Sunday, August 20, 2017


The following sermon has provoked an unusual level of response, both pro and con. The con responses include words like "hogwash" and accusations of heresy. While, a sermon should be a proclamation of the gospel, not an exegesis, I have added an exegetical post-script to this sermon that claims Matthew's Jesus changed his mind about gentiles. For those who are concerned, the postscript may help you understand my reasoning even if you do not agree.

There is a rule of thumb for figuring that out
who the main character in a novel is.
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 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 – and is therefore interesting.
So, who is Matthew’s book primarily about?

If it’s about Jesus, then instead of taking everything he
            ever said as the final word for all time,
            we might look to see if Jesus ever changes his mind.

His first teaching was 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 thinks the Pharisees are soft on sin.
He wants to make the law more rigorous.
Even doing the right thing isn’t enough.
You have to get your heart right. You have to mean it.

 Now fast forward to today’s lesson.
The disciples have just violated a law 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 now 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 legal technicalities.
Jesus began to wonder what some of the law
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.
Jesus, being a bright guy, knew when it was time
to get out of Dodge, so he took a little vacation
            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 religion, “not our sort dear.”
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 her. She persisted.
The disciples said, “One of the goyim is bothering us.
            Do what she wants and send her away.”
But, Jesus told her he served 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.
It 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.
He had just recently said to his own disciples
-- right race, right gender, right religion –
 “O ye of little faith.”
Now he says to this foreign pagan
            -- wrong race, wrong gender, wrong religion --
“Woman, great is your faith.
 Let it be done for you as you wish.”

Jesus is stumbling toward a new kind of religion
This nameless woman had converted him.
And we had better be glad she did,
            because without her there would have been no gentile mission
            and we would still be sacrificing goats to Jupiter.

Matthew’s book still has a long way to go.
Eventually, it ends like this:
            Jesus says to his disciples,
            “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . ..”

“Nations” means the non-Jews.
When Jesus first sent his disciples out to spread the gospel,
 he said, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles
                        and enter no town of Samaria,
            but rather go to the lost sheep of . . . Israel.”
This is for Jews only.
But after meeting this gentile woman,
            he began to change his tune.
In the end, he sent his disciples to baptize all nations.

So, what might 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.

He wasn’t so stuck in what he said yesterday
            he couldn’t move on to a new truth tomorrow.
Jesus changed. 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 act of mercy.

Maybe we need to meet someone outside our comfort zone
-- some modern equivalent of a Canaanite woman
– 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 at table with sinners and social outcasts.
But at first, he was calling them into an even smaller circle
            of stricter rules than the Pharisees had drawn.
Then he extended the circle to include
good hearted Jews who were a bit lax on the law.
Then he took in lawless gentiles if they had great faith.
Finally, he sent his disciples out to gentiles 
            who didn’t even have faith yet.

It is an expanding circle of inclusion, an ethic of embrace.
St. Paul kept extending that trajectory of inclusion.
“In Christ, there is neither Jew nor gentile, neither male nor female,
            neither slave nor free,” 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 usually avoid,
they may show us the growing edge of our faith.

Not all change is good. But some change is.
And the good change is as uncomfortable as the bad.
When our Church changes, it unsettles us.
But I’ll let you in on something: That’s on purpose.
It’s because we need a little unsettling now and then.

We all deserve to be the main character in our own life.

But we will be that main character only if we are open to change.

Exegetical postscript

In Mark and Luke, we don't see much change in Jesus as their stories progress. In John, you might say there is no change, except that for most of the book salvation depends on knowledge or belief, then at the conclusion, abruptly it is all about love. But there is no character development in the Johannine story to explain that shift. Most likely, it reflects that the book was written over a long period of time and the theology of the author or authors shifted. John might never have made it into the canon without the change in the latter chapters.

