Blind Privilege and the Kingdom of Heaven

Matthew 15:10-28

10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, ‘Listen and understand: 11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.’ 12Then the disciples approached and said to him, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees took offence when they heard what you said?’ 13He answered, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.’ 15But Peter said to him, ‘Explain this parable to us.’ 16Then he said, ‘Are you also still without understanding? 17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.’

21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ 24He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ 26He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 27She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ 28Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.

29 After Jesus had left that place, he passed along the Sea of Galilee, and he went up the mountain, where he sat down. 30Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet, and he cured them, 31so that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.

Observe the flow through the last few chapters of Matthew: In Chapter 13 we hear about Jesus' vision of the Kingdom of Heaven. Chapter 14 begins with an alternative kingdom which is the kingdom of Herod, and his feast; exclusion, fear, exploitation and, finally, murder. Then Jesus shows us the feast of the true Kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven in story of the Feeding of Five Thousand men, with women and children, as well; inclusion, safety, healing, and compassion. We are then shown the lordship of Jesus over the whole creation, and over all the chaos of creation, which includes us and our culture,  in the story of walking on the water. And soon, (Chapter 15:32-39) we will see another Feast which is specifically shaped to emphasise the inclusion of Gentiles in the Kingdom of Heaven.

It all leads to this point: God's Kingdom is for all peoples.

In all of this there is a movement from the crowd in general, to the particular behaviour of individuals. Compassion, healing, and love, all become very personal things; none of us are exempt. It is we who make up the crowd, both in our need, and in our nastiness.

This week we begin with Jesus in Jewish territory, although Galilee was considered less orthodox than Judea and Jerusalem. The  whole story is taking place in the world of Jewish orthodoxy, the proper Jewish people are the ones who are being upset by Jesus, and already, by being in Galilee, he is on the margins.

But then he goes to the region of Tyre and Sidon which is not only gentile territory, but is highlighted by Matthew as Canaanite. This is the place, and these are the people, of the old enemy. Mark D. Davis wonders if there may be an Old Testament memory here that Matthew wishes to evoke. In 1 Kings 17, Elisha is sent to Zarephath: "Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you."

Being fed— given life— is central to the expounding of the Kingdom in Matthew. How ironic that a holy man of Israel who goes to Sidon is fed, and that another holy man of Israel refuses (at first) to feed a woman of Tyre and Sidon!  

After the healing of the daughter of the Canaanite woman, Jesus comes back to his territory and travels down the side of the Sea of Galilee.  (15:29) Verse 30 intrigued me. Coming straight after the story of the woman and her daughter, I wondered if he was healing a Gentile crowd!

30Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet, and he cured them, 31so that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.

I found this thought echoed in Mark Davis' post for this week. I had assumed Jesus was still in Gentile territory, but because it says "he passed alongside the sea of Galilee," it's clear he is back home, and I had abandoned the idea.  But like Davis, I felt the rhetorical flow which pushes us to imagine that it is Gentile people who have come to him.

Could it be that the Canaanites, the old archetypal enemy in the Land, have come to Israel not as enemies, but as people coming to worship the God of Israel?   Is this beginning the fulfilment of the prophecies in Isaiah that he nations will come to worship in Jerusalem? (cf Isaiah 2:3, 62:2)

Here in Matthew 15, and also earlier in that section we often call the Sermon on the Mount, there is a contrast with Exodus. In Exodus it is the rule when Moses goes up the mountain that the people are not allowed to go with him; it is too dangerous. For example:

You shall set limits for the people all around, saying, “Be careful not to go up the mountain or to touch the edge of it. Any who touch the mountain shall be put to death. (Exodus 19.12)

But now, when Jesus goes up the mountain and sits down, which means he is teaching with authority, like a Rabbi, and like the New Moses, the people also come up the mountain with him! There is something said here about accessibility to God. In wondering if it's the Gentiles who have come into Israel to worship the true God, we see a moment of transcendent universality. For even the Gentiles come close up the mountain to hear the word of God, and to experience the healing of God. (cf Isaiah 2:3, 62:2)

But this is to get ahead of the story for this week; the healing of the little girl. It's easy to see in the writings of Isaiah and expectation that the nations who it is promised will come to worship in Jerusalem, will kowtow to Israel, rather than worship God. We need the story of this week to set both our moral and our compassionate compass.

