The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
In the Heart
How dare he talk to them like that? They were better than him. He was a nobody from nowhere. Sure, Jesus had a handful of followers and some popularity but pretty much anybody with some charisma can brainwash a few naïve peasants. He was a low-life. His father was a hillbilly carpenter – if that guy was even his dad. There were rumors that his mother was already knocked up when they got married – just another loose teenage girl with no morals. It's no surprise he shows his elders no respect. Just look at the kind of family he comes from.
And that group he calls his disciples. What a joke. They are a shabby group; they don't even observe basic purity laws. It's gross; they don't wash their hands before they eat. And their leader has the chutzpah to walk around like he is expert on Torah? His disciples don't even follow Torah. Torah, Moasic Law, that was the Pharisees' thing, their thing. They were the pros from Jerusalem, from the big city; Jesus was the amateur from Nazareth – and you know what they say about that town, “Does anything good come from Nazareth?” It's a rhetorical question; the answer is no. So who does Jesus think he is? Who is he to challenge them? He should be chiseling stones or building tables.
To his credit, Jesus takes it all in stride. His disciples come bearing the upsetting news, probably hesitant to break it to him: The Pharisees were pretty offended by that last comment. But Jesus just brushes it off. For him the Law is about the heart. It's not what you eat or what you do. God is not about manners; God is about transformation – changing hearts and lives to change the world. Jesus knows it starts in the heart. He would rather his disciples eat with dirty hands than speak with dirty hearts. He said as much. The Pharisees didn't like it. But it wasn't the first time; won't be the last. He doesn't apologize: Torah was made for the people, not the people for Torah. Purity is not about hands; it's about the heart.
And that is why the second half of our Gospel lesson today is so intriguing. After Jesus offends the Pharisees and their delicate sensibilities, he heads straight into a territory full of impurity – the gentile region of Tyre and Sidon. And there he is approached by a woman, a gentile woman, more specifically, a Canaanite woman, “Canaanite” as in enemies of the Hebrew people since the book of Genesis. This woman, on her own, no husband to speak of, approaches Jesus, a Jewish man, a rabbi. How dare she?!
Sure, his disciples are a little careless when it comes to hand-washing rituals, but they are not about to let this slide. No Gentile woman is going to talk to their teacher – certainly not in public. That would be an embarrassment. She is an impure woman from an impure place. And so they beg Jesus to send her away. Far be it for them to risk impurity.
Just moments earlier Jesus and his disciples are accused of being in violation of purity code. But it's all good now because they've found someone even less pure. Jackpot.
The disciples words and actions are pretty straight forward here: they want this woman gone. But I think it is hard to interpret Jesus' words and actions in this story. I mean, he certainly doesn't look good – at least not at first glance. Remember she is there because her daughter needs healing. First, he ignores the woman. Then he tries a quick brush off line. Then when she continues to persist, begging Jesus to heal her daughter, he calls her a derogatory name, an ethnic slur. Not exactly the most flattering Jesus story.
Maybe Jesus struggled with the cultural biases and prejudices of his family and community, like we all do. It's possible. But given the context, it seems to me that it must be more complex than it seems to be on the surface. He just said to his disciples, just a few verses earlier, “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.” It would surprise me if Jesus would then turn around and belittle a desperate woman with ethnic slurs. It would surprise me even more if the writer of the Gospel, who is a Jesus fan, would show Jesus immediately violating his own teaching. If Jesus really meant what he said, he might have just defiled himself.
Maybe I am too easily letting Jesus off of the hook, but I think he is projecting the biases of his disciples and, by extension, the early Church. We see throughout the New Testament examples of this struggle. The first leaders of the Jesus movement were hesitant to let Gentiles, us, in. They were looking for the lost sheep, not for the dirty dogs.
Healing this Gentile's daughter would not be out of character for Jesus. Earlier in Matthew's Gospel Jesus performed a healing for a Gentile. He healed females – young and older. And so perhaps Jesus is simply verbalizing the thoughts of his own disciples' hearts – letting them experience their true impurity – not the hand stuff, the heart stuff. The story does end with Jesus healing the daughter and marveling at the woman's amazing faith. She comes to Jesus as a Canaanite dog; she leaves as an enduring example of faith.
In The Power and the Glory, this year's summer book group selection, Graham Greene writes, “This was the race which had invented the proverb that cleanliness was next to godliness – cleanliness, not purity.” The truth is: we rarely make it past the superficial stuff. We get caught up on things like hand-washing rituals because it is much easier to follow some rules than it is to let God transform our hearts.
And so we find ourselves acting like the Pharisees or Jesus' disciples more often than we care to admit. We claim the moral high-ground as if it were a sniper's tower. How dare he have dark skin in this neighborhood? How dare he fall in love with another man? How dare she bring her inferior culture into this country? How dare he be depressed and commit suicide? And we, in this social media age, bombard the Internet with all our vitriolic opinions, flooding blogs and comment sections, condemning people we do not even know to hell. They become merely pawns in our political and ideological games. Human beings boiled down to a single moment, a single attribute, a single stereotype, a single talking-point.
How dare we? It is humanity at our worst. And it happens in the Church, unfortunately, as often as it does outside of the Church; it happens as much in our country as it does beyond our borders. It is a human problem. We are at our worst when we look at another person and refuse to see their humanity – their fragile, scared, complex humanity. We are at our worst when we refuse to see that we're all built of the same dust, all made in the image of the same God.
And it is that lack of vision that begins to eat away at our hearts. The evil intentions of our hearts become the evil words that become the evil actions that become the evil words we use to justify our evil actions. Firing a missile at an elementary school or hanging a child on a lynching tree: it never starts that big; those things start with a dehumanizing thought or word – a seed planted by a parent or a politician or a pundit. And it gets in – deep; once it is in, it's hard to get it out.
We are a world of people carrying around biases and prejudices, starting wars, and inflicting violence. And sometimes it seems hopeless – like these cycles of evil will never stop. My favorite line in The Power and the Glory was spoken by the main character – a priest with plenty of his own flaws. He said, “It was for this world that Christ had died: the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater the glory lay around the death; it was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or civilization--it needed a God to die for the half-hearted and the corrupt.”
And so Christ died. For a world of people carrying around biases and prejudices, starting wars, and inflicting violence. Christ died for the Canaanite woman and for all the desperate outsiders. Christ died for the disciples: for those who wear their prejudiced hearts on their sleeves. Christ died for the Pharisees and for all the self-righteous religious people who are too selfish with God's love. And Christ died for us. To break the cycle. To plant a new seed in our hearts. So that love would grow and finally choke out the evil.