Psalm 133

Matthew 15:10-28

Reading the first part of this passage from Matthew, I’m reminded of a pastor I knew – okay, of several pastors I’ve known, but one in particular. I picture him in Jesus’ place in the story. In the story, Jesus speaks out against the religious purity codes of his day, saying that cleanliness or uncleanliness come from the heart, not from any external rituals we might perform. When Jesus speaks, the disciples get worried. They have a PR situation on their hands, and they don’t want to offend the Pharisees (“What will they think? What will they say at the next presbytery meeting?”). So they bring up the issue with Jesus, and this is where I see that pastor: Jesus says, “Good! If nobody got offended when I spoke, I’d be worried.”

That pastor thought like an Old Testament prophet, the kind of person who just kind of thrives on opposition. Jesus, of course, fit that Old Testament mold better than we might want to think. Ideally, these people didn’t seek out opposition because opposition was a good thing. They found themselves up against others because God’s message is so much bigger than we can fit into our ways of living. Jesus isn’t offensive for the sake of being offensive, he offends because religion at its heart is offensive. It goes deeper than our sense of right behavior. Jesus simply says that inner purity is more important than any outward signs, and it’s too bad if that’s hard for you to digest. So far, that’s a pretty good sermon: Jesus speaks, and if you’re bothered by it, you must need to change your heart.

That’s great so far, but then look and listen to Jesus in the second part of the reading. Now, somebody else speaks, and Jesus is the one to be offended. This Canaanite woman comes in and demands that Jesus heal her daughter. Jesus just ignores her, so the disciples raise the question of what to do with the woman. Jesus’ response is shocking: “I’m only here for Israel’s lost children.” He sounds like nobody else belongs in the new world he’s here to usher in. So far, we might be able to be charitable. Maybe Jesus just means, “first I have to take care of Israel, then I’ll handle the rest of the people.” That might be sensible, since Jesus comes out of Israel, and they were God’s first people according to the stories we honor. First save Israel, then on to the rest of the world.

I’m afraid that’s not quite how it goes. The woman keeps up her pressure, and it gets to a deep place in Jesus. She cries out, “Help me!” And Jesus snaps, “It’s not right to take the children’s food [what was meant for the children of Israel] and give it to a dog like you!” Something not very teacherly just broke through and came out of Jesus, something deep inside him. In Jesus’ world, there was nothing commendable about dogs. They were useful for a few things, but especially inside the house, they were a nuisance at the very best. Jesus is not calling this woman a very nice name here, a dog stealing food from the table. Jesus knew there were no Canaanites – and surely no Canaanite women – at God’s table.

Can we believe this, hearing it from Jesus’ mouth? Surely our Christ wouldn’t say something like this! Indeed, there are plenty of ways to explain this away, as an object lesson for the disciples or a test of the woman’s faith. But there’s no tone of voice preserved for us in the Greek or the English. All we have are these words, and they’re not just any words. They’re offensive words, words that cast this woman and her daughter out of the household of God. We don’t want to accept this from Jesus, but there it is. God took on flesh, and God looks a whole lot like us.

Jesus, the Christ, looks just like a first-century Jewish man. A Canaanite, and a woman, is just a half step above being nothing: she’s a dog. This was Jesus’ inheritance from his father and mother, from his aunts and uncles in the flesh. Jesus was a bigot. We can’t necessarily blame Jesus for the view of the world he grew up with, but that view ran deep.

We also carry these views around with us. We have our own pictures of race, or gender, sexuality, or mental capacity. We didn’t invent these pictures. We were born and raised with them, and for a long time we may not have known that there was any other way to see the world. Now that we know better, we might even disagree with ourselves, with these deep pictures, but we still don’t know exactly where we could fit everyone in the realm of heaven. We fear offending someone – someone else, or ourselves – if we stand up too strongly against these views.

The Canaanite woman is able to stand up for herself (and we can be thankful for that, because not everyone is able to stand up for themselves. Jesus shows his bias, and she hits right back, saying, “Even dogs can get crumbs from their master’s table.” She says, “Fine, I’m a dog. But you still can’t say no to me.” She knows that there is too much love to go around for her to be excluded from it. And even Jesus’ inborn bias can’t stand up to the love he incarnates.

Jesus repents of his bigotry – he turns a new way – and recognizes this woman’s faith. This isn’t faith in herself, or in something she’s entitled to. She has faith in God’s amazing goodness, made real in Christ. But that faith is offensive from this source. This faith violates the boundaries of God’s people. It violates parts of Jesus’ Bible, the Bible he grew up knowing and loving, that more than a few times condemned the Gentiles. Jesus could certainly have argued with the woman and backed up his biases with chapter and verse.

But the woman’s faith reached into deep parts of the Bible, all the way to God’s love. Hers was a faith bold enough to say, “Live up to the love and compassion you’re here to make real.” She calls on Jesus to practice who he is, the God who cares for the least of people and reaches out to exiles. This is amazing faith. It survives all the denigration and name-calling you can throw at it, and it’s still strong enough to violate the boundaries of God’s people.

Jesus’ grace here is that even when his sense of right and wrong is violated, he still sees the depth of this woman’s faith. He hears the truth of her experience, and that’s what her faith is: faith is speaking the truth to God. Her faith doesn’t have anything to do with giving the right answers, it’s about telling the truth, no matter how hard it is. The grace is that Jesus is able to adjust the boundaries of God’s people, because here he sees faith beyond the people of Israel.

There’s something powerful here, where God who came to be in flesh with us participates in our truth so fully. And our truth, apparently, is deep enough even to change the mind of the incarnate God. Christ sees a greater vision of God’s realm, simply because the woman told him the truth. Her experience was wrong: she was not one of God’s people, and she had no right to demand this kind of concern from God, but she told the truth anyway.

Her truth was greater than right or wrong. It was greater than our sense of what is proper or improper. This truth, when she told it, was faith that moved mountains. It was faith that moved the bounds of heaven, because after this woman spoke, there were Gentiles in heaven. It’s nothing cozy out of Psalm 133 about how nice it is when all of God’s people get along, but heaven grew that day. It grew because of that bold assertion: “You can’t kick me out of God’s love.” It took (and will take) many others after Jesus to make it real, but it just took people saying, “I know God loves this person too.”

Eventually, we have moved toward Psalm 133, toward the comfortable unity of siblings living together. In this church, we’ve moved toward unity from three separate congregations, and members from many backgrounds. In the same way, we still reach out to those whom society excludes, and especially to those our churches often exclude, to those who are too poor, or come from the wrong families, or who are just too ashamed to be in church. Not all the people we reach out to have the strong faithful voice of this woman, so we have to ask people for their truth.

Life in the church is not always pretty. It’s not always cozy, or maybe it’s too cozy! But we can remind ourselves that I, and we all, and all these people outside this building today, are God’s children, and we belong here. We might feel like dogs, or we might be faced with dogs, but there is still enough at the table for all of us. And every time we tell the truth to God, and to each other, heaven gets just a little bit bigger. And a little bit closer.