But even before the healing of the little girl, and very much concerned with moral and compassionate compasses, is a little pericope which is bracketed out in some Lectionary lists, almost as though it is not so important. Yet it sets the context for what follows. It concerns what defiles a person.  

In Jesus' culture the whole issue about what is clean, and what is defiling, is not about hygiene. We modern westerners import that idea. Being clean or pure is about separation from God, or closeness to God. Being defiled meant that you were separated from God. Jesus teaches the very radical message for his listeners,  that what separates us from God— what keeps us out of Kingdom, is not whether we follow the purity laws of our culture, but what comes out of our mouth.

Matthew again highlights the centrality of eating in all this. It's because what defiles us is so often tied into a lack of hospitality toward others, which works itself out as rejection or judgement of them.

In our Gentile chauvinism, we tend to look with some scorn upon Jewish purity laws. It doesn't occur to us, that we have the very same laws. We have purity laws.

We have agreed ways of behaviour, socially sanctioned ways of behaviour, which mean we get to be included, or not. If we behave in certain ways, then we will be excluded from polite company, and at the back of that, underpinning it all, is an assumption on our part, that our way is God's way. We assume that we are right.

We have only to listen to our religious selves when we are angry and upset about people who don't subscribe to our ways of behaviour, to see very clearly that we are still into purity laws. We so often fall back onto some expressions of the purity and holiness of God who cannot stand our sin and uncleanliness. Our exclusion of people goes back to our idea of God, and to what, and who, God accepts. And like Jesus' people we exclude people not only on the basis of behaviour, but simply for not being like us; for being from a different town, a different race, a different gender, or being LGBTI.

Bishop Cruz, in Argentina, says

that when slavery was accepted, black people weren’t considered human, “they said we black people didn’t have a soul,” because of “prejudices.”

“Just as we were able to leap, in the wisdom of the Gospel, and overcome slavery, is it not the time for us to leap, from a perspective of faith, and overcome prejudices against our brothers who experience same-sex attraction?” the bishop asked.

Prejudice, he said, is a “concept before an experience,” and it’s what blinded generations to slavery, and what blinds Europe today to the “drama of refugees.”

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.

8 “This people honours me with their lips,
  but their hearts are far from me;
9 in vain do they worship me,
  teaching human precepts as doctrines.”

It was, and is, an honouring of God with the lips, whilst our hearts are far from God and not living out what our lips are saying.

What separates us from God, is not whether we fit in with everybody else's rules, but what comes out of our mouth. What separates us from God Is what comes from our heart, from the centre of our being and psychology.

For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.

Defilement, that is, separation from God, is not about keeping particular rules, or believing a particular doctrine— a doctrine is just a rule. It's about the way we behave toward other people. Do we behave with compassion, or do we use other people as objects we can reject and expel, so that we can feel good about ourselves. Murder is simply the final end of the scapegoating that begins with judging and condemning, excluding and expelling. And this is all to make a defined and bounded place where we can imagine we are safe on God's side in a dangerous and frightening world. Yet this, this building up of safety, is what defiles us; that is, it is the thing which separates us from the One Safe Place!

When Peter asks for an explanation of "this parable," Matthew gives us a little rhetorical wink which is  rather like a “verbal hyperlink" being inserted into the text. (In a book we would place the following text, in brackets, after his question: cf Matt. 13:10-17, 34-35.) There is a saying placed between the parable and an explanation, just as there is in Chapter 13. The "hyperlink," or  rhetorical wink, reminds us of how blind we can be. It questions us, and encourages us to wonder if we are really hearing what Jesus is saying— if we really see the point, or if we are the blind ones, and blind guides of the blind?

He answered, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.’