In Matthew, however, it is quite clear that Jesus' message is a work in process. This sermon points out how he changed from being a super-strict legalist (Matthew 5: 17-19) to one who was quite ready to bend the rules to make room for a heart-spirituality. (Matthew 12: 1-14; and more explicitly Matthew 15: 1-11). The shift we are primarily concerned with is from the initial gospel mission at Matthew 10: 6:

                     Do not make your way to gentile territory, and do not enter
                     any Samaritan town; go instead to the lost sheep of the House of Israel. 

to Matthew 28: 19:
                    Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations . . ..

In case the word, "all" were not inclusive enough, consider that "nations" traditionally meant non-Jews. How did we get from a mission to Jews only to a mission to "all nations"? The shift is really underway in each story where Jesus bends the law that separates people from one another to allow sufficient flexibility for relationship. That culminates in Matthew 15: 1-11. It is not by chance this text about eating what is unclean is placed immediately before the story of the Canaanite woman. Jesus is about to extend this inclusivity beyond unclean food to unclean people.

He leaves Galilee for Tyre and Sidon. Given what he said in Matthew 10, he would not have been there on the Kingdom Mission. He was there to get away. Right off, we have a Jesus who is not so omnipotent as to not need time away. While there, "a Canaanite woman" (Matthew 15: 22) approaches him. The term rendered "Canaanite" in this verse is not contemporary for Matthew. Syro-Phoeneican would have been the term then. Instead Matthew uses an archaic (even then) Old Testament term that connotes a sinful race fit for extermination as in Joshua. She begs him to heal her daughter. The text emphasizes that Jesus turned a deaf ear. "He said not a word to her." She persisted. The disciples can't take it so they say "Give her what she wants" -- not out of mercy but to get rid of her. Still, Jesus refuses. Why? Not that he is cruel but because he is following the law. As the Samaritan woman put it at John 4: 10, Jews, of course, do not associate with Samaritans (gentiles). 

Even when pressed by his disciples to heal the child, Jesus said to the mother, I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel. (Matthew 15: 25) Compare Matthew 10: 6 (only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel Same words.) Jesus still has the same Jews only vision of the mission that he had five chapters ago. But she begs him again. Then in language that certainly sounds like exasperation, he says, It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to little dogs. (Matthew 15: 27) 

People are uncomfortable with Jesus insulting a pathetic mother, so some sermons have attempted to soften this saying this is the term for pet puppies. That totally misrepresents the place of dogs in Ancient Israel. Please see Dogs might be used as functionally but they were unclean like carrion  -- not pets. The term "dog" was used in reference to a person to demean, not endear, and smallness did not mitigate the ritual uncleanliness of a dog. Little dogs were even more worthless than those large enough to herd sheep or keep watch.

The woman persists, admitting to be a dog but still pleading for his mercy and Jesus is converted by her faith in him. That's when he says "great is your faith" in comparison to his recently saying to his Jewish disciples "O ye of little faith." (Matthew 8: 26) In Matthew's gospel, this story is the pivot that leads us from the Jews only mission of Matthew 10 to the universal mission of Matthew 28. 

A common homiletic variant is to say Jesus was using this as a teaching moment for the disciples. But there is nothing in the text to suggest that. After Jesus heals the child there is no aha response from the disciples. Actually, they had been urging Jesus to heal the child before he relented. There is no aha moment for the Canaanite woman who has been taught something. There is instead an "O my!!!" moment for Jesus. We may not want Jesus to have thought things we reject -- we reject them because he has rejected them by the end of this story -- but do we really want to imagine he tormented this poor mother by ignoring her and then insulting her to use her as an object lesson to teach the disciples? First, that would be immoral by the basic standard of "never use another human being as a means to an end." Second, there is no Biblical evidence of Jesus ever doing such a thing.  The evidence going back to Matthew 10 is that Jesus understood his mission from the beginning as being to Jews only. 

