Sermon: Sunday August 17th, 2008
the Rev. Matt Kennedy
A woman pleads for Jesus' help. Jesus ignores her. Egged on by his disciples, he tries to send her away. When finally confronted, he justifies his refusal to help by appealing to his ethnic superiority. He calls the woman a dog. He helps her in the end but only after she's been utterly humiliated.
That's what many people see in Matthew 15:21-28, Jesus acting like the classic bigot. I spent time this week reading sermons based on this text just to get a sense for what others were saying. Here's part of a sermon I found online:
“Jesus as well as the disciples are blinded by their cultural biases. As members of the chosen race they believe they are truly chosen of God and that everyone else is excluded...How does this meeting with the Canaanite woman affect Jesus? His faith journey as a human is much like our own journey. He meets a new idea in the form of the woman's request with silence. How do we meet God? How do we meet those experiences that threaten our worldview? We tend to be silent and hope they will go away which is exactly what Jesus does in his silence.”
Its not the woman who meets God in Jesus it is Jesus who meets God in the woman and Jesus “grows” through the encounter. The woman is, says the preacher...
“the catalyst for change in Jesus. He finally begins to understand his mission is broader than the religious and cultural biases and prejudices of his time and he chooses to respond out of this new insight by doing what the woman asks. This metoina for the human Jesus continues and comes to fruition at the end of Matthew's gospel when Jesus tells the disciples to, " Go and baptize all nations,"
For those of you in the New Beginner's and First Light bible studies, this is a great example of eisogesis, reading something into the text that's not there. The natural human inclination when reading the bible is to read through the lens of our cultural, political or philosophical assumptions and in America, in the west in general, the ideal of equality is especially dear. Perceived prejudice is met with harsh social condemnation. Last week some Spanish Olympic athletes were filmed mocking Asian people by pulling the edges of their eyes back. An avalanche of outrage descended upon them and rightly so. It became international incident involving heads of state. The contemporary aversion to prejudice is so strong that it's difficult not to project it onto scripture and see Jesus' words as an example of bigotry.
Before I go on let me say that the equality ideal is good and it is biblical. All human beings are created in God's image and though we're fallen, that image remains. There is especially in the fellowship of believers, those for whom Jesus died, those whom he's gathered in the Church, to be no bigotry or prejudice. One of the ongoing scandals within the western church is the fact that there are white churches and black churches. No church should be known by its predominant race. In Galatians 3:28, Paul sets the standard, “There's neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” Race, class and sex distinctions do not divide us and do not make us unequal in God's sight. We are all equally sinners, and all equally declared righteous through faith in God's Son. We are One in Christ.
But while the ideal of equality is good in so far as it is consistent with God's Word if you read this text with the cultural aversion to prejudice ringing in your ears you could easily miss the point and mis-hear Jesus.
The bible upholds the truth that all humans are equal but it makes a crucial distinction. I'll bet that when I said that the ideal of equality is consistent with scripture some said to themselves, well, what about those passages where Jews are called God's chosen people and told to separate from gentiles or where slaves are told to obey their masters or wives are told to submit to their husbands. How can I say that the bible does not teach inequality? Inequalities are shot through the text?
There are three ways to address to that question I think. And after I've given them we'll have a good foundation laid for digging into the text verse by verse next week.
The first way to come at the question is to recognize that all human relationships are grounded in God's own Trinitarian nature. The Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God and yet there is only One God. Let me ask you and maybe you can remember from Sunday school or adult ed, is the Son equal in his divine nature with the Father? Yes. They're coequal. They share the same divine nature. The Son and the Father are coequal and co-eternal.
But how does the Son relate to the Father in scripture? Does Jesus demand his equality? No. Turn to Philippians 2:5, Jesus, “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant.” Jesus though equal to God in his divine nature takes on the role of a servant.
The Son submitted to and became obedient to his Father. Though equal he takes, willingly, an unequal role. In the same way the scriptures teach that there is an important distinction in human relationships between equality and role. We're created equal but called to live in relationships marked by inequality. Most of us have bosses. My bishop is my boss. If he tells me what to do, I have to do it. Am I less human than my bishop? No. Not at all but I willingly submit to him.
