This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Lord of the Dogs.

Matthew 15.10-28
            Jesus and his disciples land their boat in Gennesaret.  As he is healing people he gets into an argument with some Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem.  They say he is too lax in keeping the purity regulations in the Torah.  Jesus says they are adding burdensome rules that are not actually in the Torah.
            Jesus starts teaching the people exactly the opposite of what the Pharisees had always told them.  The Pharisees were so zealous for the strict keeping of the letter of the religious law that they added things to it to make it stronger.
            The Pharisees have an agenda.  Their primary goal is to maintain Jewish national and religious identity and distinctness.  The Pharisees were hyper-vigilant about what and how people should eat, and who they should eat with, and by extension, what they should see, hear, feel, smell, or take into themselves in any way.  They wanted to control people by regulating their consumption, what they were allowed to touch, or whom they were allowed to associate with. 
            The Pharisees believed that it was only by keeping these rules that their nation maintained its existence.  Without the law they would easily be swallowed up in Greek culture like just about every other nation in the eastern Mediterranean.  What people ate was not just a matter of religious observance.  They felt it was a matter of national survival.
            That is why, when Jesus says things like, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles,” the Pharisees get very nervous and angry.  If people didn’t regulate what went into their mouths, if they just started eating ham sandwiches and fried clams, if they ignored the rules for pre-meal ablutions, if they ate with Gentiles, or ate the meat of animals that had been sacrificed to pagan deities, then the Jewish nation would simply cease to exist.  What Jesus is saying us unpatriotic.
            They were a small nation, surrounded by the alien Greek culture, they had fought for their independence, and Rome was allowing them to keep their religious laws.  But if there were ever a crack in this monolith of strict, legal observance, they were sure it would all be over.
            The Jewish people were using these laws to maintain their identity as an oppressed minority.  But this is also a tactic of any empire or authoritarian regime.  If you can regulate what people consume: what foods they eat, what they drink, what books and newspapers they read, what websites they visit, what art they may look at, then you maintain control over them.  The greatest threat to the powers-that-be is when people start to listen to other voices, eat other foods, hear other music, entertain other opinions, and associate with other people.
            Jesus sees the hypocrisy here.  If we reduce faith to what we consume, if we think that we have fulfilled our responsibility as God’s people as soon as dinner is over, then we are prone to forget the more important demands of the law, which is that we actually love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.  You may eat the perfect kosher meal, quite satisfied with the impeccability of your piety… and then go out and commit acts of violence, bigotry, and hatred against people, and think that is fine.  While the Pharisees made themselves into the food police, Jesus is healing people.
            Jesus understands that God is love, and that this spirit of love interprets and even overrides the details of the written code.  It not about what you take into yourself, what you eat, what you drink, what you read, what music or words you listen to, and so forth.  It is about what you do, what you produce, what comes out of your mouth in words, what you express and accomplish with your body.  That is what the law is really about.  It has to do with coming to live according to love and compassion, justice and peace.
            “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.  These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”  So says Jesus.  He doesn’t say we should eat with dirty hands, he means to reduce the importance of these excessive rules about ritual hand-washing which the Pharisees had added to the requirements of the Bible.
            When Peter expresses some nervousness about offending the powerful Pharisees, Jesus answers, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted.  Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind.  And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” 
            In other words, it is as if Jesus is saying: “It doesn’t matter what these so-called religious professionals say.  There are no Pharisees in the Torah.  God didn’t plant or institute their order.  God didn’t make them boss.  They are just making this stuff up; they are reacting out of fear, nationalism, ethnocentrism, and a lot of other things that are not God’s love.  They add extra, oppressive rules to the Bible.  But what they add, God has not planted, and in the end, what God has not planted will not last.  So don’t worry about it.  It is enough of a challenge to keep the laws that are actually from God, without having to add these extra things on top of it all.”
