prejudiced law-expert before him, Jesus then tells this parable, the so-called Parable of the Good Samaritan.  But there’s something in it I think we often miss.

Right at the end of it—after we hear about the poor wretch who is beat up and left for half-dead; after the priest and the Levite avoid the half-dead man; and after a man of a different race, the Samaritan, helps the poor wretch—after all this—Jesus answers the lawyer’s question.

His question, remember, was, Who, exactly, is my neighbor?

And so Jesus comes to the end of his story and says that the Samaritan is the neighbor to the half-dead man.  The Samaritan, good lawyer, is your neighbor.

Do you see?  It’s not the way we usually understand it.  We usually put ourselves in the place of the Samaritan.  We drive down a road, late at night, with darkness everywhere around us; and we see a sudden flash ahead.  We then come upon a scene of a gruesome accident: someone is half-dead on the side of the road.  And we think, “I’ve got to help this person.  I’ve got to be like the Good Samaritan.”

And all this is well and true and good: we should indeed help the poor soul.

But the lawyer asks, Who is my neighbor; and Jesus answers, Your neighbor is the Samaritan.  Good lawyer, you are in fact that half-dead man on the side of the road, in desperate need of aid.

Tradition calls this story the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Instead, maybe we should call it the Parable of the Half-dead Wretch.

To identify with the man in the ditch, then, brings up at least two very good questions for us to consider.

First, am I able to receive help from others?

We live in a culture that gives us many opportunities to help others.  Why, just last week we collected food to distribute to the needy in our community; and we’ll do it again on the first Sunday of next month.  The church and other worthy charities depend on us for survival.  And how many of us like to be available for a friend or family member seeking counsel?  We like to help.  And so we should.

But turn it around.  Do we like to receive help?  Do we like to make ourselves vulnerable to another person, a friend or maybe even a stranger, and ask for their help?  We might have to.  But are we comfortable doing so?

How about if we don’t even ask?  What if someone, a stranger, simply offers help to us?  Is it easy to receive it willingly?  Do we receive it maybe reluctantly?  Do we reject it outright, in principle maybe, or out of pride?

Receiving help from others is difficult, isn’t it?  Our readiness to offer help but reluctance to receive it suggests that this attitude isn’t just personal but cultural.  This attitude was there in the lawyer who stood up to test Jesus; and it’s here in a lot of modern-day evangelical (and not-so-evangelical) Christianity.  It’s called superiority.

When someone asks me for help and I’m quick to offer it, is this because it puts me in a superior position?  Someone needs me.  Someone is dependent on me.  And this makes me feel good about myself.

Now, I’m not saying that someone’s attitude is one of superiority every time he or she offers help to a neighbor.  The Samaritan, surely, wasn’t affected by an attitude of superiority.

But it works the other way too.  The man in the ditch, the half-dead wretch, was utterly dependent on his neighbor to help him.  And who was this but the lawyer to whom Jesus addressed the parable?  He was the one in utter need of help.  Yet his attitude was all about superiority.

There is a way to love a neighbor who is in need; and there’s a way to be loved.  It’s called service, not superiority.

But I said two questions.  The first, whether we’re able to receive help from others, makes us uncomfortable.

The second—well, it’s even more uncomfortable: What if the person helping me is someone I despise?

What if the person helping me disagrees with me on a hot political issue, something like gun control?  What if that person aligns with an opposing political party?  What if that person has embarrassed or even insulted me in front of others?  What if that person hasn’t been to church in a while, or went away with that other group?  What if that person is actually of a different faith, or of no faith at all?  In fact, what if the single person I despise worst of all souls in this world ends up being the very person who saves my life—who pulls my half-dead body out of a ditch and makes sure I receive proper medical attention and even pays for it?  Would I rather have died?

But then that’s just Jesus’ point.

What must we do to inherit eternal life?  We allow ourselves to receive it in whatever form it comes.