“It’s hard to like Jesus when he’s being snarky.” This is what my preaching professor at Gettysburg said when we encountered this text in her preaching class. “It’s hard to like Jesus when he’s being snarky.” This text is uncomfortable for us because it challenges all of our ideas about Jesus always loving everyone and welcoming everyone to be with him. It’s hard to like Jesus when he calls the Pharisees, who were widely regarded as the good religious folks in Jewish society at this time, blind guides who are leading the blind. And it’s hard to like Jesus when he throws his hands up in the air and asks Peter if he’s stupid. It’s hard to like Jesus when he names the sins that come out of our hearts. And, finally, it’s hard to like Jesus when he calls someone a dog. Today’s Gospel is part of our Scriptures, and we must deal with it. But how? Was Jesus just having a bad day? Or is there, perhaps, something more going on here? Because this text is so difficult for us to understand, there are several different ways that interpreters have looked at it. Each way of interpretation raises questions even as it answers some. But today I am going to speak from my heart as I interpret today’s Gospel in light of what is going on in the world around us, and here is what I think: We confess that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human. And today is a day when I think Jesus was letting his human side come completely into view.
Now, let me explain what I mean by that. We give Jesus a pass on a lot of things because we emphasize his full divinity over and against his full humanity. Today, though, I want to talk about Jesus’ full humanity and try not to give him a pass, but to wrestle with him in all of his humanness. And here is what I think is going on: as a human being, Jesus was raised in a first-century Jewish culture. He was raised to believe that, as we hear throughout the Old Testament, the Jewish people were God’s special, chosen people, and those who were not Jewish were outsiders, others, somehow not as special as the Jewish people were. Jesus would have heard the stories of how the Israelites fought the battle of Jericho and the walls came tumbling down, and he would have heard how the Israelites were commanded to kill all of the Canaanites so that they could settle in the land. And then let’s add this to the mix: in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is a refugee; a survivor of the slaughter of the baby boys in Bethlehem, some of whom were his cousins, and he was brought up in Egypt and in the town of Nazareth instead of his hometown of Bethlehem. Because of this, his psyche has developed into putting people in categories: those who don’t get what he’s saying and those who do; those who are in and those who are out. When the Pharisees are offended by what Jesus is saying, he quickly calls them “blind guides leading the blind”. That’s part of the particular human being who Jesus was, according to Matthew.
But then it gets worse. Jesus goes off into a retreat and encounters a “Canaanite” woman. Now this is one of the odd things about the Gospel of Matthew. The Canaanites had not existed as a people since Old Testament times. The Gospel of Mark calls this woman a Syro-Phoenician woman, which would have been more accurate to the peoples who lived in that area in the 1st century. But no, Matthew calls this woman who calls out after Jesus a Canaanite. Hold on to that thought for a moment, because it’s important and I’m going to come back to it. Let’s look at what happens: first, Jesus ignores her, then he says, “It is not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus, the Jesus who we say loves everyone, just called this woman a dog. And even though we try to soften it—yes, the Greek word for “dog” here can mean “little dog,” like a lapdog or a puppy—it’s still pretty bad. Think of this: even though our culture loves and spoils our dogs today, so that they are members of our family, we still have a very insulting word that we often call people which means a female dog. I ask your forgiveness and indulgence here, but Jesus has just called this woman a bitch. There is no getting around this insult, and there is no getting around the fact that it has come out of Jesus’ mouth.
This is Jesus in his humanity, coming out with a racist attitude that should make all of us cringe. And this woman knows that she’s been insulted, too. But she is so desperate for her daughter to be healed, and she is so convinced that Jesus can heal her daughter, that she goes along with the insult and she persists: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” I don’t think we fully appreciate how clever this woman really is. If someone called me a dog, I think I would be angry and resentful and maybe go off and tell my friends what a jerk this guy was being. Some Savior these Jewish people have! But that’s not what this woman does. She demonstrates faith that, even though Jesus has just insulted her to her face, he could change his mind and help her daughter. And so, she persisted, and she followed his insult to its logical conclusion.