            Then Matthew recounts a situation that arises which provides an example of what Jesus is talking about.  Jesus and the disciples have walked over to the coastline, about 30 miles, and they enter Gentile territory.  A Canaanite woman approaches them.  Canaanites were not Jews, they were the people who inhabited the land before the Israelites came from Egypt and conquered it, over a thousand years before.
            She pleads with Jesus to heal her daughter.  Jesus ignores her.  The disciples ask him to send her away because she is a pest.  Jesus says to them, loftily: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  And when the woman actually kneels before him begging for help, Jesus says; “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
            Now, there are at least two schools of thought on this.  One is the Jesus-changes-his-mind party.  I am of another persuasion, the Jesus-is-being-deliberately-sarcastic party, in interpreting this answer.  I think he is mimicking the bigotry he continually hears from his own people, even his disciples, about Gentiles.  I think he is making a point here. 
            He addresses these harsh and cruel words to the woman, words that would surely defile – which is to say, offend and enrage -- most people to whom they were addressed.  Nasty words that would cut to the heart of someone coming to him for help.  You expect her to go away angry, hurt, sad, disappointed, and brokenhearted.  You would expect her to go away hating Jesus, Jews, and their God.  You expect taking in these words would defile her thoroughly, the way we sometimes dwell on and sourly nurse the unfair, nasty, mean things that people say to us.
            But the words don’t defile her.  Without skipping a beat, she says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  The words enter her ears, she takes them in.  But she turns them around through her humility and her limitless trust in this man who has just called her a dog!
            I can see Jesus looking at his disciples, shaming them.  It is as if he is saying: “I still shouldn’t heal this woman’s daughter, just because they’re Gentiles?  She shows more faith and trust in me than you guys do most of the time, but I shouldn’t heal her daughter because she’s not one of our people?  I said words to her that you’ve never heard me say to anyone, and yet she produces from her heart in response words of pure gold.  When are you guys going to get it, that the Gentiles are the lost sheep of the house of Israel?  And that I have come to serve, to heal, to liberate, to redeem the people whom others dismiss as ‘dogs’?  I am the Lord of the dogs!
            Then Jesus turns to her and says: “Woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.”  And at that moment her daughter is healed.
            Between the Pharisees and this woman there is a huge gap.  The Pharisees were self-righteous, superior, entitled, and bossy.  They took it upon themselves to protect God’s law by developing still more hoops for people to jump through in order to be accepted by God.  They wanted to control people by regulating what they ate, what they took in.  The woman takes in some nasty words… but she transmutes them into a miracle by means of her humility and her trust in Jesus.
            Jesus says that it’s not what goes into us that is determinative, but what comes out, in terms of our words and behavior.  What comes out of this woman is a willingness to be like Jesus: last of all and the servant of all. 
            I remember this verse in Proverbs: “A living dog is better than a dead lion.”  It is better to be poor, humble, and common and alive, than to be important, powerful, wealthy, respected, and pious… and dead.  What God has not planted will be uprooted, no matter how strong and rich you are.  God did not plant these Pharisees who like to pile ever heavier burdens on people.  They may have the reputation of strong and glorious lions, but they are in effect, dead.
            But Jesus says it is the gentle who inherit the earth.  The humble, the trusting, the ordinary, the broken, the needy, the outcast and excluded… like this mother pleading for her daughter’s life… these are the people who constitute the future.  She is the mother of the whole Gentile church, which includes us. 
            The point is to have a deep enough trust and humility so we can transmute what does come into us into something beautiful, something healing, something blessed and good.  What is the level of our trust and humility?  Are we willing even to be dogs, patiently and with great attentiveness awaiting a crumb from the master’s table?
            If we trust in Jesus, I know that what will come out of us will be what came into the world through him.  We will be a blessing to the world.  We will be people who heal, who set people free, who do justice and love kindness, who participate in the redemptive will of God.  What comes out of us will be the love of God for the whole world.

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