Bishop Whipple Mission
Matthew 15: 10-20, 21-28
One of my preaching mentors always said that preaching the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ had to involve just that. It had to be news and it had to be good. Well I have to say that sometimes this is a whole lot easier than others, and this Gospel is not one of the easier ones. Jesus presents us with a challenge today. As someone said, if this were the only contact I ever had with this person Jesus, I’m not sure I’d want to know him better. It’s true; he does not come off very well in this encounter with the Canaanite woman. Seeing the usually loving and compassionate Jesus respond in a manner that is so out of character is disconcerting. And what to make of it all has been puzzling Biblical scholars as well as the rest of us for a very long time. And, as is usually the case, there have been a number of ways Jesus’ behavior in this Gospel encounter has been interpreted and explained. One approach holds that first of all the interchange really was not as bad as it sounds to our modern Western ears. Rather than insults, it is said the dialogue could be interpreted as a kind of witty exchange with the woman and Jesus each giving as good as they got. As one commentator puts it: “It is good peasant humor, not theological debate.” It’s also pointed out that the word for dog that was used in the Greek is the word for domesticated dog, or even puppy, not the kind the runs wild. As if that perhaps makes it better, somehow.
Another take on this is that Matthew was using this story as a teaching tool to talk about issues that were occurring in the Christian community of his own time, and that his hearers would have clearly understood this. This argument says it was never Matthew’s intent to talk about Jesus’ character in the story, but to show how it was God’s plan for the Gentiles (the “dogs”) fit into the church’s mission. Dog was a common Jewish term for Gentiles who, like dogs, were not seen as distinguishing between clean and unclean food. This explanation links this half of the Gospel with what precedes it in the discussion of clean and unclean. By using a woman and a Canaanite (a “double outsider”) in the dialogue with Jesus, Matthew was showing that God’s plan was wider than simply saving the Jewish chosen people, Jesus is the savior of all. This view of things sort of lets Jesus off the hook and says it doesn’t matter how he behaved, if he called the woman a dog or not, because Matthew was just using the story as a sort of teaching tool anyway.
Then there are the commentators who ask us to look away from Jesus and his behavior, and put our eyes on the woman and her faith. They say it is her faith that is the important thing in the story. Her persistence in the face of first being ignored, then insulted, that we should note. That she did not return insult with insult but with faith and the continued expectation of mercy. And that in the end, this was the turning point in the story. Her faith was the thing that made the difference. The point is that we should be like her and just persist in faith no matter what the obstacles.
Then there is another take on the whole thing that offers yet another possibility. It is this one that seems to me to meet the standard that my preaching mentor held up of this being the story that is news and that is good. A kind of a both/and. This is, as one of our summer seminary professors told us, what the Incarnation was all about. Jesus broke into history to in order that we might know both who God is and who we can be. Jesus as the Incarnate One was fully God, yet fully man. It’s pretty hard to get our heads around this. We have a tendency to lean towards that one side it seems. Jesus…fully God, perfect, compassionate, all knowing. We see him as a sort of already finished being. Not someone who could be a product of his times and subject to human prejudices or stereotypes of any kind. Not someone who could be changed by an encounter with another human. But being fully human implies that Jesus could change, could be changed by his encounters, by his relationships. In his encounter with this woman Jesus did finally see her…he saw beyond the label, the stereotype, and entered in that moment into real relationship with her. He opened his heart in true compassion. He allowed himself to be changed. And because he entered deeply into that relationship…. there could be transformation, there could be healing. Outsiders could come into the circle, and even the dogs could be called to share in the meal. All because of Jesus’ great capacity for love grounded in his sure and certain knowledge of who he was as God’s beloved son. For Matthew’s listeners this meant that the Gentiles would no longer be outsiders, that God had a bigger vision and was doing a new thing among them. Some of them were willing to sign on and draw the circle wider. That was their good news. What is ours?
Certainly in our own lives there are no lack of examples of insiders and outsiders. Whether we are talking about the church or anyplace else. I know when I was growing up, I was quite sure that God was Irish Catholic. I still remember the first time I visited someone’s house that I knew was “Protestant.” I don’t know what denomination. I’m not sure at the time I knew there were denominations. There were just “us” and “them.” I was probably about eleven or twelve and I was invited to her birthday party. It created quite a moral dilemma for me to even go as “we” generally did not associate with “them.” Now while I never would have done something as crass as call her a dog to her face, I certainly in my little girl Catholic mind was pretty sure that she was due the scraps as far as what God was passing out was concerned. I was, after all, the insider on the fast track to Heaven and she was not. Looking back it all seems very silly, and more than a little sad. But as adults how many ways do we make those distinctions in our lives about who is “in” and who is “out?” Race, nationality, economic status, sexual preference, immigration status, religion, gender, age….some of those seem kind of obvious, or maybe not, depending on how we think about things. Or is it just the people who don’t think like we do, those people who irritate us, annoy us and get on our last nerve? Or are they the people who frighten us, threaten us, the ones that we fear. The ones we call our enemies. Are they the dogs in our lives? The ones we want to fence out, keep away under the table, and make outsiders? Jesus says we must feed them, too, see them, bring them into relationship, and allow them to change us, to move us to compassion. In God’s kingdom, there are no outsiders. All are welcome, all are to be loved. The message, as we hear it over and over is clear, “." As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you… love one another as I have loved you. (John 15: 9, 12) This is indeed the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That God is Love and that God so loved the world that God sent God’s only son Jesus Christ as the Incarnate one to indeed show us who God is and who we can be. It is the good news. It is also the hard work and the challenge. Thanks be to God that we have the Spirit of God manifested to us in Word and Eucharist and community to sustain us in our efforts.