Readings: Isaiah 56:1, 6-8, Matthew 15: 10-28
Let us pray: Holy God, expansive challenging Creator, who knows us better that we know ourselves, open the word to us today so that our hearts are touched, our minds deeply engaged, our spirit full to overflowing. In Jesus name. Amen.
What a rich gospel reading today. Jesus and the Canaanite woman. Jesus getting real with the authorities – again! Earthy crude language of bodily functions and sewers and crumbs for the Canaanite dogs.
Jesus standoffish interaction with the desperate woman is divisive from the get go: people interpret it as either being a remarkably ‘bad side of the bed’ day for Jesus or an exquisite grabbing of a teaching opportunity for tradition bound disciples. Oh and then there is the woman herself, loud, thick skinned, bolshie (she is fighting for her daughter here), an outcast, an other! It could be called a story of faith winning over bad manners.
But then there are the verses before this story – they were an optional extra in the lectionary for today - where Jesus clashes with the authorities again – this time about the things that defile. And they may be helpful in providing some context to the problematic encounter of Jesus and the disciples with the woman of Tyre and Sidon.
In these earlier verses Jesus is responding to the criticism from the Pharisees and Scribes that that his people do not wash their hands before a meal thereby breaking the commandments of God. Jesus is suggesting that it is much more important for them to be concerned about what comes out of the mouth rather than the cleanliness of what goes in. And it is all offered in really quite basic language – what you eat does its business in the body and ends up in the sewer. He talks of the blind leading the blind into the deepest pit, and suggests that this fixation with rules rather than relationship with God is the cause of the blindness. He points out to his disciples, who again need some unpacking of the parable, that what comes out of the mouth is much more destructive to God than not washing your hands. For, he says, what you say comes from the heart and if the heart is judgmental, unforgiving, unloving then your words will be so too. But if your heart is full of mercy and generous compassion, then you are following the way of God made known in Jesus.
And this one of the central themes that the gospel of Matthew pursues: that Jesus desires mercy not sacrifice. And he is arguing with the Pharisees and the scribes over just this. They believe that by putting all their energy into living by the traditions they are fulfilling the commandments of God and Jesus comes along and suggests otherwise: that the ritual washing of the hands is of no matter when their mercy barometer is not even registering. Where, he asks are their roots in God, their understanding of the heart of God for justice and compassion and mercy.
The Canaanite woman, surprisingly, seems to understand this better than the chosen people of Israel. She sees that love and mercy crosses boundaries and is found in the wayward and the unexpected, not in the rules which, if she followed them, would prevent her from even speaking with Jesus. And the disciples, even after having the parable explained by Jesus, are still behaving ritually/traditionally rather than from the heart. Send her away! Stop her shouting at us!
And that is when we see Jesus taking on the behaviour that he has just denounced by arguing that this desperate woman is outside of his brief. I don’t believe that he has suddenly seen the wisdom of the exclusiveness of Israel, but rather that he is showing the disciples and us the consequences of the two approaches. Sticking with the rules of no engagement means walking away whereas responding to the cries for mercy is the path of faith. Jesus enacts the parable he has just argued.
Mercy is the cornerstone! Without it all the rule following in the world will not suffice in God’s eyes.
Rules in themselves do not engage our heart for God. We see that being played out in the world’s stages every day, don’t we? Distorted readings of what a faith is about: white supremacists in the States quoting God as their rationale, arrogant politicians encouraging violence and every ism there is as God’s will, religious terrorists claiming the right of holy war over the weak, the innocent, the different. All of them quoting convenient rules from sacred scripture, none of them walking in the light of God. The blind leading the blind to the bottom of the pit. Suddenly there is an immediacy to those words, isn’t there?
Where the rules and traditions have no heart they take us to dark places. This will not be the first time you have heard me say this – and certainly not the last.
And it is not just the obviously evil places of killing and abusing and hatred – but also to places of apathy and lethargy and pessimism, of resting in the traditions and the rules because they have become our God.
Where have we paid more attention to washing hands than cleansing hearts? When have we claimed religious tradition as an excuse to act far from the heart of Christ?
Ø When we refuse to allow that the church is way more than a building. Too often we define ourselves by the four walls and a roof where we meet on a Sunday – both to the exclusion of the rest of the week and to forgetting that it is the people, the people, the people who are the body of Christ.
Ø When we decide our way is the only way – all others are wrong. Too often I meet people who will not accept you as a Christian if you don’t agree with their understanding of faith. Energy is poured into correct doctrine rather than mercy, sacrificing all to prove that you are right!
Ø When we fail to recognise and take down the fences we put up that exclude and intimidate. Language, culture, gender, generational, social, economic, fixed ideas, rules of who is in and who is out.
Ø When we find it easier to judge than to engage. Generalisations and judgements of situations and people that we have not taken the time to listen to, because it might change how we think or might be uncomfortable. Judgement that allows us to exclude because to engage would ask something of us.
Ø Where have we paid more attention to washing hands than cleansing hearts? When have we claimed religious tradition as an excuse to act far from the heart of Christ? Something to consider as we go into this week and our world outside our church walls.
Who is the Caananite woman in our lives that we are trying to send away? And where are the times when we are needing to be that woman, persisting in faith in the face of obdurate traditions and rules seeking mercy. In the end ‘purity and faithfulness are shown ultimately by how we the church speaks and lives out the radical hospitality and love of Christ ‘ wherever it is needed.
I want to conclude today with a psalm that I wrote recently which I have titled ‘On being Presbyterian’ which might add to the thoughts expressed today.
On being Presbyterian #1
Holy God, Steadfast Lover, Nonstop Creator, Son full of Grace, Spirit Friend
I love that we explore who you are with our own words and pictures– not using the same words from a prayer book each Sunday
Creating, Imagining, Loving, Forgiving, Transforming, Reforming God
I love that you are an ‘ing’ God, active in our world and us forever. You explode out of the cages of those who try to keep you static in the past
Challenging, Radical, Subversive God
I love that you come at us as the cutting edge of love –shame that we hide in the bluntness of institutionalism
God of Expansive and Intimate Relationship
I love that you know me, that we chat and figure things out together yet you seek loving relationship with the whole world and throughout time. Wow! Why do we think you belong to just us?
God who, in Jesus, sought out the different and the despairing, the diverse and the ‘disgusting’
I love that you welcome all with no entry criteria but love. Yet in your name many are excluded. How dare we?
God Revealed in Scripture and in life
I love that we are encouraged to know you in study, sharing, questioning, discerning. Hard work sometimes but always a rich harvest
Holy Love. Invasive Presence. Determined Spirit. Praise be to the God who loves us.