Rules…we have a love/hate relationship with rules. Rules of the road, rules of etiquette, rules on the football field and in the classroom. We grow up with rules we hate, then learn to understand many of them only to turn around and use them with our children. But life without some form or organization would be chaos. The Lord of the Flies tells of such a world where boys marooned on an island with no one in charge and no rules, organization or religion live in chaos that turns to devastation and destruction. This last week in England has been one of upheaval as people riot and push beyond the rules of decency to destroy property and life, and pull the country down into fear and depression. No, we need rules. Like babies who thrive on a consistent routine of waking, eating and sleeping, we live more freely when we know the parameters of acceptable behavior.
In first century Jewish religious teaching, long lists of rules about what and when things could be touched or eaten dominated religious and family life. The religious purity of a person was determined by how well they followed the dietary laws that controlled the washing of hands before a meal and what you ate. The 613 laws found in the first 5 books of the Old Testament were the touchstone of true faith, and throughout scripture we see people being judged according to their compliance with the law. Jesus, however saw things quite differently, which got him into trouble over and over again. He was more concerned with what comes out of our bodies that can defile and hurt others than with what goes in. Herbert O’Driscoll writes that in this story Jesus’ intention, as it always was, “is to locate the source of spiritual life deep within the human heart. He is not prepared to see it placed outwardly in actions, ritual, and gestures, or in the official designation of some things as clean and others as unclean…[Jesus] is not saying, however, “that it is wrong to have some rules… But he sees as misguided the assumption that, when we get all the rules right we can claim to have achieved some moral high ground, merely by such regulated behavior.” Jesus is more concerned with something more important – what is within us. Because it is what is within us that determines our actions and our agenda for human life.
Yesterday’s lunch is gone forever according to Jesus. “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” But our hurtful words and unkind actions are not washed down the sewer like yesterday’s lunch. They live in the hearts and minds of those we have offended and in our own psyches where we store, deep down within us, the experience and knowledge of our destructive behavior.
Sallie McFague who teaches theology at Vanderbilt University writes in her book, Models of God, “ ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me’ [is a] taunt from childhood [that] is haunting in its lying bravado. It is the ‘names’ that hurt: one would prefer sticks and stones. Names matter because what we call something, how we name it, is, to a great extent, what it is to us.” The Buddha said it this way. “All that we are is a result of what we have thought.” Our actions result from the way we think about others and ourselves. Though we are taught to be polite to our elders and to eat with the correct fork, what really matters, Jesus says, is your inner motivation for your actions. It is not just how you treat people but the “why” of it as well.
It is an interesting juxtaposition then between Jesus’ reprimand of the Pharisees and the story of the Canaanite woman, and I read her story as a challenge to Jesus to practice what he has just preached. It seems he had forgotten the 2nd part of the great commandment to love your neighbor as yourself.
In the second part of our story this morning we find Jesus in the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon, where Israelites were careful never to walk alone. There was nasty bigotry and stereotyping between Israelites and Canaanites. Jesus and the disciples paid full attention to their surroundings as they walked…waiting for trouble, and trouble did come in the form of a resident woman shouting at Jesus. The reason for her shouts was not hatred and bigotry but came from her desperate need to find a cure for her sick daughter.
“Some roles trump all others,” writes Dock Hollingsworth. “Yes, she is a Gentile, Yes, as a citizen of Tyre and Sidon she probably worships Herod. Yes, she is a Canaanite. However she is also a mother with a troubled child, and in the desperate cry of a concerned parent, she petitions the one who has a reputation for healing the sick.” It is then that this woman proceeded to take the bull by the horns, a woman brazen enough to start a conversation with a man, in order to change his heart. She calls out to Jesus, “Lord…have mercy…my daughter is tormented by a demon.” Jesus ignores her. He responds with complete silence.
In this story we see a Jesus we don’t particularly care for. Who is this man we think of as pure compassion who finally turns to this desperate woman and calls her a dog and says he won’t help because he was sent exclusively to be the messiah for the Jews? Preacher Gail Ricciuti writes, “this Jesus is a problem if your theology demands perfection in a savior. I shudder at his initial responses,” she continues, “but in the end this incident endears him to me more. Here is no brittle, paper-doll Messiah, but one challenged as we are: one who shares our human condition and is not ashamed to correct himself.” Then, this Son of David remembered who he was. He came back to himself in a new way. He admitted, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, that he had been wrong and had his mind changed. He realized that he had not been practicing what he preached.
