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Jesus Caught with His Compassion Down
Matthew 15:21-28 August 16, 2020
Back in 1983, British scholar F. F. Bruce published a book called The Hard Sayings of Jesus.
Well, I’m here to tell you that his sayings haven’t gotten any easier since then.
In fact, if you’re paying any attention to what Jesus says, you might mutter to yourself, “I didn’t know that there were any easy sayings”.
But today’s passage is in a league of its own.
Elsewhere, Jesus challenges social boundaries and religious practices that isolate and demean people while always raising the bar for what love means.
But today he appears to be the one confronted with his own ethnocentric narrow mindedness.
In fact, not too long before this incident, Jesus specifically ordered his disciples not to take his message of grace to non-Jews.
Matthew 10:5-7 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans.”
Could the Son of God be a racist?
Does today’s story say that God can change His mind?
And why did Matthew and Mark both include it in their gospels?
Frankly, it would have played better for Jesus if they’d simply omitted the embarrassing incident altogether … it’s not that they didn’t have lots of other grace-filled material to choose from.
Let’s take a minute to step back to remember how we got here.
Jesus’ fame as a healer was drawing larger and larger crowds – and raising the ire of the religious leaders who were concerned that his popular teaching was straying from traditional practices.
Jesus was stirring a hornet’s nest, which was dangerous for everybody – look at what Herod had just done to Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist.
But Jesus was unrelenting.
Right before today’s passage, some Pharisees and teachers of the law asked why his disciples were disrespecting the tradition of the elders by not washing their hands before breaking bread.
Hardly a controversial thing to ask, right?
Well, did they ever get a tongue lashing from Jesus.
Matthew 15:16-20 “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”
That was when Mr. Moral High-ground decided to leave Galilee and travel about 35-miles north to Phoenicia – an area we now call Lebanon.
He may have scored some points with the crowds with the zinger he’d leveled at the Pharisees, but they would not have favored his going to Sidon and Tyre since they were home to Israel’s traditional enemies.
As we just heard, he was immediately accosted by a desperate Canaanite woman who was the quintessential outsider by virtue of her gender, religion, ethnicity and geography.
Matthew 15:22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
A lot of ink has been spilled trying to sanitize Jesus’ response to rid its dissonance with how we want to think about Jesus — perfect, compassionate, welcoming, and unprejudiced – but none of it is convincing.
Did what come out of Jesus’ mouth reveal what was in his heart, as he’d just lectured the Pharisees?
One scholar says that in Sidon, “Jesus got caught with his compassion down”.
è insert Breaking News video
Announcer: This just in: sources tell Action News that Pharisaic opponents of Jesus of Nazareth are secretly relishing the supposed-Messiah’s misstep while on holiday in the seaside resort of Sidon.
Action News has learned that a desperate mother had pleaded with the celebrity healer to help her possessed daughter but Jesus – who’s recently made a name for himself with claims of forgiveness and compassion – ignored her repeated pleas before publicly calling her the “D” word.
At a hastily gathered news conference, Pharisee representatives claim that in a heated exchange just yesterday Jesus had insulted religious leaders.
Multiple sources say that Jesus defensively claimed that his disciples’ failure to wash their hands had not made them unclean, and then turned on local leaders saying that what came from their hearts and through their mouths had defiled them.
Reading from a prepared statement, Rabbi Leibwitz said, “Jesus’ hypocrisy is now laid bare for all to see”.
You can trust Action News to bring you details as this scandal unfolds.
If you want to impress people at a cocktail party – if we’re ever allow to attend a face-to-face party again – you can drop the term Hypostatic Union.
Hypostatic Union is the long-standing Christian understanding that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine.
The Athanasian Creed affirms, “Jesus is God from the essence of the Father, begotten before time; and he is human from the essence of his mother, born in time; …”
Our faith understands that Jesus had a fully human experience.
He wasn’t faking his suffering on the cross or his grief at his friend Lazarus’ death.
His human-self felt love, felt rejection, felt pain, and felt fear.
As a human child, he had to learn language and arithmetic just like the rest of us.
In other words, he wasn’t immune from suffering and didn’t already know everything and just pretend to be human.
And as enlightened as Jesus was, he was born in time and into a culture.
So just as even the best of us are blind to many of the cultural assumptions we are born into, like other Jews of the time he apparently abhorred his Gentile neighbors to the north.
That’s just the way it was.
That is one of the insights we are taking from our White Fragility book study.
We can be kind, curious, caring – and still be part of a system of racism we don’t see.
Because we want to see ourselves as good people, and because we assume that being racist is an individual decision to act in overtly bigoted ways, our kneejerk reaction is to defend ourselves against any accusation that we are prejudiced.
