I continued our community-themed series this past weekend with a sermon on Matthew 15, the passage where Jesus calls a Canaanite woman a b@#$%.
You can listen to the sermon here below or in the sidebar widget to the right. You can download it in iTunes here.
How are you doing? How was your week?
I’ll tell you- my week was insane, crazy busy, exhausting. Sound familiar?
For example, just the other evening I spent a couple of hours at Mt Vernon Rehab sitting and praying with a family as their loved breathed her last few hours. It’s not like a ‘real’ job but still, that kind of thing, it’s emotionally draining, you know.
And then the next morning, after I sat in the Kiss-and-Ride line for about 53 minutes to drop my boys off for school, I went by the hospital to visit a few church folks. After that I stopped by the office here where our handful of regular pan-handlers gave me their latest sob story before hitting me up for a handout.
The day just got better and brighter from there though because then I had a district clergy meeting I had to attend where for 2 hours of eternity the powers-that-be harped on everything we were doing wrong, everything we were missing and how the future of a denomination in decline rested solely on our shoulders. So it was a fun meeting but, hey, at least it was long.
That afternoon I tried to respond to the like 500 unread emails in my inbox and I spent about an hour helping Dennis log in to his computer.
And after listening to him tell that 1 joke he likes to tell, I tried to carve out a little time to research this week’s scripture text and after that I schlepped everyone over the Waynewood to coach Gabriel’s baseball team.
All the parents on the team know I’m a pastor so they’re all as cloying and emotionally needy as church people so it was anything but relaxing.
So that evening I stopped at Starbucks, hoping for just a little quiet time to myself- a chance to recharge spiritually and gather my thoughts. I hid at a little table in the back where the homeless riffraff normally nap.
But, because I’m an idiot, I was still wearing my clergy collar, which is basically like wearing a sandwich board sign that says ‘Open for Business.’
Sure enough I hadn’t been sitting there for a minute- 60 seconds- when this woman comes up to me and sits down across from me.
Sits down. Doesn’t ask just sits down. Sure, she looked anxious and desperate and poor, but talk about pushy and rude. She didn’t even ask.
And then she says to me: ‘Father (I get that a lot with the collar) I’d like to unload a burden on you.’ That’s what she said: ‘I’d like to unload a burden on you.’ Which is just a passive aggressive way of saying ‘I’d like to make my burden your burden instead.’
Like I said, I was tired and feeling frayed and just needing not to be needed so I was little brusque with her.
I said to her:
‘Look, not now. I’ve got a ton of people on my To Do List and they’re all more important than a b!@#$ like you.’
No, of course I didn’t say that to her. Don’t be ridiculous. I know you think I’m like the Slim Shady of pastors, but I’d never say something like that to a stranger. And neither would you. I mean, we only talk that way to the people we love. Not in a million years would I talk that way to a stranger in need.
So how come Jesus does?
“It’s not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to dogs.”
If that didn’t make your sphincter tighten up a few notches when you heard it read, then you didn’t really hear it. You didn’t really hear any of it. Even my 3rd grader refers to this as ‘the mean Jesus story.’
Read it again. Jesus doesn’t just call her a dirty word. At first he ignores her completely, like she’s worse than a dog, like she’s not even there. And then, after the disciples try to get rid of her, Jesus basically says there’s nothing I can do for SOMEONE LIKE YOU. I don’t have any spare miracles for SOMEONE LIKE YOU.
For SOMEONE LIKE YOU I’m all tapped out. And when she doesn’t go away, Jesus calls her a dog.
The bread (of life) is meant for the children (of God). For the righteous. For believers. For the right kind of people like me. It’s not meant for DOGS LIKE YOU.
Jesus, the incarnate love of God, says to her.
And you can be sure that in Greek to her ears ‘dog’ sounded exactly like ‘witch’ with a capital B.
Just like in 1 Samuel 17.43 when Goliath taunts David with that word.
Just like in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus preaches that you ‘never give holy things to dogs nor pearls to swine.’
Now, like a pig, Jesus refuses to give anything holy to this woman and then calls her a dog.
Don’t you just love passages like this!
It’s because of passages like this one that you know the Jesus story is true. It has to be true. It’s too messed up not to be true. Think about it- if the Gospels were just made up fictions, then this passage today would never have made it into the Bible. Just imagine how that conversation would’ve gone. Just imagine the pitch among the writers:
Hey, I’ve got this new idea for the story- whole new angle.
I was thinking we do a change of scenery, put the hero in Gentile territory, have him rub elbows with the undesirable type.
And then we have this woman come to him looking for his help. Just like the woman with the hemorrhage in the first part of the script. But I was thinking…what if we go the other way with it? You remember how we had that first woman grab at the hem of his garment for her miracle?
And how he looks around for who touched him so he can reward her faith- because that’s how compassionate he is. So this time I thought we could change it up. Have him ignore the woman completely. Pretend like she’s not even there.