(We are always at risk of falling into the violence that characterises our humanity when we oppose those who disagree with us. "Let them alone…" suggests that there may be a time simply to walk away from the people with him we disagree. There is, of course, always the danger that in walking away we are excusing ourselves from our responsibility to be a witness to the gospel. So this needs to be handled carefully; there is an art to when and how we walks away, and to when we stay and speak.)

So leading into the story of the Canaanite woman and her daughter, we have an extraordinary insight from Jesus: he could see that we are not separated from God by what goes into our mouth— the keeping of rules,  but by what comes out of it. What follows makes it clear that even he did not yet see what this implied, because when he goes into the region of Tyre and Sidon, he is almost defiled.

The woman shouts.  Twice. It's the same word that's used of the disciples crying out in the boat, and in other places in the gospels as well. This is a picture of desperation and fear. She is crying for mercy, rather like the people in the boats which come to Australia.

The situation is strange to us in Australia. The confrontation between the Canaanite woman and Jesus, and his disciples, is being carried out in public; something with which we are deeply uncomfortable. I've seen something like this in Aboriginal communities, where the debate over a particular issue may be carried out in public, even if it is only between two people. The whole community is able to see it, and comment. The participants in the debate, or the complaint, or the fight, are submitting themselves to the corporate judgement of their community.

Which is also a measure of the woman's desperation: she is submitting herself to the mercy of the crowd, which may turn against her.

In her shouting, the woman is putting pressure on Jesus.  She is seeking to publicly shame him into action; it suggests, to someone who has live in a culture of public confrontation, that already he has been ignoring her!

When we meet the story, Jesus begins by being polite. We don't see that. But to ignore her is the "polite" way to behave when someone seeks to start a public argument. If you don't want to be part of the argument, you simply refuse to engage. (Rather in the way we avert our eyes from those annoying beggars who won't sit back against the wall in Rundle Mall and Grenfell Street.

There's a lot of refusal to engage in in these stories. The disciples don't want to engage with the responsibility of the feeding the 5000. They want Jesus to fix the problem, and their suggestion is that he sends people away. The same dynamic happens again in the feeding of the 4000. And in this story what happens? They ask Jesus send the woman away. To expel her, and exclude her. The nascent church is shown resisting Jesus' message that the Kingdom of God is an invitation to all people.

In the theatre of public shaming and the seeking of approval from the audience, the woman "ups the ante." She comes and kneels before Jesus. This is a theological bombshell.

The woman has been crying out, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David." She has been "talking the talk," and "honouring God with her lips," in the way she addresses Jesus. To call him Lord, and Son of David, is a very clear message to Matthew's readers, that a Gentile may worship God! Out of her mouth comes the very opposite of defilement.

And now, from her heart, comes action.  She comes and kneels before Jesus, and begs for mercy and healing.  This is not a woman who honours God with her lips, but whose heart is far from God; this is a woman who truly worships God.

And here is one of the most brutal moments in the New Testament. Because Jesus, full of Jewish male privilege, in the clear sight of all the people, says to her

I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ 26He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’

He descends from Jewish superiority into heartless racism. This is the kind of racism we practice in Australia, where those who beg for mercy and for safety are locked up in concentration camps as pawns in our political games.

"The only people that we do not take are people who come by boat.  So we would rather take a not very attractive guy that helps you out than to take a Nobel Peace Prize winner that comes by boat." (Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull)

But as the confrontation begins, Jesus does not show us a loss of compassion. He shows us blindness to compassion, caused by adherence to racial and religious privilege. This is what culture does. We hear and see— we even preach— but we do not hear and we do not see, for the culture, not God, has told us what to see.

People want to say that Jesus was playfully testing the woman. We hear that the word for dogs is puppies as opposed to some nasty cur that you might find loose in the street. But these are the interpretations of white privilege. They are the interpretations of we who are somewhat discomforted by Jesus, because we have learned a little bit about racism, and we can't possibly have Jesus being a racist. Therefore, we seek to excuse him… because we wish to be excused of our racism as well. After all, if we said at this point that Jesus was being flat out racist, then that would ask some severe questions of us, and our behaviour. Questions that we would rather not face, and certainly questions which we would rather not do anything about, because then we would have to change our behaviour, and perhaps even given up some of our ill-gotten gains and privilege.