When you read the bible, you see many examples of equal people being called to unequal roles, some just and some unjust. Jesus, the King and sovereign ruler of the cosmos, is called to submit to the unjust authority of the Sanhedrin and Pilate and he does. Slaves are called to submit to the unjust rule of their masters (1st Peter 2:18-21) not because slavery is good, unrepentant slave traders, Paul tells us in 1st Timothy 1:10, will not enter the kingdom of heaven, but because by their Christlike behavior, they bear witness to Christ; they do what Jesus did.
But believers are not only called to submit to unjust authorities, we're also called to submit in every day relationships. Children are called to obey their parents (Eph 6:1-4), wives are called to submit to husbands (Eph 5:22-33) and all are to submit to our bosses and those who hold governing power. These roles do not mean that one person is less than another any more than the Son's servanthood means that he is less than the Father or less than his mama whom he obeyed or the rulers of his day to whom he submitted.
Why am I belaboring this point? Second: the distinction between equality of nature and inequality of role is precisely the distinction we need to have in our heads when we turn to the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in scripture and especially in Matthew 15 between Jesus and the Canaanite woman.
Out of all peoples God chose Abraham and his descents. God's decision does not mean that they were ethnically or morally superior to Gentiles. Who knows what Abraham's family was doing before God chose Abraham? Joshua tells us that they worshiped idols (24:2). They were sinners just like the rest of us. God chose one sinner to begin his work of redemption for all sinners. Once he chose Abraham and his descendants did they suddenly become better than other people? No. Just crack open the Old Testament and you'll see that they were just as messed up as the gentiles.
But if that's so, why did God choose them and why do we read that God wanted them to remain distinct and separate from everyone else? Before entering Palestine, God tells them in Deuteronomy 7 not to relate with the other people:
“Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons” (7:3) He tells his people not to make treaties or take on their customs or adopt their ways.
Why? Racism? No. Are they less human? No.
“for” God says, “they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods.(7:4)
The Lord had a special role for the descendants of Abraham to fulfill. They were called to be a window back into Eden, a picture of what restored fellowship with God is like and other nations, looking on, were supposed to be jealous and want that for themselves. “The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.”(7:6) To fulfill that role they had to maintain pure worship and holy conformity to God's law and that meant keeping themselves to some extent separate.
They were to conform themselves to God and his law so that his presence with them would be a light to the gentiles, leading them to want the same thing, to want fellowship with God. That's the role God chose for them. They're equal but they have a special place.
Was it just for God to offer redemption to all humanity through one chosen group? No. In terms of justice, all groups deserve eternal punishment. For God to decide to redeem at all is an act of infinite grace and mercy and love. Who are we, by nature objects of wrath as Paul says in Ephesians 2, to question the means by which God chooses to offer mercy. If you're shipwrecked and drowning and out of an assortment of life-jackets someone throws you a red one instead of a blue one or a white one are you going to complain that it's not fair? Are you going to protest? No, just take the life-jacket.
And that leads third and finally to a point that people often overlook, the lifejacket” has always been available to everyone, not just the blood descendants of Abraham. Anyone could become a full member of Abraham's family regardless of ethnicity, gender, or race by turning from their idols, commiting to the God of Abraham, trusting his promises and following his law. Rahab the prostitute, Ruth the Moabitess, Namaan the Assyrian, all accepted the offer and became descendants of Abraham, inheritors of his blessing. And many born into Abraham's blood family forfeited that inheritance by turning to idols. The distinction between Jew and Gentile was never an exclusively ethnic distinction. It was and is a distinction of faith.
That's what the prophecy in Isaiah 56 is all about, “foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to serve him, to love the name of the LORD, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant-these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer.(Isaiah 56:6-7).
The offer that God made to the world through the descendant's Abraham is the same offer he still makes through The Descendant of Abraham, Jesus Christ. Repent, turn away from sin, and come to me. I will forgive you and make you one of my people and I will give you joy in my house of prayer.
end (continued next Sunday)