But get this: we don’t stop there. I was thinking that after she refuses to go away- because she’s just so wretched and pathetic and everything- we can have him call her a b@!$%.
Yeah, a b@#$%. Isn’t that a grabber? Keep the audience guessing. He’s unpredictable. Is he going to respond with the love and mercy tack, or will he turn a cold shoulder and throw down an f-bomb?
You see- that would never happen!
You know the Gospel is true because if it were just made up, this story- along with the cross- would’ve been left on the cutting room floor.
It never would’ve made it in the Bible. There’s no better explanation: Jesus really treated this woman like she wasn’t even there, not worth his time, and then called her a dog. So if he really did do it, then why? Why did he do it? How do we explain Jesus acting in a way that doesn’t sound like Jesus?
It’s true that Jesus is truly, fully God, but it’s also true, as the creed says, that Jesus was fully, truly, 100% human.
So maybe that’s the explanation.
Maybe this Canaanite woman caught Jesus with his compassion down. He’s human. It happens to all of us.
And it’s understandable given the week he’s had. Just before this, he was rejected by his family and his hometown friends in Nazareth. That’s rough. And right after that John the Baptist gets murdered. And everywhere he’s gone lately crowds chase him more interested in miracles than messiahs.
So maybe this Canaanite woman catches Jesus in a bad mood, with a little compassion fatigue. Sue him. He’s human.
Except the way Jesus draws a line between us and them, the way he dismisses her desperation and then drops a dirty word on her- it sounds human alright. All too human. As in, it sounds like something someone who is less than fully human would do.
So how do we explain it?
You could say- as some have- that Jesus isn’t really being the mean, insensitive, offensive, manstrating jerk wad he seems to be here in this passage.
No, you could say, this is Jesus testing her. He’s testing her to see how long she’ll kneel at his feet, to see how long she’ll call him ‘Lord,’ to see how long she’ll beg and plead for his mercy.
He’s just testing her faith. You could say (and many have). But if that’s the case, then Jesus doesn’t just call her a dog. He treats her like one too and he’s even more of jerk than he seemed initially. WWJD? Humiliate her in order to test her? Somehow I don’t think so.
Of course, if you worked for the National Football League, then you could just blame it on her. Blame the victim.
You could suggest that she deserves the treatment Jesus gives her, that she has it coming to her for the rude and offensive way she first treats Jesus. After all, she comes to him- alone- a Gentile woman to a Jewish rabbi, violating his holiness codes and asking him to do the same for her.
Just expecting him to take on sin. For her.
So she gets what she has coming to her for bursting in on his closed doors; alone, approaching a man who’s not her husband, breaching the ethnic and religious and gender barriers between them and then rudely expecting him to do the same.
If he’s rude to her, then you could argue that she deserves it for treating him so offensively first. And it’s true that her approaching him violates social convention. It’s true: she not only asks for healing, she asks him to transgress the religious law that defines him. All true.
But that doesn’t explain why NOW of all times Jesus acts so out of character. It doesn’t explain why NOW and not before he’s suddenly sensitive about breaking the Jewish law for mercy’s sake.
So, no, I don’t buy it.
Jesus ignores her.
Tells her there’s nothing I can do for SOMEONE LIKE YOU.
And then he calls her a dog.
A contemporary take on this text is to say that this is an instance of Jesus maturing, coming to an awareness that maybe his mission was to the whole world, Jew and Gentile alike.
That without this fortuitous run-in with a persistent Canaanite woman Jesus might have kept on believing he was a circumscribed Messiah only. That she helps Jesus enlarge his vision and his heart.
I guess, maybe. But that doesn’t really get around the insult here.
Jews didn’t even keep dogs as pets- that’s how harsh this is. Dogs were unclean, scavenging in the streets, eating trash, and sleeping in filth. And in Jesus’ day, ‘dog’ was a racist, derogatory term for Canaanites, unwashed unbelievers who just happened to be Israel’s original and oldest enemy. Even if she helped him change his mind that doesn’t explain away his mouth.
What’s a word like that doing in Jesus’ mouth?
How do we explain Jesus acting in a way that doesn’t sound like Jesus at all but sounds a lot more like us instead?
Of course, that’s it.
This is Jesus acting just like us.
To understand this passage, to understand Jesus acting the way he does, you have to go back to the scene right before it where Jesus has a throw down with the scribes and the Pharisees who’ve just arrived from Jerusalem to check him out.
Rather than attacking Jesus directly, they go after the company Jesus keeps. They take one look at the losers Jesus has assembled around him- low class fishermen, bottom feeding tax collectors and worse- and they ask Jesus the loaded question:
Why would a rabbi’s disciples ignore scripture? Why would they eat with unclean hands (and unclean people)?
Their pointing out how Jesus’ disciples were the wrong kind of people was but a way of pointing out how they were the right kind of people. Good people. Law-abiding people. Convention-respecting, morality-keeping, Bible-believing people.
And Jesus responds with a scripture smack-down of his own, saying that it’s not obeying the rules that makes you holy.
