Preached by Rev. George Yando on August 20, 2017.
How Wide is Your Embrace?
It was late afternoon in mid-December, 2001. I had stopped in at Staples on the way home to pick up my new Daytimer appointment book for the coming year. Our daughter Beth had just arrived home from school and we were sitting at the kitchen table catching up on the news of the day. Beth was idly flipping through my new appointment calendar for coming year 2002 when she asked, “What’s Martin Luther King Day?”
What followed was a journey into the past, a recollection of what had been current events for me when I was my daughter’s age, but what was for her a lesson in ancient history. At least that what it seemed like for her at first. But as we talked, the story began to take on the appearance of fantasy, at least from her perspective, a chronicle that grew more and more bizarre as it unfolded, a tale whose telling became increasingly interspersed with increasingly incredulous questions and even more incredulous looks on her face at hearing the responses.
“You mean in the United States and in South Africa white people wouldn’t sit in the same seat on a bus with black people?” “You mean a black person couldn’t use the same toilet as a white person, just because they were black? “You mean white people and black people weren’t allowed even to drink from the same drinking fountain, just because they were of different races?”
It was such a bizarre concept for Beth, just had been for me at the same ripe old age of 12 or 13. I was raised in a home where discrimination of any kind was simply not an issue, and so I encountered and engaged the world from a perspective that never even considered the notion of discrimination. At that time in Canada we could afford to be somewhat smug about racial discrimination. There were very few black people living in Canada, relative to the rest of the population, and certainly none in the small farming community in southern Ontario where I grew up, so I couldn’t see what the fuss was all about. Besides, Canadians prided themselves on being multicultural in their outlook. Rather than adopting the melting pot mentality of our southern neighbours and insisting everyone forget their roots and become “one,” meaning “all the same and just like us,” Canadians were content to live and let live where differences in colour or creed, heritage and customs were concerned.
“Keep up your Ukrainian dancing, speak Hungarian in your home if you want to, worship in a synagogue or temple if that’s your preference. After all, we’re Canadians and we don’t discriminate against anyone.” That was the prevailing attitude in the home where I grew up and as a result, I was raised to believe that any other attitude toward those of difference races or religious affiliations was deviant.
It’s a different world now, and a very different Canada. Ethnic diversity has become so diverse that those of White Anglo-Saxon stock now seem almost in a minority. And although I had long since shed my naivety about the seeming lack of racial intolerance in Canada, life in Prince Albert in the nearly twenty years that I have lived there has opened my eyes to a piece of Canadian history about which I had previously been blind, namely the dealings my immigrant ancestors and subsequent generations of colonists have had with the people of our country’s first nations.
The discussion with our daughter about racial intolerance and discrimination that mid-December afternoon in 2001 happened barely three months after 9-11. “Islamaphobia” was quickly becoming the latest buzz word; the events on 9-11 in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania had fueled a growing suspicion of those of different religious backgrounds. In the wake of 9-11, these were attitudes which, on the surface at least, seemed understandable – until you came to realize that a misguided, wrong-headed radical misinterpretation of Koranic teachings by a minority of rabid fundamentalist Muslims had negatively skewed feelings toward all those of Islamic faith. Attitudes were hardened and hard attitudes often die hard.
The world has changed, but like so many people, I’ve become rather accepting of the changes. Although I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the changing attitudes around me in regard to discrimination, I’ve come to accept the reality of them nevertheless, accepting, and perhaps even becoming somewhat complacent in regard to the injustice of it all. Not surprising, given that attitudes have a way of evolving so that those who hold those attitudes are not even aware of how they have changed, and even if they were, how one can so easily justify ones particular stance.
Traditions, particularly religious traditions are much the same. For most of its history, for example, the Christian church has categorized people on the basis of gender, and many denominations continue to do so, excluding them from ministerial or priestly office and even from roles in lay leadership, then justifying their positions through a specific method of scriptural interpretation, a interpretative approach coloured and informed by the cultural context in which the gospels were composed.
This morning’s gospel reading is a case in point. It is a story filled with reflections of the culture in which Jesus of Nazareth walked and taught, and of the world of the late first century in which Matthew penned his gospel account.
Today’s passage is a difficult one. The difficulty stems from trying to import 1st century cultural values and explaining them away in the early years of the 21st. It’s part of what makes this what I believe to be one of the most difficult passages in the bible.
”What are you doing, Jesus, calling a poor woman a ‘dog’?”
One biblical commentator, William Barclay, suggests that perhaps Jesus had a glint in his eye when he said it, offering a knowing glance to the woman who would then know that he didn’t really mean it, that it was said ‘tongue in cheek’ in order to make a point for the disciples. Others suggest that the Greek term used for “dog” would be better translated “puppy” and thus Jesus was really using it as a term of endearment.
This answer, however, holds as much water for me as would a situation where a child calls his sister or mother the “b – word,” the term for a female canine, and then tried to justify it by saying something like “it’s in the dictionary.” He’d still be a prime candidate for whatever is the socially acceptable corrective these days that has replaced washing his mouth out with soap.
It’s crucial to understand this difficult passage in the context in which it is found in the Bible. At the beginning of this 15th chapter in Matthew’s gospel account, the Pharisees come down hard on Jesus because His disciples are not following rigorously the dietary and purification customs of their religion. Jesus responds by lambasting the Pharisees, calling them “hypocrites” and “blind guides” in an intense discussion of what comprises “clean” vs. “unclean.” Jesus refutes the argument that God’s love and grace and approval are dispensed on the basis of tradition and ritual, rituals and traditions that separate the clean from the unclean. In one instance, Jesus asserts that it is the words that come out of a person’s mouth, not the food that goes into it, that makes a person “unclean.”
