Proper 15A; Matthew 15:10-28
You may have heard the saying, “If your religion makes you hate someone, you need a new religion.” Or maybe you're more familiar with the Anne Lamott quote, “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” These two quotes come into play in today's gospel.
In the first half, Jesus is talking to the people about cleanliness issues and calling out the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy. They were attacking the disciples for breaking tradition by not washing their hands. There is a whole issue about outward appearance versus inward holiness. Several chapters later this will come up again as Jesus compares the Pharisees to tombs that are beautiful on the outside, but inside they are full of rotting corpses.
Jesus is telling us it isn't outside influences or other, unclean people which contaminate us. What actually defiles us is what we harbor inside of us and what we spew forth from our mouths. We are defiled by our racism, sexism, slander, false witness, bullying, etc. Another aspect of this is using your religion to justify bad behavior or, as I began, to hate/abuse those whom you dislike in the name of God. When someone begins by saying, “The Bible clearly states . . .” I know I'm probably in for a hateful, bigoted rant.
From the beginning God so loved the world. Are we reflecting that love, or are we reflecting our own biases and hatreds that we use to establish our superiority? Jesus calls us to examine ourselves and what is coming out of our mouths and hearts.
Immediately after this confrontation with the Pharisees and his discussion about outward purity, hypocrisy, and inward holiness, Jesus goes to the region of Tyre and Sidon. This region is traditionally Gentile country. It was once a Phoenician city-state ruled by King Ethbaal. In Matthew, other than the Holy Family's flight to Egypt and a brief excursion into the territory of the Gadarenes, this is only the third time that Jesus is in Gentile territory. In that first instance, he was an infant. In the second, he exorcised two demons, although there is no mention of the demoniacs asking to be healed, and Jesus is forced to leave the area by those living there. So really, it is this story today where Jesus first interacts with a Gentile outside of Israel. And the encounter is problematic.
A Gentile woman comes to Jesus begging for her daughter's demons to be exorcised. Whereas earlier he did this without question, or without being asked (so we can assume they were men), here he completely ignores this mother. Jesus just sits, or stands, there and ignores her impassioned plea for him to show mercy toward her daughter. It gets to the point where his disciples urge him to send her away. Jesus responds to the disciples by saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” He doesn't even have the decency to address her directly. This is like when we go through a third party to tell someone we aren't talking to them.
Why is this? Why would Jesus refuse to engage with her. I think there are a few reasons. First, let's face it, she was a woman. The only other woman Jesus has interacted with so far in Matthew is the one who touched his robes to be healed of her bleeding disorder. That woman, though, was a daughter of Israel.
Second, the woman today was a Canaanite. The Canaanites were the original people of what came to be the Holy Land, and Israel attempted to displace them as they moved into that land. So there's a lot of bad history between the Canaanites and the Israelites.
Third, and maybe most importantly, she was from the region of Tyre and Sidon. Remember I said this area was once ruled by King Ethbaal? It turns out that he was the father of Jezebel, the woman who married King Ahab and helped him become the most wicked king in Israel's history. Jezebel is remembered as one of the most evil and reviled women in all of Scripture. This woman Jesus encounters is not only a Canaanite, but is also a daughter of Jezebel. So it's no wonder that Jesus is ignoring her.
Have you ever said something and then regretted saying it? Or maybe given a speech and realize it's directed at yourself (preachers do this on a regular basis, by the way)? I think this is one of those times for Jesus.
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,” and, “It isn't fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.” Add to that his comments to/about the Pharisees that it isn't what goes into the body which defile a person, but what comes from one's heart and out of one's mouth that defile a person – things like evil intentions, false witness, and slander – and how he thought they were being hypocritical. It now seems that his words have come home to roost, so to speak.
In this story he encounters a Canaanite woman, a traditional enemy of Israel, who is also a daughter of Jezebel. In that encounter his first response is to ignore her. His second response is to call her a dog. But here Jesus the man also begins to change.
Through her persistence, and with the memory of what he just said about hypocritical behavior and what really defiles a person, he reconsiders his position. I think he comes to realize that God's love and acceptance really is for all people, not just those whom we have deemed as chosen. In this moment, Jesus the man saw how his words were hurtful and exclusionary and was transformed to seeing God's love and inclusion extended to all people.
A question for us is what do we do when we have sexist, racist, xenophobic, or other evil thoughts toward a person or people? I recently heard someone say, “We aren't responsible for our first thought; but we are responsible for our second thought and our first action.”
The Canaanite woman, like other minority groups, has revealed an inherent bias in Jesus the man and his disciples. How do we deal with being confronted with our own biases? Whether that is toward people who are gay or transgendered, those of different ethnicities, or refugees, or the homeless, or people whose past history is problematic for you, as was the Canaanite woman to Jesus and the disciples, how we deal with those people and our thoughts can tell us a lot about how we see God present in their lives. We can call them dogs and look to send them away, or we can work to show them God's all-encompassing love and show them kindness, mercy, and justice.
This story is transformational because we are shown how Jesus himself was transformed by this encounter. Following in the footsteps of Jesus not only includes praying, worshiping, feeding, and sheltering, it includes confronting our own biases and our own hypocrisies when facing people not like us – refugees, women, minorities, gay, trans, homeless – so that we may be transformed in such a way that we include all people in God's loving embrace.
All of us have inherent biases we need to confront. This story shows us how Jesus confronted those biases to show mercy to someone of dubious heritage. And if we can't confront our biases and be transformed to reflect the love of God, we will no doubt create an idol made in our own image that despises all the same people we do.