One sleepy Sunday, walking back to where we had parked under the Kurrajongs ever since I could remember, I saw Skinny Davidson. We’d just returned from a great holiday away, and come in from the farm for church. Forty years ago that was, and I still remember the pain and the sudden realisation that I had not thought about people like him for a whole two weeks. I had forgotten their existence. I had been free. I felt the crushing disappointment that I had to go back to school tomorrow, and back with people like him, all the nasty little Skinny Davidsons who make our lives miserable.
At church, I had a remarkably free life. I was accepted, I was loved, I was affirmed. I was safe and built up. Life was incredibly good for me. I was never in trouble... well, there was the time my Mum chewed me out for demonstrating judo throws on my little sister! That was the same day we boys had been caught tying booby traps in the nutgrass near the church door, so she was probably a bit over me by then.
Church was an enormous contrast to the rest of my life. I was always conscious of my difference from the town kids. The Army kids on the school bus picked on me at any opportunity. I got in trouble because I was clever. I was picked on because I was mostly well behaved. I was walled out and marginalised by the “in crowd,” always a loner. I felt so many boundaries between me and others. It was not until years later, that I realised what a contrast our church was to all this, and how much it had reflected the way of Christ!
In Matthew 15 we see boundaries being demolished. We see all the barriers which small towns, workplaces, even churches construct being torn down. The Pharisees and Scribes attacked Jesus because his disciples didn't keep the traditions of ritual washing which they felt were so important for being right in the sight of God. These traditions were like the boundaries we build in our towns and organisations, and worse. They were used to fence people off from God.
‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.’ This is what the Pharisees asked. The implication was that Jesus disciples were unclean or defiled, and therefore separate from God.
Jesus cut them down to size. ‘And why do you break the commandment of God... note that: the commandment of God, not just a tradition of the Fathers... for the sake of your tradition? For God said, “Honour your father and your mother,” and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” But you say that whoever tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God”, then that person need not honour the father.’
The thing here was that people would say that all their wealth would go to the temple when they died. This meant ‘ they could get public credit for their love of God and God’s Temple, thus increasing their credibility among the people. Second, since their estate would not have to be given to the Temple until after their death, they were to use that money as they presently chose, and were free from paying any taxes on it either to Rome or to the Jewish political system. So they got the full use of their estate so that they could live as luxuriously as they wished at the expense of their parents or children while they received the high praise of the people for their generosity.’ (from PIUT)
Jesus goes on the attack. People, he said, are more important than rules and traditions! Compassion is more important than rules and tradition. In what we’ve just heard, the Pharisees were saying their traditions and rules were more important than people.
Other rules, not just traditions, but laws from what we call the Old Testament, defined discipleship and holiness and closeness to God, by requiring only certain foods to be eaten. The wrong food would make a person unclean, defiled, and separated from God, and from God’s people. But Jesus said it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.... what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.’
Then Jesus is confronted with the implications of his own teaching. Indeed, we could call this sermon “Jesus meets Jesus!”
They go off to the region of Tyre and Sidon, which is Gentile territory. Just 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.’
Calling the woman a Canaanite accentuates her non-Jewishness. It emphasises she was outside the boundaries. ‘The Canaanites were the ones living in the land of Israel when Joshua led the Hebrews into what, for them, was the Promised Land. For the temerity of resisting this intrusion, the Canaanites became bitter enemies of the Hebrews. But that had been long before. Well over a millenium--a thousand years!--had passed since the Canaanite-Hebrew struggles. The word "Canaanite" had long fallen out of general use. Matthew deliberately resurrects that word to underline the outsider status of the woman--not only is she a woman, not only a foreigner, not only unclean, with a sick, demon infested daughter, but she is an ancient enemy as well.’ (from Progressive Involvement)
But the woman calls Jesus “Lord, Son of David.” Despite all her supposed separation from God, she recognises exactly who he is. She, of all people, has a claim on his attention, by using this form of address. It is far above saying “Sir,” or “Rabbi.” She shows she is more a child of Israel than the Pharisees he has just been arguing with.
But he did not answer her at all. Hebrews 4:15 says Jesus was just like us, but without sin. What follows is difficult. Jesus does not respond to her. And then he dismisses her with an incredibly nasty comment: ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ Dogs were what Jews dismissively called non Jews. “In a Jewish setting dogs were not household pets, but semiwild scavengers who ate unclean food.” Pp139 The People’s New Testament Commentary By M. Eugene Boring, Fred B. Craddock published by Westminster John Knox Press, 2004
The church has often tried to lessen the offense: some say he used the word “puppy,” playfully teasing the woman. Others try and excuse the offence by saying he was “testing” her faith. None of this is true. His response is simply un-Christ-like.
As the pioneer of our faith , Jesus is at this moment showing us the way not to go! He is showing us the cost of the gospel to ourselves- how much following him will challenge the very core of the ideas we have grown up with and think to be true.... Ideas like Jesus belief that he was ‘sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’
The woman said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ 8Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly. Matthew is telling us that Jesus took gospel beyond the ideas he grew up with, beyond Judaism, and across any human boundaries. In this act of healing Jesus told us compassion and kindness triumph over rules, traditions, race, gender, and ideas of holiness. All people are God’s people, no one is cut off. Even Skinny Davidson is one of God's people!
If we want a demonstration of “without sin” we have it here. Once confronted with his shortcomings Jesus immediately changes tack. He sees the implications of what he has been saying, and puts them into practice. Being without sin is not to faultlessly live out some doctrine or rules of cleanliness. It is to practically respond to the implications of the gospel as they become clear to us.
Think about the differences we have in this congregation. We have different gender. Some of us are old, some very young. Some are well off, some are pensioners and struggle to make ends meet. We are widowed, married, never married. We come from England, Scotland, Sudan, Tonga, New Zealand, and maybe other places. Some of us were born here, and for some of us that borning dates back thirty thousand years or more. Most of us are immigrants. Some have been to university, some of us maybe didn’t get past Year 7. These are all just differences; they don’t matter to God.
The thing is, are we making them matter? Are there times when we set boundaries? Do I imply I am more holy than you, because you are a woman? Are you closer to God because you have more money than me... or in a kind of reversal, are you more holy because you are poor?
What Jesus learned was that difference does not matter. What matters is compassion, and the love of God. All my life, where the church has blessed me is where my difference did not matter. Where I was excluded by my difference, the church failed me, and I felt it. Every time I make your difference from me matter, I am failing you, and God. I do not make you less holy; it is I who become the Pharisee!
Christ is the destroyer of all boundaries between us and God and each other. If we are to follow him truly, we too must break the boundaries. Amen.
Andrew Prior, Greenacres UCA, Adelaide
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.
First published at churchrewired.org