It’s not the eating of pork chops that’s really offensive to God, says Jesus, it’s evil thoughts, murder, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony and slander. Jesus leaves that place and that discussion, and Matthew promptly sets up for us – in the wake of that war of words with the Pharisees – yet another confrontation. This time it is an altercation involving Jesus, His disciples and a Canaanite woman, a woman who, in the cultural and religious context of the time, epitomizes what the “world” considers “unclean.”
“Lord, Son of David” she cries. Her greeting reveals a rather sophisticated understanding of the Jewish religion, particularly for a Canaanite woman. It also demonstrates an understanding of Jesus’ real identity, one which the religious leaders – and even the disciples – have a hard time grasping.
“Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!” she cries.
But in response to her plea Jesus replies, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” In one fell swoop, Jesus pejoratively demeans the woman and curtly dismisses her pleas.
Is this the Jesus we know? Is this the Jesus who loves little children, who graciously offers His gospel and love to all who receive Him, which the woman clearly does? Is this the Jesus we sing about when we say “Jesus loves me this I know, for the bible tells me so?”
Not, apparently, if you are a Canaanite woman with a sick child. And certainly not if we read and hear this passage in isolation from its context, both culturally, – meaning the time and place in which it was written – and textually, referring to where it appears in Matthew’s gospel.
How do we resolve the tension between what we believe, – namely that Jesus is the full embodiment of God’s love – and the meaning behind the words that are coming out of his mouth? Jesus appears to be guilty of the same transgression for which he has just condemned the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. He’s called the Canaanite woman “unclean” on the basis of a religious tradition that considers Gentiles unclean, and, with the words that he has uttered, he seems to be voicing evil thoughts and slander.
Some commentators, as I mentioned, have tried to explain away the harsh words of Jesus as a simple re-echoing of the worldly discriminatory attitudes of the Pharisees that Jesus hopefully thought might be recalled by his disciples and resonate with their earlier lesson. The key, in this passage, however, isn’t going to be uncovered by sanitizing Jesus’
words. Like it or not, we are left with the text of the Bible, and we are left with the tension that exists between the love of Jesus Christ and the words that He speaks.
But rather than trying to bind or release Jesus from the literal meaning of His words, the power in this passage, I believe, is found in the woman’s response. She doesn’t cower down like the wretched cur that the world considers her to be. She doesn’t concede defeat to the powers and forces of the kingdom of the world, nor does she accept the overt slander and implicit evil thoughts that the rules and traditions of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law support. She faces Jesus’ voicing of the world’s response with persistence, a persistence based upon the understanding that, in spite of His apparent dismissal, Jesus really is he whom she addresses him as being, the Giver of God’s mercy and justice. In faith she recognizes Jesus to be who he really is, in spite of the distortion and deceit and deception and corruption of the world’s values represented in the words that come from his mouth, words that seem to slander and give voice to evil thoughts.
It’s in the woman’s response that we find a way to understand this passage. Confronted by the apparent indifference and scorn of Jesus, a scornful indifference that declares, “that’s just the way things are in this world,” her plea raises up for Jesus – and for his disciples [and for us] – a different vision of the world, one in which God will have his way.
Her comment is a declaration of faith. It is an affirmation of belief in a God whose love is above and beyond the corruptions of the world, and that she – even she, a woman, and a Canaanite – ought to be able to find gracious acceptance in God’s sight, in spite of who she is in the eyes of the world.
Contrary to the opinions of those previous commentators to whom I alluded – those who argued that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said, or that he was mimicking the Pharisees to point out how harsh and hard-hearted were their attitudes, – others have suggested that Jesus really was a man of his culture, one who had adopted the prevailing attitudes of those around him. They suggest that in the exchange between Jesus and that Canaanite women, the woman actually influenced Jesus for good, effecting a change of heart and an opening of his mind to the broader possibility of an all- inclusive kingdom of God, in effect, widening the embrace of Jesus to take in all who would trust in him.
I must confess I’ve struggled with how to understand the seemingly harsh words of Jesus, and can come to no comfortable conclusion. But perhaps that is of less importance than realizing where the wisdom of this story really lies: in the words and faith of the woman who recognizes in God a wider embrace, a warmer welcome for her and others like her, all those for whom the world would begrudge even bread from the table, much less a seat at it.
For our part, then, we can take a measure of comfort from the story, the knowledge that when we are confronted with what purports to be the indifference, or prejudice, or slander, or sexism, or racism of God, be it expressed by the church or by society or by those who presume to speak for God, we are guaranteed that God’s love for us expressed in Jesus Christ remains pure and uncorrupted, free from the slander and indifference and prejudice and sexism with which the world soils the Gospel. We are assured that the grace of Christ’s gospel continues to be bestowed upon each of us, in spite of the hatred and evil thoughts and slander and racism and sexism that the world throws at us in the name of the church and of Jesus Christ himself. We are assured that the love of Jesus Christ is as firm a foundation as we can ever imagine, in spite of God’s apparent silence or God’s apparent rejection of our sincerest prayers. We are promised that Jesus will respond with the love of God, no matter the barriers that the world erects, no matter how much the world tries to drown out Christ’s voice.
“Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” You didn’t scurry back to your hovel with your tail between your legs, like the dog some think you are, even after the whipping Jesus laid on you. Rather, you recognized Jesus for who he really is, and so you are blessed.
May we, in our turn, recognize Jesus Christ for who he really is, and may we never be driven from him by a world corrupted by traditions and rules of its own making. May we forever hear the love of Christ’s gospel, in spite of the voices that try to drown him out. May we see in Jesus the full realization of his gospel, and may our lives truly reflect his love, in how we live, in what we do, and by what we say. AMEN.