The Rev. Laurel Hart, Deacon
Scripture: Matthew 15:10-28
Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity!
When writing a homily, I very frequently like to begin with a verse from the psalm assigned for that day’s lectionary. Usually the verse really sets a tone for me. When I read this verse, my heart called out “don’t we wish it could be”. How will we learn and grow into God’s plan?
But before we get to the verses on the healing of the little girl and its moral and compassionate lessons are Jesus’ few words about what defiled a person. Those words really cried out for reflection. This passage from Matthew highlights the end products within the digestive track after eating food because is a visual which all human beings can understand on a very personal level.
Being clean or pure is about our spiritual separation from God, or our closeness to God. Jesus teaches this very radical message to his listeners; what separates us from God is not whether we follow the purity laws of our culture, but the words which come out of our mouth. It could be said what defiles us is so often tied into a lack of hospitality toward others, which works itself out as rejection or judgment of them out of our fears for our personal safety or fear of losing what we hold dear as our rights and privileges.
In Jesus' culture the whole issue about what is clean, and what is defiling, is not about hygiene. However, in our culture today we import that skewed interpretation. In our first-world self-righteousness which is mostly western ethnic, linked to white privilege, we tend to look with some disdain upon Jewish purity laws. We want to overlook the fact that we have the very same laws. We have purity laws. What are they one might ask? Well as a society we have norms of what is acceptable behavior - we might call them social standards. Does a person live in a house or apartment – or a tent on a slice of public land? Do they work for a living or have a steady source of income – not beg for coins on the side of the streets? Do they wear clean clothes or bathe on a regular basis? Can they hold a sane conversation in the public forum, or do they rant and rave in an irrational manner because they have forgotten or refuse to take the pill that helps to keep them grounded in reality?
I would suggest there is a very direct link between what comes out through our lips back to its original internal source which is the personal dialogue that is held in our hearts. We have only to listen to our smug selves when we are angry and upset about people who do not subscribe to our ways of behaving, to see clearly that we are still into purity laws. Our exclusion of people goes back to our idea of God, and to what, and who, God accepts. And like the people of Jesus’ time we exclude people not only based on behavior, but simply for not being like us; for being from a different town, a different race, a different gender, or being LGBTQ. Jesus is blunt. To those who most carefully followed the rules, he said their keeping of purity laws was a sign of their separation from God.
Then we come to the story of the Canaanite woman – so brave and honest, so direct and truthful, with a mother’s overpowering determination to save her child from the tormenting demon. Jesus demonstrates he is a man of his time and place; he lives within a culture based around racial privilege ruled by the power of the ruthless Roman empire. Clearly he is still in formation as “the son of man.” I can only imagine how afraid she might have been; the courage she had to gather, stemming from her love of her child, to elbow and push her way through the crowd of unwelcoming, judgmental men who surround their master and teacher. “Send her away” they implored Jesus. After all she is not like us. She so bravely and directly challenges his rejection of her plea.
Then the almost stunning reversal of behavior from the master. Jesus was human enough to have his Jewish male privilege with all its racism, penetrated by the plight of a poor and desperate woman who came from an enemy people. Oh, what a lesson he taught all present at that event and people living today. Jesus, despite his privilege, was still able to be merciful; able to choose the way of God— and that he did. He understood what he had done, and how he had behaved. He changed his heart instantly and healed the daughter of the woman. For us that is the most threatening and terrifying thing about this story. Because what it means is that we must change if we are going to worship Jesus with our hearts instead of only our lips. In a heartbeat, he makes a complete turn around and chooses to follow God’s plan. He does not waste time or make excuses. He gets with the program and shows us the righteous path. This is a story about exclusion by privilege. Jesus gives up his privilege. He ceases to exclude. He follows the way of compassion and inclusion. He loves as God loves. Can we? Amen.