David Letterman has made famous the Top Ten List. I don’t know who came up with this one, but here ten things ministers never hear in church, but wish they did:
10. Your sermon was so enthralling I didn’t even notice that it lasted 25 minutes.
9. I got here early just to make sure I could find a place to park.
8. I can play golf any other day of the week. On Sundays I would much rather be in church.
7. I’ve decided to give our church the $500 a month I used to send to TV evangelists.
6. What do I have to do to become the teacher for the Junior High Sunday School class?
5. I say the diocesan minimum salary guidelines are nowhere near generous enough.
4. Father, we’d like to send you to a seminar in the Bahamas.
3. I just love it when we sing hymns I’ve never heard before!
2. Since we’re all here, let’s start the service early.
1. Hey! It’s my turn to sit in the front pew.
Well, since we’re talking about things you don’t often hear in church, try this one on for size: Jesus really blew it in today’s gospel reading. There are not many times when you can say that, but today is one of them.
Just before the reading begins, some religious leaders attack Jesus because his followers do not observe all the ancient rituals and traditions. Specifically, they do not go through a ceremonial washing of hands prior to eating. We hear in this morning’s reading how Jesus turns this attack into a time of teaching and challenge. In a previous confrontation, Jesus said these religious leaders are like white-washed tombs – clean and tidy on the outside, but full of dead bones on the inside. Here Jesus elaborates on this theme, saying that it is not what you eat that makes you unclean in God’s eyes, it’s what you say and do. It is not your outward appearance that makes you holy, but rather inner transformation. What God sees is not the outer description of who you are – gender, race, ethnicity, class, education, and the like – but the inner state of your heart and how that affects your actions.
Well, this teaching of Jesus is wonderful news for the crowds that follow him and not such good news for religious specialists who fall back on their training in, what those of us who participated in this summer’s survey of the first books of the bible learned to be, a very complex set of exacting rules and regulations regarding ceremonies and rituals. Imagine how liberating it must have been to be freed from that and pointed toward a holiness grounded in actual ethical behavior rather than strict adherence to religious practices.
At least one person was listening to Jesus and becomes empowered by his words. She is a mother whose daughter is “tormented by a demon.” She is also a Canaanite, which means she was not born as one of the Chosen People of Israel. We read this summer about how Judah (one of Jacob’s twelve sons) married a Canaanite woman and was somewhat shunned by the family as a result. Such things simply were not done. It was akin to marrying out of your station and class. But this particular woman must have heard in Jesus’ words something that gave her hope he would treat her differently. If a person’s heart is what really matters to God, then she reasoned the external differences could be be eclipsed.
So she approaches Jesus and asks for help. What does he do? Amazingly, at first, nothing. He ignores her, but she keeps pressing for attention. The disciples think her to be a problem and a pest and they try to persuade Jesus to do something, anything. He responds to them, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” In other words, this is not a part of my mission. Put starkly, he says she is not worthy of my time. And yet still the woman persists. She kneels in front of Jesus and begs, “Lord, help me.” His response is harsh and it is shocking. Looking down at the Canaanite woman, Jesus says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
How incredibly insulting is that! Then as now, being called a dog is no compliment. How can these words be spoken by the same person who just verses before said, “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles”? Through baptism we enter into a covenant with Jesus to respect the dignity of every human being. This does not seem to be a good example of that, does it.
Some scholars defend Jesus by suggesting he was merely testing the woman’s faith and resolve. Others posit that he was engaging her in a kind of clever banter favored by teachers of that era. Frankly, the cold, hard truth is that Jesus just plain blows it on this one.
The grace that is to be found in this story emanates not from Jesus, but from the woman’s gritty determination. Had it been me, I would have sulked away after receiving such a dismissive put-down. Perhaps some of you would have errupted with a steam of angry words and cursing. The Canaanite woman does neither. The writer Ambrose Robinson says, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something is more important than fear.” For this woman, clearly the thing more important than the fear of further insult is her daughter’s overriding need and so she finds the courage to say, “Lord, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
For Jesus, this moment becomes a conversion story of sorts. In an instance he perceives that his focus has been too narrow and too provincial. His eyes are opened to the wider world around him and he perceives that his mission is to build faith and respond to it, whenever it appears, wherever it might be, in whomever it can be found. Jesus marvels at the woman’s faith and grants her request immediately.
While there is much that we can say about this episode, this morning I am drawn to the woman’s secondary status in that society and her patient, persistent response to Jesus’ resistance. It has something to say to the people of Ferguson, MO as they demand justice for the shooting death of Michael Brown. It says there is a right way to persist and many that are wrong. It also says it may take time and patience for peoples’ eyes to be opened so that a willingness to facilitate justice emerges. Looting and rioting do not enable this. But based on the way the Ferguson police have conducted themselves, something is amiss in this town. Something has been simmering for a long time and hopefully the weight of public attention will demand that everything there be brought into the light.
The woman’s response also says something about what is transpiring in Iraq. America, understandably exhausted by its long, protracted military involvement in the region, has been loathe to reengage in the current crisis. But it is clear that the United States cannot turn a blind eye to the humanitarian crisis unfolding as a radical, Islamic group seeks to institute totalitarian rule through genocide.
Perhaps the most difficult struggle we face in the face of these kinds of challenges is the temptation to become jaded; to shrug our shoulders, pull the covers up close to our faces, and say it has nothing to do with us. Because today’s reading holds that even the dogs deserves the crumbs that fall from the master’s table, we Christians have an obligation to stand with all who are treated no better.
For me, at least, how we make our stand matters. I thought about this when I read a quote falsely attributed to Kurt Vonnegut making the rounds on social media this past week:
“Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let bitterness steal you sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.”
There is something in this that captures the essence of the Canaanite woman, don’t you think. It is not enough to stand and fight. You must stand in a place of hope and peace and faith grounded in a strong belief that the world is a beautiful place, knowing that no amount of ugliness will make you an ugly person. After all, it is not what is on the outside affecting a person that makes him or her clean or unclean, it is what is on the inside that matters most. We are not reactive people who respond in kind, but kind people who respond with God’s love that fills our hearts. Others may choose to live outside in, but we are a people who live inside out.