We think that’s only “bad people” who are prejudiced.
And because of that, we stay stuck in our attitudes rather than recognizing and exploring them.
I’ll share a somewhat humiliating story with you.
Back in 1967, I joined my wife on the staff of Caesar Chavez’s labor union that was organizing farm workers in the Central Valley.
Believe me, those farm owners and the Kern County Sheriffs meant business, so organizing the grape strike in Delano was as dangerous as registering voters in Mississippi.
I was relieved when my wife and I were assigned to initiating grape boycotts in San Diego and fund raising in New York.
Anyway, a few months in, after I had made what I thought was an innocent comment, my wife turned to me and said, “Roger, I think you are prejudiced against Mexicans”.
I denied it, but she then gave me several examples of things I’d said.
I resented what she said, but I knew enough to shut up.
Now I have to confess that eventually I was able to see a vast array of assumptions I’d inherited about Mexican people, and to recognize numerous offensive comments I had made, so ultimately, I was grateful that she called me on it.
So, if we are going to let Jesus be fully human, we have to allow that his human side, too, innocently carried cultural assumptions with him.
Apparently, his reputation as a healer had even reached into Gentile territory, so the desperate mother pleaded with Jesus, who initially ignored her.
How many women have been dismissed and ignored by powerful men – bosses, husbands, priests?
It is one of the most condescending things a person can do to another.
His disciples took the cue that he was okay to chase the annoying woman away.
Matthew 15:23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
But the mother persisted.
Then Jesus stated his assumption of what his ministry was about.
Matthew 15:24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
Then comes the back and forth as Jesus initially responds with harsh, offensive language – calling her a “dog”, a highly derogatory term.
And yet the mother persisted on behalf of her tormented daughter – famously scoring a win with “even dogs eat crumbs from the table.”
I believe that this is when Jesus’ divinity kicked in: he was able to do some quick and humble introspection.
I’m sure you’ve had the experience – on social media or in person – of taking a position and then digging in to defend it.
We no longer listen to the other person, facts don’t matter.
That’s the human impulse that politicians use to inflame their base and to divide us.
But Jesus allowed the woman to show him his own bias and that her life mattered.
Jesus allowed for his eyes to be opened, changed his position and healed her child.
To emphasize this, up to this point in the narrative, Matthew only used the pronoun “he” to refer to Jesus.
But now, the pronoun “he” became “Jesus”.
It’s as if Matthew is saying that once the words of love and inclusion come into this story, that’s Jesus talking!
Matthew 15:28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
Jesus really did learn something through this Canaanite woman, but she didn’t change his heart from stingy to loving.
Jesus was always loving – but like all humans he could also be blind to social systems that invisibly define our attitudes and allocate our societies’ resources.
Jesus allowed himself to be challenged to see beyond the social boundaries and ethnic prejudices he’d inherited.
That may be why Mark and Matthew include this troubling narrative in their gospels, rather than just glossing over it.
It’s like they are saying that if we are to be like Jesus, then we need to see that we are not “woke”, we are awakening.
We have not fully arrived at being good people, but are working towards becoming good people … we are “goodish” people.
I know this is hard to accept, but doing so helps us become curious rather than defensive.
The United Church of Christ has a motto, “Don’t place a period where God intended a comma”.
Jesus taught us to challenge our culture’s wisdom and even the black letter commands of the Bible.
I can pull up biblical passages that demean women, defend slavery and condemn homosexuality.
But Jesus shows that something written in a distant culture, even when reaching for the holy, may not be the final word.
Jesus modeled that God’s love expands through cultural boundaries toward compassion and acceptance of all people.
And, Jesus modeled that sometimes that means removing our blinders and even letting an alien woman show us how big God’s love really is.
- Video insert
Announcer: Breaking news. Action News has just obtained an exclusive interview with the Canaanite woman at the heart of this scandal. Now to Sidon:
Canaanite Woman: Okay – so I’d heard that Jesus of Nazareth was coming to town and everyone was saying that he’s a big deal healer … which is great because my daughter was in a terrible state.
The demons had got her.
So, as soon as Jesus arrived, I begged him to help her, but he tried to blow me off.
When I pushed a little, he became very rude and called me a dog.
I was hurt … but not surprised because those Galileans can be so crude.
But this is my daughter, you know, and I’m tired of men dissing
me … so I went toe-to-toe with him.
And then suddenly something happened … I can’t quite explain it, but he suddenly changed from hard and cruel to all compassionate and caring.
Like I could feel love radiate from him.
He said that he was blown away by my faith, or something like that.
Anyway, my daughter is all better now and I am praising God for sending Jesus here.