It’s not believing the bible that makes you holy.
It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles you, Jesus says.
It’s what comes out of the mouth. And whether or not what comes out of your mouth is the truth about what’s in your heart.
That’s what makes you holy, Jesus says. Pretty straightforward, right?
Except the disciples don’t get it. They think Jesus is just telling a parable, turning the tables on the Pharisees to show how they’ve got it all backwards; it’s Jesus’ disciples who are the right kind of people and the Pharisees who are the wrong kind.
The disciples don’t get that Jesus’ whole point is that putting people into ‘kinds of people’ in order to justify ourselves is exactly the problem.
The scene starts with the scribes asserting their superiority and the scene ends with the disciples assuming their superiority.
Turn the page. What does Jesus do next? To drive his point home?
He takes the disciples on a field trip across the tracks. Into Canaanite territory, a place populated by people so unclean the disciples are guaranteed to feel holier than thou. And there this woman approaches them, asking for mercy.
She’s a Canaanite. She’s an enemy.
She’s unclean. She’s an unbeliever.
She’s all kinds the wrong kind of person.
But on her mouth, coming out of her mouth, is this confession: ‘Son of David.’
Which is another title for ‘Messiah.’
Which according to Jesus should tell you a bit about what’s in her heart.
But the disciples don’t even notice. The’ve already forgotten about what Jesus said about the mouth and the heart.
So what does Jesus do?
He acts out what’s in their hearts. He ignores her because that’s what’s in their hearts. He tells her there’s nothing I can do for SOMEONE LIKE YOU because that’s what’s in their hearts. And because that’s what’s in their hearts, he calls her a dog.
What comes out of his mouth is what’s in their hearts:
I’m better than you. I’m superior to you. I’m holier than you.
Speaking of hearts-
That word on Jesus’ mouth is so distractingly shocking to us, we almost miss that she doesn’t even push back on it.
She owns it. And then she doubles down on her request for mercy:
‘Yeah, Jesus, I am a dog. I am a witch with a capital B. I am worthless. I am a loser. I am undeserving. I am a sinner. I am the wrong kind of person in all kinds of ways, but- hey- have mercy on me…’
Is how it reads in the New Revised Jason Version.
She embodies what Jesus says in Luke’s more white-bread Gospel, when Jesus says:
‘Who is justified before God? The religious person who prays thank you, God, I am not like that sinner, or the person prays Lord Jesus Christ, Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
That’s what Jesus points out by play-acting, what he wants the disciples to see, what he wants us to see when he praises her ‘great faith.’
She doesn’t put up any pretense. She doesn’t try to justify herself over and against any one else. She doesn’t pretend that her heart’s so pure or her life is so put together that she doesn’t even need Jesus all that much.
No, she says: ‘Yeah, I am about the worst thing you could call me. Have mercy on me.’
After the scribes and the Pharisees have not gotten it and thought that it’s their fidelity to scripture that justifies them. And after the disciples have not gotten it and just flipped the categories and thought that it’s their association with Jesus that makes them superior. And after Jesus so plainly says that what makes us holy is whether or not what comes out of our mouth is the truth about what’s in our heart.
She tells the truth about her pock-marked heart and she boldly owns up to her need.
And Jesus calls that ‘great faith.’
‘I’m about the worst thing any one could call me, but Jesus Christ, Son of David, mercy on me.’
If that’s great faith, then what it means to be a community of faith is to be a place for sinners.
So the good news is-
If you’re not fine but feel like everyone else is
If you’re selfish or petty or stingy
If you yell at your kids too much
Or cheat on your spouse
Or disappoint your parents
If you lie to your friends or stare at a loser in the mirror
If you gossip about your neighbors
Or think the worst about people you barely know
If you drink too much, care too little, fail at your job
If you think any one who votes for the other party is an idiot
If you’re a racist or an agist or a homophobe
If you’re a barely tamed cynic who thinks you’re smarter than everyone else just about all the time
If your beliefs are so shaky you’re not even sure you belong here
If you think the insides of your heart would make others throw up in their mouths
If you think you’re worthless, the wrong kind of person in all kinds of ways, that you warrant the worst thing someone might say about you…
Then the good news is: this is the place for you. Because Jesus Christ came to save sinners.
While we were yet dogs, Jesus came to take our pock-marked hearts and fill them with his own righteousness.
To make us holy.
But he can’t do that until what’s on our mouths confesses what’s actually in our hearts.
‘I’m about the worst thing any one could call me, but Jesus Christ, Son of David, mercy on me.’
If this is what great faith looks like, then the good news is that to be a community of faith means that this is not a place where we put up pretenses, hide behind piety, pretend that we’re pure of heart, use our beliefs to justify ourselves over and against someone else.
If this is what great faith looks like, then the good news is that to be a community of faith means this is not a place to act self-righteous or judgmental or superior or intolerant or in any way at all that suggests we think we’re the right kind of people.
Of course the bad news is-
That’s about the last thing people think of when they hear the word ‘church.’