TEXTS: Matthew 15:10 – 20, 21 – 28
OK; I want to take a moment here to make sure I heard this story correctly. Did Jesus; our Jesus, the Jesus who died us and for the world, the Jesus who was and is God incarnate, the Jesus who said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”, the Jesus who said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them.” Am I to understand that that Jesus called a little kid, who I’m sure was cute as a button, a little kid afflicted with some sort of horrible malady; did Jesus call that kid a dog? Did he at least make a comparison?!?
The first response that I would naturally have is, “Surely this was some sort of ancient typo, some ancient scribe didn’t have his digital recorder turned on and misheard the statement. Maybe someone copying the Gospel in a monastic cell somewhere in Greece was momentarily distracted and just got it wrong. Of course it’s difficult to go with hat assumption, when we find that Matthew was not the only Gospel writer to relate the story. We can also find it in Gospel Mark with very little variation.
On the other hand, it’s not as though this was the prevailing attitude toward Gentiles on the part of Jesus. The Gospels are filled with stories of Jesus interacting with and even performing miracles upon Gentiles far and wide. We have the stories of the Centurion’s slave, the woman at well in Samaria, the Gerasine demoniac. All these examples certainly make today’s story out of character for Jesus. And, of course, all this makes this story at best difficult to deal with, and at worst just plain mind-boggling and downright painful.
Why would a man who seems, according to many stories in the Gospels to be all sweetness and light, come off as downright bigoted in this story? Maybe the few additional words included in the Gospel of Mark that Matthew omits can shed some light on the situation. Mark notes that Jesus went away to the territory of Tyre and Sidon, city states on the Mediterranean Sea that were outside the areas heavily populated by Jews, and then states, “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” We could speculate that Jesus was still trying to digest the execution of John the Baptist and might well have been looking for the direction that his ministry should take in the light of John’s death. We know that his attempts to be alone with his thoughts had been thwarted by the persistence of great crowds of people. I we read backwards a bit from this episode we know that people continued to beg just to touch the hem of his garments, and that the Pharisees and Scribes continued dog him and challenge his teaching. So maybe Jesus just wanted be alone and tried to go to the shore, to the beach, incognito. If so, then he could have seen this Gentile woman as one more intrusion upon his privacy.
Whatever the case, whatever the circumstances, however the original event may have been interpreted by the disciples of Jesus and later by the Gospel writers, what we end up with is a nice, concise teaching moment for the early church and for us. The bottom line of the story is that no matter what term Jesus may have used to refer to the Gentile Woman and her child, and even her people, we find that faith and perseverance, wisdom and wit prevail. What began as a dismissal was transformed into a healing by the faithful determination of a frantic mother who was not to be set aside; not with the well-being of her daughter on the line.
The congregations that Matthew was addressing, are for the most part assumed by scholars to have been largely composed of Jews who had converted to Christianity. It is also assumed that many among those congregations probably felt, as did the early church in Jerusalem, that the Good News of Christ was reserved for Jews and Jews alone. This story was for those Jews a true affirmation of the teaching of the law and the prophets; that God’s love was universal and that ultimately there was no “chosen” people. Had we taken the time again this Sunday to read the Old Testament lesson from the prophet Isaiah, we would have found a clear statement that the sacrifices of so called “foreigners” were acceptable to God and that God’s house shall be called (and I quote), “A house of prayer for all peoples.”
Friends, I must say and say it publicly, that I have been deeply disturbed by recent events here in our nation and especially by the spectacle in Charlottesville, Virginia. I have been deeply disturbed by public displays of bigotry and even racism that undergird such events. It’s not as though any of this is somehow new and shocking to me. The KKK was a powerful and sometimes visible force throughout my years in Indiana, from my childhood into adulthood.
As a pastor in Evansville in the 1990s, I helped organize an interfaith celebration of life and diversity as a counteraction to a KKK rally in Boonville, about 15 miles to the east. I have no delusions that the organization has somehow evaporated in the years since. I am sure that there is a white supremacist presence here in New Jersey, however great or small, and that in a broader sense, bigotry is alive and well throughout our state and even here in our own community.
I believe that it is a deeply set part of our sinful human nature that we should desire to elevate selves and denigrate others, and therefore that we should see traits which are distinctly ours as superior to the traits of others. Since my skin light colored and I trace much my heritage back to European roots, I am inclined, in my sinfulness, to see whites of European descent as superior to those whose skin is a different shade and those of other ethnicities. Since I am male, in my sinfulness, I see myself as superior to females. Since I am financially comfortable, in my sinfulness, I see myself as superior to those who I might call “poor”. Since I am reasonably well educated, in my sinfulness, I see myself as superior to those of little education. I hope that you have noticed the qualifier that I placed in every statement – “in my sinfulness”. All these prejudices are manifestations of sinfulness.
And yes, since I am a Christian, in my sinfulness I have the ability to see myself superior to those of other faiths. In fact, sometimes I manage to find superiority in comparison to other Christians, and even other Lutherans! Of course the point that is at the root of all these comparisons, the underlying ground for all our bigotry, all our prejudice, is that we find selves, in our heart of hearts, superior to all people. Deep down inside I am quite convinced that no one on this earth was made by God almighty quite so wonderfully as . . . me!
Friends, we must all fight such sinfulness at all levels. We must fight it when it rises up within our own hearts; we must fight it when it is raised by close family and friends; we must fight it decisively as it manifests itself in the church; and we must stand firmly against it when it takes shape publically. God created humanity in all its diversity to live in community, and we cannot live in community as long as we busy ourselves, outwardly and inwardly, with the business of dividing that community into greater and lessor, more valuable and less valuable.
As I was writing this sermon a certain quotation came to mind, a quotation by a German Lutheran clergyman by the name of Martin Niemöller. During the rise of the Third Reich, Niemöller was a supporter of what was known as the Confessing Church, a Christian movement supportive of German Nationalism. As time went on though Niemöller found himself more and more at odds with the Nazis and began to speak out against the party to the point that he was arrested and interred during the war in two different concentration camps. Niemöller survived those camps and became an outspoken critic against militarization around the world, as well as calling for nuclear disarmament. During his time of imprisonment he penned these poignant words:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.