And Jesus is suitably impressed with the woman’s faith, and he changes his mind and heals her daughter. Now, remember when I mentioned how weird it is that Matthew calls the woman a Canaanite when the Canaanites had not been in existence as a people for centuries? One interpretation is this: because Jesus, who was Jewish, healed this “Canaanite” woman’s daughter, we can see that he is making a symbolic restitution to the Canaanite people on behalf of the Jewish people for driving them off their land so many centuries ago, when the walls of Jericho came tumbling down. And by changing his mind and healing this woman’s daughter, we can see Jesus beginning to reject the racist attitudes towards those who are not Jewish. And by the end of the Gospel of Matthew, we will see a resurrected Jesus commanding the disciples to go out and make disciples of all nations. And when you see the word “all,” anywhere in the New Testament, then all means all.
So now that we have this foundation and an interpretation of the Gospel story before us, I would like to talk with you about events happening today. Last weekend’s horrible events in Charlottesville, Virginia, have been weighing heavily on my mind. My parents used to live about 45 minutes west of Charlottesville. I did my required chaplaincy training at the University of Virginia Medical Center, and I also did temporary work in downtown Charlottesville. I recognized the streets that the news media took pictures of. I walked some of those streets. And to see the city break out in fighting like that was a very personal thing for me. This week, I have been both angry and heartbroken.
Some of you might think that such a thing could not happen here. I’m here to tell you differently. Not far from where I live, I was told that the building that now houses Gaudenzia once housed the KKK, and in recent enough memory that I might hear it referred to as “Klan Hollow”. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, counts 40 active hate groups in Pennsylvania. Forty. But not even as extreme as all that, I have heard people in this area make racist remarks. Now, please don’t get me wrong. I’m not equating the things I’ve heard with these hate groups. Many of these remarks I think are just attitudes that people have grown up with, like Jesus was probably taught by his human family and friends that those who were not Jewish were “other,” and not to be trusted. But, when confronted with a real human being who was a woman and an “other,” Jesus changed his mind. And that is the good news for us: if Jesus can change his mind, so can we.
Racism is a sin. If we say that God created all people, as the Scriptures teach us, in God’s image, then it is a sin for us to look down on someone who doesn’t look like us and call them “other,” or “not worthy”. And if I say something that I don’t think is racist, and someone else tells me that it’s racist, then I need to have the grace to recognize that I have caused offense, to apologize to that person, ask that person why what I said was racist, and then listen to them. I think that’s part of the controversy that’s going on right now surrounding Confederate memorials. White people say, “Oh, it’s part of American history and there’s nothing wrong with learning from them.” We white people are not listening to the other side of the story: that many of these statues went up in the Jim Crow era, during segregation, and were meant to intimidate African Americans. We don’t listen to their side of the story: that these statues are a visible reminder of their oppression. I heard from my sister-in-law in Florida that there is a park near where she and my brother live named Confederate Park, and some of her neighbors will not go there because the name makes them feel not welcomed.
We all need to get better at listening to one another. We need to not be so fragile and so easily offended when someone tells us we are being racist. And, we all need to look deeper into our minds and hearts and look at the prejudices we hold there, and we need to repent of them. This is work that is not going to happen overnight. It’s going to be long and hard and painful. And it’s going to start with relationships. Jesus didn’t change his mind until he was confronted with someone who was “other” from him and was impressed by her faith. We, too, need to forge friendships with people who are different from us and to work on those relationships. And the good news is, if Jesus changed his mind, then so, too, can we. And in the end, that is what today’s Gospel is about: all means all. And there is enough of God’s love and provision, and more than enough, to go around. So we have no reason to be afraid of others. I will continue to hold out hope that in the end, God’s love wins. Amen.