John and I recently lost our beloved dog Sydney after 13 years, and after 6 weeks of life without our dog we decided, or I should say I decided, to start looking for a new dog. I searched the rescue sites on the internet and found a dog in Grand Rapids, MI. I called the shelter and spoke with Kim, the woman in charge. Yes, the dog was still there but he needed to have shots and get his matted hair washed and cut. We also needed to fill out the online application that had to be approved. She would let us know by the next Monday.
Anxious to see the dog and acting on an impulse bordering on irresponsibility, I got John to start driving to Grand Rapids on that next Monday morning. I assured myself that we would certainly be approved; that Kim would be thrilled to have us adopt the dog. I had given Kim my cell phone number, and as we approached Gary I got a phone call from her. I told her we were on our way. There was silence on the other end for a moment or two as Kim, I later realized, gathered her thoughts and words together. Very politely and with a gentle tone of voice she told me that I couldn’t come up and get the dog. I was rushing the process, she told me, and there was no way she was going to give me the dog without going through the proper steps. In no uncertain words she said she wouldn’t compromise the reputation of the shelter by giving me a dog that wasn’t healthy and groomed and without a formal approval of our application. I pulled the car over to the side of the road. How could I turn around now? I was mentally prepared to get the dog. Could I go home
empty handed without being angry and frustrated with Kim? Then I got it. My anxiety and desire were keeping me from the very behavior I knew was responsible and courteous. I took a deep breath and told Kim I got it. Of course, she had to look out for the shelter’s reputation, and I respected her desire to make every adoption comply with her standards. We would wait a week and come up the next Monday on my day off.
What I realized, by the time we had turned around and gotten back home, was that Kim had done me a favor. She had done God’s work in my life. She pointed out my selfish and compulsive behavior in a kind but forceful way. I had rushed my husband into making this decision and now we had time to think more clearly about it and be on the same page about it together. She gave me my comeuppance. Her words were the just desserts of my actions.
Commentators on the text of Jesus and the Canaanite woman make various attempts to relieve the story of Jesus’ embarrassing behavior with a variety of convoluted interpretations. Some same Jesus was testing the woman’s faith, others that Jesus was struggling in his mind with the idea of having a mission to the Gentiles as well as the Jews. Still others say that Jesus was being satirical. But I think this story is one where Jesus got his comeuppance. [The Canaanite woman] “forced this Jew to grow, to become more than he was and yet knew himself to be,” O’Driscoll comments. In a deep and wonderful sense she is calling Jesus towards what he must become – someone beyond all lines and exclusions and limitations, someone for the world. At this moment she is being his angel, perhaps even his savior.”
This is a story of Jesus in all his humanity. If you have trouble identifying with the baby in a manger surrounded by angels or Jesus suffering on the cross, perhaps here is someone you can understand and love. Jesus is fully God and fully human as well, yet through this gutsy woman he is forced to take a good look at himself and change his mind. It’s not the first time that God changes his mind in the Bible. God changes God’s mind in story after story, for example, when he decides not to destroy the whole earth but save Noah and his family or when Abraham argues God out of destroying Sodom. Too often we think of God in terms of the Greek categories of omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence or as a rule keeper who watches over and judges our every action. But these two stories of Jesus reveal a God who wants us to live, not just as rule keepers, but out of a genuine commitment to love our neighbor and as people who listen to one another in humility and with a willingness to change. God is not static. God is creatively working to create communities where people are open to something that is different, new and sometimes challenging.
The Canaanite woman became the spokesperson to Jesus to bring about an experience of divine grace. She became the model voice from beyond the boundaries who staked her claim on the mercy and generosity of God. She believed Jesus could heal and would heal her daughter. She convinced Jesus to break the rules in order for him to live out his mission to the world. She grasped what the disciples and the Pharisees could not understand, that the good news of God’s love belongs to everyone. Jesus responded to her challenge. May we follow both his and her example.