Monday, August 22, 2011

Jesus Repents: The Gospel Trajectory Finds Its Course

When we read a novel or a play for a literature class,
the professor will usually ask
“who is the main character?”
There is a rule of thumb for figuring out
who a story is primarily about.
Does anyone know how to tell the main character?
It is the one who changes most.
The main character is not a stable prop in someone else’s drama.
The main character learns things, grows.

King Lear is called “King Lear” because the foolish old king
eventually sees his own injustice and he repents.
Shakespeare didn’t name his play after faithful Cordelia
who is good and virtuous throughout.
He named it “King Lear” after the character who moves,
changes, makes spiritual progress.
Same thing with Oedipus Rex, David Copperfield,
or the Cather in the Rye.
So, who is the Gospel of Matthew primarily about?
It might be about Jesus.
If that is the case, instead of taking everything Jesus
ever said as the final word for all time,
we might look to see if Jesus ever changes his mind.
Instead of taking snapshots of his spirituality
at one point, we might look at the course of his life
to see if we can plot a trajectory.

Let’s start with his first teaching, the Sermon on the Mount.
Not much grace in that sermon.
Here’s what Jesus says about the law.
“”Not one letter or stroke shall pass away from the law . . .
Whoever breaks . . . the least of these commandments . . .
will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus doesn’t say the Pharisees are too strict.
He thinks they are soft on sin.
He wants to make the law more rigorous.
Jesus starts out as Super Puritan.
But there’s something good in it.
His point is that doing the right thing isn’t enough.
You have to get your heart right.
He’s insisting on an authentic spiritual core to morality.

Now fast forward to today’s lesson to see where that leads.
The disciples have just violated a ritual purity regulation
about hand washing.
The Pharisees cry “Shame. Not one stroke or letter . . .” they say.
“Whoever breaks one of the least
of these commandments . . .” they say.

But Jesus says “It’s no big deal.” His position has shifted.
He explains, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles,
but what comes out it.”
The heart is what matters. Not ritual purity.

First Jesus turned his attention from the right actions alone
to having your heart right.
Then he began to wonder what ritual purity
has to do with the heart.
Maybe if your heart was right,
it didn’t matter if you kept the law perfectly,
so long of course as you were Jewish
and kept the law pretty well.
That teaching drew fire from the Pharisees.
So Jesus took a little vacation from his mission
in the non-Jewish country of Tyre and Sidon.

He had strictly ordered his disciples
not to even tell non-Jews about the gospel.
They were the wrong race, wrong set of ritual purity customs,
“not our sort dear.”
At this point in the story, Jesus hadn’t changed his mind on that.
So he was in Tyre and Sidon on a vacation, not a mission.

But along came this non-Jewish woman begging him
to heal her daughter.
Jesus ignored here. She persisted.
The disciples said, “One of the goyim is bothering us.
Send her away.”
So Jesus told her he ministered to Jews only.
In desperation, she threw herself down in front of him.
He called her a dog and ordered her out of the way.
But she said, “Even dogs eat the crumbs from their master’s table.”

That rocked him.
She had called him her master.
That was at once beautiful and a violation of the taboo
separating Jew and Gentile.
It was so wrong under the law, so right in the heart.
Jesus repented.

In last week’s lesson, Jesus had just said to his disciples
– who were the right race, right gender, right religion --
“O ye of little faith.”
Now he says to this foreigner
– wrong race, wrong gender, wrong religion –
“Woman, great is your faith.//
Let it be done for you as you wish.”
And her daughter was healed.

Do you see Jesus stumbling toward a new way
of seeing the world, a new kind of religion?
We might pause to consider the importance
of this nameless woman who converted Jesus.

Matthew’s book still has a long way to go.
But can you guess how it ends?
I hope you won’t skip reading it just because
I’m giving away the thrilling conclusion.

It ends like this:
Jesus says to his disciples,
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . . .”
“Nations” means the non-Jews.

Let’s retrace what has happened here:
One third of the way in the story,
Jesus sent his disciples out to spread the gospel,
but then he said,
“Go nowhere among the Gentiles
and enter no town of Samaria,
but rather go to the lost sheep of . . . Israel.”

But after meeting the gentile woman of great faith,
he began to change his tune.
In the end, he sent his disciples to baptize all nations.

So what can we learn from this story?
The first thing we see is Jesus modeling an open mind
and an open heart.
His faith was a living, growing thing.
It changed. It moved. It morphed.

It wasn’t so soft and flexible that it had no shape.
Jesus didn’t go around saying “maybe this or maybe that.”
“This is true for me but it might not be true for you.”
Jesus took stands in the name of God.

But he wasn’t so stuck in what he said yesterday
he couldn’t move on to a new truth tomorrow.
He wasn’t so spiritually lazy as to let his faith lounge
in the same things he was taught as a child.
Jesus moved. So how about us?

It’s good to check our faith from time to time
to see if it has any buds on it, any green shoots.
If not, we might want to fertilize it a bit
with a new prayer practice, a new book,
a retreat or some acts of mercy.

Maybe we need to meet someone outside our comfort zone
-- some modern equivalent of a Canaanite woman
with a sick child
– someone to shake up our stultifying certainties.

The second thing we notice in this story
is its ethical trajectory.
Right from the beginning,
the distinctive thing about Jesus
was his gospel of inclusion.

Right from the beginning,
he sat down at table with sinners and social outcasts.
But at first he was calling them into an even smaller circle
of strict rules than the Pharisees had drawn.
Then he extended the circle by disregarding
ritual purity rules that kept people outside
even if their hearts were faithful.
Then he took in lawless gentiles who approached him in faith,
and finally sent his disciples out to gentiles
who had never even heard of him.

It is an expanding ethic of inclusion, an ethic of embrace.
St. Paul kept extending further that trajectory of inclusion.
“In Christ there is neither slave nor free, neither male nor female,
neither Jew nor gentile,” he wrote.

We have our trajectory set in the life of Jesus.
Who might be outside our circle of caring or acceptance?
Who might be the Canaanite woman for us?
If we keep an eye out for the people we are tempted
to avoid, they may show us the growing edge of our faith.

May our ability to accept each other grow day by day.
May our appreciation extend to those we now scorn.
May our capacity for love grow beyond anything we have yet imagined.