Was Jesus being a Jerk?

(I preached the following sermon yesterday.  It was based on Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman in which it sounds like Jesus is implying she is a dog.  Matthew 15:10-28).

The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli was published in 1532, five years after Machiavelli died.  Since that time, there has been a great deal of debate about his work.  Is it a serious treatise designed to guide rulers – the idea being that it is better to be feared than to be loved?  To be Machiavellian where the ends justify the means?  Or is it a work of ironic literature – identifying the worst methods and tactics in the hope that tyrants who should follow his advice would get into trouble with their kingdoms and be overthrown for their ruthlessness?

Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare contains irony.  In his speech, Marc Antony refers to Brutus several times as an “honorable man,” knowing that Brutus aided in the murder of Caesar.

A little more recent – Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury is a dystopian novel, where firefighters burn books rather than extinguish them.  Also ironic was the fact that this book which makes a statement about censorship, was banned for a time in the US.

And in case you would prefer something a little lighter, you can take The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L Frank Baum.  It’s full of irony, not the least of which are the three supporting characters – the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the Lion.  They all wish for traits that they already possess.

Irony.

Irony can be defined as – The use of words to express something different from and often opposite to their literal meaning.

In our Gospel reading today, we hear Jesus in a way we don’t normally think of him.  He’s with his disciples and they come across a Canaanite woman who pleads for mercy from Jesus.  But he doesn’t answer her – he ignores her.  His disciples urge Jesus to “send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” And so he finally addresses her in a way that compares her to a dog.

Is this Jesus being a jerk?  Jesus who forgets to see the image of God in a foreigner?  Jesus who belittles women?  Jesus who forgets his own genealogy which includes foreign women and women of let’s just say questionable moral background?

Or is something missing?  Something like irony.

In order to really understand what’s going on, we really need to draw on the context that leads up to this story.  So feel free to follow along.  Grab a Bible – either a book or digital version and turn to the Gospel of Matthew.

For us it starts in Chapter 14 with the death of John the Baptist.  In verses 12 and 13 we are told that John’s disciples take his beheaded body and bury it and then they went and told Jesus, John’s cousin.  He had to be distraught from such news.  And we are told that he withdrew to a disserted place.  He needed time to mourn.

But the crowds found him and we are told, he had compassion for them and cured their sick.  Last week I talked about Jesus seeing people, seeing the image of God in people, and the disciples seeing a problem.  They wanted Jesus to send the crowds away – they were a problem to be solved.  They couldn’t see the image of God in these people.  Instead Jesus tells his disciples to feed them and then performs the miracle of the mass feeding.

It’s right after this that we get last week’s reading.  Jesus seeks to have alone time again to mourn the loss of John. And we are told in the early morning he came walking on the water in the midst of the storm.  All of sudden the disciples were now the ones in need, not the crowds.  And they cry out to Jesus for help, just like the crowds.  Jesus doesn’t take the previous advice of these disciples by dismissing them because they are a problem to be solved.  Rather, he ends up calling Peter out into the storm.  Isn’t that what we are called to in discipleship?

In the book “The Cost of Discipleship,” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he talks about costly and cheap grace and discipleship.  He wrote, “The upshot of [cheap grace] is that my only duty as a Christian is to leave the world for an hour or so on a Sunday morning and go to church to be assured that my sins are all forgiven. I need no longer try to follow Christ, for cheap grace, the bitterest foe of discipleship, which true discipleship must loathe and detest, has freed me from that. Grace as the data for our calculations means grace at the cheapest price, but grace as the answer to the sum means costly grace.”

So Jesus calls out Peter into the storm in order to see that it’s not the issues that we are to focus on, it is Jesus we are to focus on.  It is the image of God that we are to focus on.  And when Peter is distracted by the storm and looks away from Jesus, he starts to sink.  When our focus is away from Jesus, we sink too.  We sink into despair, hopelessness, idols, and false messiahs that promise much, but deliver nothing.  But Jesus saves Peter.  And then calms the storm – taking care of his disciples.

The chapter goes on to tell us that Jesus comes across more people in Gennesarret and instead of seeing the problem of a crowd of sick people, Jesus allows them to approach him and we are told that all who touched the hem of his cloak were healed.  The disciples didn’t say anything in that instance.

Then we come to Chapter 15 and the scene changes.  It’s the Pharisees and the scribes who confront Jesus now.  They complain about breaking the tradition of the elders – washing hands before eating.  This had nothing to do with what your mom taught you.  It had everything to do with religious rituals – symbolic religious rituals designed to give the impression that one was holy because of what they did. Bonhoeffer would have called these rituals cheap grace because this symbolic act would not aspire to live a different life under grace from the old life under sin.  Your hands would be cleansed, but nothing else would have changed.

And we hear Jesus’ response – “For the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God.  You hypocrites!”  Jesus was harsh on the Pharisees and the scribes.  He was often harsh on people that should have known better.  He had compassion and mercy and patience with those who he didn’t expect to know any better.  This is the difference between how he treats the Pharisees and scribes and how he treated the disciples, the crowds, and foreigners.

Then we get to today’s Gospel where we hear Jesus tell the crowds – those who wouldn’t have known any better – that it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person or makes them unclean.  Instead it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.