And, since we say Jesus is the Son of God, we can't possibly have it seen that he was racist. How could he be the Son of God if he were like that? If he were like that, surely we shouldn't be worshiping him! This story opens an absolute can of worms as it questions our privilege, our assumptions, and our categorising and judging of people, who are different to us.

Do you see the flow that has been happening in Matthew's teaching of the Kingdom of Heaven? It's gone from Jesus family, (Matthew 12:46-50) and how we need to be free of the restrictions of family. It's gone up into the whole structure of the nation, and the kingdom of Herod. And it's coming back down into a challenge about the privilege and the prejudices of our tribe, the church. And, finally, flowing back to us and how we will behave. Privilege and prejudice are our problem, not a problem with other people. And the problem touches everything in our lives.

The glory of the story lies in the fact that Jesus unconsciously, but completely, lived within a culture based around racial privilege. He could see privilege and exclusion expressed toward his people by the empire of Rome. He could see privilege and exclusion expressed within his cultural bounds, and had abandoned it as he saw that it was contrary to Kingdom. He did not yet see that the whole of his culture, like ours, was based on exclusion.

Despite this, Jesus the Human One, was human enough to have his Jewish male privilege with all its racism, pierced by plight of a poor and desperate woman who came from an enemy people. The glory is that Jesus, despite his privilege, was still able to be merciful; able to choose the way of God— and that he did. The glory is that when he understood what he had done, and how he had behaved, he changed instantly, and healed the daughter of the woman; he fed her, just as he had fed his Jewish sisters and brothers.  And perhaps that's the most confronting and scary thing of all about this story, for us. Because what it means is that we have to change if we are going to worship Jesus with our hearts instead of only our lips, or we will be keeping our hearts far from him, and from his way.

At some stage in the history of the church, people saw the connection between this story and the Eucharist. And so in our communions on Sundays we say in my congregation, "What have we to offer; sometimes we feel unworthy even to gather up the crumbs from under your table, but with you is mercy and the power to change us."

For those of us who are worried about Jesus' sinlessness, I would say about this story that what the woman does is confront Jesus with something which will separate him from God, if he's not careful. And Jesus, recognising what he's been doing, changes in a heartbeat, and follows the way of God. That is why the letter to the Hebrews says he is "without sin": unlike us, he does not prevaricate, or make excuses, or avoid the point. He simply changes and goes the way of God, which is love for all people.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested* as we are, yet without sin.  (Hebrew 4:15)

The Lectionary stops there, before the story is over, while Jesus goes back to Galilee,  and goes back up the mountain. He sits in the role of the new and greater Moses, and the people—even the Gentiles, hints Matthew— are safe to go up the mountain of God at last, and come to new Moses and be healed .

There is no privilege in the Kingdom of Heaven. The privilege which exists in the world is privilege invented by us. The order of the world, including the ordering of marriage by the Commonwealth of Australia, is of our making, not God's. Our defining of ourselves is, in reality, our defiling of ourselves. It is our making of rules— rules about who is in and out, about who is right and wrong, and who is loved by God, or not— it is this making of rules to protect the privileged rather than the vulnerable, which separates us from God

Avoiding what Jesus said and did, and repented the moment he saw it, is to seek to make him the racists which we often are. The only way to follow Jesus is to recognise and to repent of our privilege, as he did.

But this is not just a story of racism. As I imply by the comments about marriage equality, the reading this week is a story about exclusion and privilege— 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.

Andrew Prior (2017)

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Also on One Man's Web
Matthew 15 - Breaking Boundaries (2008)
Matthew 15:21-28 - Jesus meets Jesus? (2008)
Matthew 15 - Well bred, or the bread which makes us well? (2014)
Matthew 15:10-28 - A human Jesus (2011)

You can find more reflections on biblical texts on the Lectionary page.



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