Today is one of those days when I really wish I could have been there. It would really be helpful today to know the tone of voice people were using, no knowing creates such a wide range of interpretive possibilities…and no certainty.
In our gospel, Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites, saying that they are the blind leading the blind. But HOW was this said?; with pity, hostility, authority?
And the disciples response…‘do you know that the Pharisees took offence at what you said’ …did they speak in fear? With a giggle?
Again today we hear Jesus saying for the umpteenth time…‘are you still without understanding? I’m fairly sure the tone of voice I would use, but thanks be to God, I’m not Jesus.
And of course the major question with this text the interchange between Jesus and the Canaanite woman… ‘its not fair to take the kids food and throw it to the dogs’ …’ yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters table.’
, I wish I could have heard their voices….been able to interpret their mood and meanings …because there is much debate! But however you slice it, this passage, especially the latter part, make us very uncomfortable!
In the early part of our reading, Jesus teaches his disciples that what comes out of your mouth, comes from the heart and that is what can defile you….not traditions and dogmas, like eating with unwashed hands. But then he promptly goes on to call a woman seeking his help… a dog….and not a cute puppy, but a disgusting mongrel.
And we are left trying to justify the cruel and heartless words of our Lord Jesus Christ, with the meek and mild version who cuddles children and lambs alike on the felt boards of Sunday schools everywhere.
What is going on?!? Frankly, Jesus sounds like a racist jerk.
I’ve heard some explain that he was testing that woman’s faith. Others that ‘dog’ was an endearing nick name. Still others that Jesus wanted to prove a point.
The one thing I find that these explanations all have in common, is a desire to defend Jesus, to protect his image as a nice man.
It seems like we are ok if Jesus insults the Pharisees…after all we’ve cast them in the bad guy role. However, this woman just wants to help her daughter…she is a victim and we want Jesus to heal her, immediately and with a smile and a blessing. But things aren’t so cut and dry.
First of all the Pharisees aren’t really bad. In our time we might call them the ‘old guard’, they are the one’s who like things by the book. They think there is a right way and a wrong way to do things and they are very good at doing things the right way…the way it should be done…they way it’s always been done.
The Pharisees are the ones you would go to if you wanted to know which reading was supposed to be read today. Or what book to use… and they would pass you the Book of Common Prayer and show you exactly what you needed to know.
They would know all the creeds by heart ….all three of them. In fact, they could probably quote you all of the 39 articles of religion (the list of things all Anglicans are supposed to believe and adhere to) and they would likely be very, VERY upset that I couldn’t.
(but, I do know where to find them if I need to look them up)
The Pharisees weren’t bad, they just saw things in black and white, and they were very good at being very good Jews. Some might say they were the best Jews.
What they didn’t do well at ….was change.
And Jesus….he advocated a LOT of change.
But perhaps that change didn’t always come easily to Jesus either.
The Canaanite woman of today’s reading wasn’t just a victim in need of assistance.
She was a gentile, a gentile from a country that was an long standing enemy of the Jews…and she was a woman. Even among Jews there were laws about the interactions between the genders…beyond even that, she was a stranger….and she was annoying, uncouth and presumptuous. No Jew in his right mind would even acknowledge her existence.
So, perhaps, we shouldn’t be as surprised that Jesus referred to her rudely, perhaps, we should be impressed that he, eventually, talked to her at all.
What perhaps should surprise us is that this exchange was included in the gospels, in fact in two of them. Something important is happening here.
Perhaps, Jesus doesn’t just advocate change here….perhaps HE changes.
Jesus had been taking with his disciples about what was clean and what was unclean…in other words, what was more important tradition and doctrine, or righteousness and justice. What Jesus was teaching was ‘what really matters to God?” Then, as he walks on, he finds himself in the middle of an example of his own teachings.
Time for Jesus to practice what he preaches.
A person approaches him with reverence and respect, asking for mercy and healing. A faithful person willing to go above and beyond what is socially and culturally acceptable to get close to Jesus. A person whose heart is in the right place, who is seeks God and calls Jesus Lord. But all those proper teachings that the Pharisees obey, say this woman is unclean. To engage with her, would make you unclean. The rule is clear. Keep away! It seems that Jesus knows this and at first he simply continues on his way…obeying the rules,….. but something changes.
This woman…this nobody…. this unclean dog… challenges Jesus on what it means to be a person of God…challenges his sense of ministry and purpose …challenges him and changes him.
Throughout Jesus ministry we get themes of inclusivity, abundance and grace…we get a sense that his ministry is more than one might expect. A truth that this Canaanite women seemed to know with strong faith and great certainty. She knows God has the ability to bless and to heal, she knows Christ is Lord, she knows that God is for Jew and Gentile alike. And so, she comes forward and challenges God to bless her too, to heal her child.
And Jesus, in spite of his initial reaction …finds he can change.
Jesus initially speaks to her of his mission to the Jews alone, Jesus tells her “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”… and this incredible woman challenges Jesus. ‘Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table’.
I wish I could hear her voice…the tone…the challenge…the humility…the cunning?
Do you not think…she seems to say…do you not think God can provide for us all? Jesus’ heart and mind are opened….a mouth that spoke harsh words, a heart that was hardened, underwent a transformation. Words that defiled are amended, a heart too small was expanded….Jesus changed.
Change is difficult. We may not use the language of clean and unclean, but we certainly have the language of right and wrong…and each of us has an internal concept of what is and is not acceptable. Who is and is not saved, what should and should not be preached, how many candles belong on or off the altar.
The challenge is determining if we are following tradition for traditions sake, or if there is a call to grow and to change things so that God’s banquet can flow over the tables and onto the floor and out the doors, so that God’s banquet feed any and all.
In our gospel today I believe we get to witness the spiritual growth of Jesus, we get to see a defining moment in Jesus ministry…we get to see our fully divine, fully Human saviour start to realize it wasn’t about who was invited, but about who was served.
This is challenging and uncomfortable sometimes…we know Christ to be God, and in our minds that often includes words like unchanging, all knowing, fully divine, unerring…but perhaps there was room for growth as well.
Perhaps there is room for all of us to grow, beyond traditions and norms, beyond what is expected and into a place where there are no leftovers, but a perpetual feast and there no dogs, just friends at the table.