The disciples say to him – “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?”  The disciples haven’t learned yet.  All along, they’ve been sinking, focused on the wrong things.  They saw a problem when the crowds gathered and their response was always the same – send them away.  They were in a storm themselves, missing the point that they were just like the crowd who Jesus saved.  And now they are concerned with what the ruling class thought – the very people who exploited their own neighbors with oppressive religious rituals and mandatory financial offerings with rules so complex that it would make the US tax law looks like a children’s book.  They missed the point, over and over again.

But in verse 15 we here this “Peter said to Jesus, Explain this parable to us.”  And Jesus said, “Are you also still without understandings?”  What would it take for them to get it?

Maybe some irony – words designed to express something different from and often opposite to their literal meaning.

We are told that Jesus went up to the district of Tyre and Sidon – modern day Lebanon.  Not in Israel.  And a nameless Canaanite woman from the region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”  Maybe she is shouting because she hasn’t been heard – she is nameless after all.  Maybe she’s shouting because the disciples have their ears and hearts closed to her.

Regardless, Jesus ignores her.  You know who else would ignore her?  The Pharisees and scribes would have – She was unclean after all.  A Gentile.  And a woman.  Their system saw no value in her.  People who are ignored and devalued often have to do things to get the attention of those in charge and maintaining unjust systems.

I wonder if Jesus didn’t answer her at all in order expose an unjust line of thinking, to make it uncomfortable, and to teach his disciples, who consistently didn’t understand, that what he was about was bringing on a new way of being – the Kingdom of God, shalom wholeness, loving one’s neighbor (and all people are our neighbors), and seeing the image of God in others.

It was an opportunity for the disciples to see just how unjust things were and to respond with what Jesus had been teaching them all along.  Instead, they fell back into their blind habits – “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”  She’s a nuisance Jesus.  She’s bothering us Jesus.  Make her go away.  Make the Gentile woman go away Jesus.  Let’s get on the phone and call the police Jesus.  She’s not one of us Jesus.  She’s not worthy Jesus.  She’s a foreigner Jesus.  She’s making us uncomfortable Jesus.  Oh how the world is full of people who shout because others refuse to hear their voice, refuse to see injustice, refuse to see the image of God in others who are different from themselves.

So Jesus uses the line of reasoning that would be expected by a rabbi who encounters an unclean Gentile – rejection.  Jesus probably used the line of argument that the disciples would have been familiar with, the arguments that they had been taught no doubt.  Jesus airs them right there, out in the open.

And the woman takes them in humility.  She says, “Lord, help me.”  She is pleading.  She’s not an issue to be sent away, ignored, or fixed.  She’s a person, made with the image of God.  She’s not a label.  And Jesus cuts right to the heart of this, exposing the unjust line of argument that would have been common – “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  It’s one of the most ironic statements in all of Scripture.  Ironic in how it reads like an insult to the nameless Canaanite woman and yet is really nothing more than exposing an unjust belief system that dehumanizes people and blinds people from seeing the image of God in others.

In response, the woman says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.”  She’s saying, yes Lord, I understand, but you are more than this current unjust system.  You are more than long held beliefs.  You are more than all this.  I have faith that you are bringing a new way to the world and that even those who are dehumanized and ignored will receive what they need.

And Jesus responds, “Woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.”  He didn’t say the disciples were right for wanting to send her away.  He didn’t say they were right for wanting to send the crowds away.  He didn’t say they were right for worrying about what the Pharisees and scribes thought.  No, instead, he acknowledged the faith of this nameless Gentile woman – someone outside the in crowd.  Someone who the society deemed unclean and person non-grata.  Someone who was oppressed and exploited.

Jesus wasn’t just seeing the image of God in this woman.  He was teaching the disciples, too.  He was showing how expansive the Kingdom of God is.  He was showing what Shalom wholeness is about.  He was showing what it means to see the image of God in others.  He was showing what it means to love your neighbor.  He was exposing the unjust systems and thinking of society.

Or to summarize – He was living out what he said back in Matthew 11:28-30 – “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Regardless of whether we are the nameless Canaanite woman whose voice is unheard or ignored, the disciples who are stuck in systems they don’t understand, or the Pharisees and scribes who benefit from such systems, Jesus comes.  Jesus encounters us, exposes injustice, heals us, and teaches us to live into a new way of being – a healthier way, a whole way.  A way that destroys barriers between people and between people and God.  A way that gives us vision to be able to see the image of God in our neighbors – even those neighbors who we ignored or sent away.  A way that allows us to see people to be cared for and loved instead of issues to be solved or dismissed.

A way that draws us right out into the storms of life where so many suffer and are battered by waves of exploitation, oppression, and dehumanization.  A way that celebrates faith and discipleship, and a way of costly grace.  As Bonhoeffer wrote, “Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.  It is costly because it costs a person their life, and it is grace because it gives a person the only true life.  It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner.  Costly grace is the incarnation of God.”

That’s what this Gospel is about – life changing and society changing and world changing encounters with the incarnation of God in Jesus.  Why wouldn’t we want what Jesus is doing and what Jesus is about?  Why wouldn’t we want to see the image of God in all people?  Why wouldn’t we want Shalom – wholeness of all creation and people?  Why wouldn’t we want to love our neighbors – which is one of the key ways we show love of God?  Why wouldn’t we want injustice to end?  Why wouldn’t we want an end to exploitation and oppression in all its forms?  Why wouldn’t we want costly grace that changes our life and our world in incredible ways?  Why wouldn’t we want to be encountered by Jesus?  Amen.

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