There are three basic answers to why Matthew portrays Jesus as moving from a stance of religio-ethnic exclusion toward universal inclusion. First, it could be historically accurate. Jesus lived in Galilee, a region of mixed ethnicity and religion. Judeans called it “Galillee of the Gentiles.” This is why Barhtolomew asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Proxmity to Gentiles could make some Jews lax in their observance; while it could make other Jews hyper-observant (as Jesus appears in the Sermon on the Mount) and especially careful to avoid ritual contamination by their neighbors. It is clear across the synoptic Gospels that Jesus came to a position of inclusion. But it is historically quite plausible that he did not start there.

The second answer is that Matthew’s ordering of the events of Jesus’ life (the synoptic Gospels have significant overlap of events but decidedly different sequences) deliberately recapitulates the course of Israel’s history in the Hebrew Scriptures. The early positon of Israel is anti-gentile to the point of genocide. Joshua recounts how the gentile inhabitants of Canaan were “devoted to the Lord” for sacrifice, that is to say extermination. See, e.g., Joshua 6: 21

                  Then they utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women,
                  young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses with the edge of the sword.

The awkward fact that some gentiles survived to be the neighbors of Israel had to be explained in Judges this way: The gentiles were there for target practice so to speak. They were there so that new generations could hone their skills at war. However, Jewish people intermarried with those gentiles, which lead to idolatry, bringing down God’s curse. Judges 3: 1-6. Hence, a wall of separation arose and continued throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, taking a harsh form in the Restoration with Ezra-Nehemiah.

But along the way there was a rising spirit of inclusion and fellowship, evidenced in such books as Ruth, and coming to a culmination in 3rd Isaiah, where the Lord says, 

                  And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord …
                  everyone who keeps the sabbath and does not profane it
                  and holds fast my covenant, I will bring to my holy mountain
                  and make them joyful in my house of prayer . . .  Isaiah 56: 6

and most crucially for our purposes, My house shall be a house of prayer for all people,” (Isaiah 56: 7), which Jesus will quote while cleansing the Temple during the last week of his earthly life. (Matthew 21: 13) 

There were probably both inclusive and exclusive sentiments exiting in tension in all eras; but the trend of Israel's history is arguably toward inclusion. That would be the interpretation of the Scriptures that Matthew sees summarized in the life of Jesus.

The third explanation for Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus as moving beyond a narrow Judaism to an inclusive embrace of gentiles is that he is precapitulating what will happen in the Early Church. Matthew’s Jesus begins in an exlusive mode, rather like his brother James in Acts, but grows into the universal inclusion espoused by Paul at Galatians 3: 28:

                There is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free.

Moving past exegesis, what is at stake theologically in how we interpret the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman?

It is principally a question of whether we worship an omnipotent, omniscient, immutable deity in the Greek style, merely pretending to be a 1st century Galilean with the worldview and assumptions of a man of his time – or might we embrace the paradox of Incarnation, in which God is manifest in a real man? The latter option threatens to blow open our fixed concepts of both God and humanity. So much turns on what we dare to imagine about God and ourselves. What we believe about human nature can constrain or expand our sense of who we might become. The saying goes, “all religions are sanctifying, so we tend to become like the God we worship.”

Is God a set of fixed rules against which we are judged right or wrong? Or is a God a procreative force extending his embrace into ever-widening circles of compassion? Is God best expressed as a rule book or as an unfolding story? 

Some are concerned that the story of the Canaanite woman shows Jesus engaging in morally suspect behavior. That is an understandable concern from our perspective. But if we enter into the story in its narrative context, the situation is quite reversed. For Jesus, shunning the unclean Canaanite was a moral obligation. Showing her mercy was the morally suspect behavior. Given the applicable law, the "sin" was not his shunning, but his act of compassion. 

So what is a "sin"? Is it the infraction of a rule? If so, Jesus followed the rule of his culture by shunning the woman and broke it by healing. However, he broke the rule of our anti-racist (in principle) time by the shunning. What if "sin" is not the infraction of a rule but a narrowness of spirit, a hardness of heart, that refuses to grow and change. Here's the crucial question, does our image of Jesus open our hearts and minds or does it close them? Does it make us kind or judgmental? How we see Jesus can make all the difference for who we become.