Sunday Aug 20 – Proper 15 (20)
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28
We needed a new car when Elias was born. There were now two in car seats and there needed to be room left for our eldest, and the Ford Escort Wagon we were driving was too narrow to accommodate all three.
It was in October of 1999 that I asked my father-in-law whether he was planning to purchase a new vehicle, and if that was the case we would be glad to buy his Ford Aerostar. He said that he was planning on keeping it for a number of years.
We bought a vehicle in January, in April he called and said, “Christoph, when are you coming to pick up the van?”
That was the first time we had two vehicles and our kids thought we were rich. Which, I suppose, we were. It is all a matter of perspective.
I cannot remember what year it was when there was something wrong with the electrical on the van. But I know what weekday it was. It was my day off. I had done the recycling and was enroute to Costco. I was the first car at the stop line but when the light changed, I was unable to move. I turned on the hazard lights, got out, called BCAA, and stood by the side of the road, attempting to let the motorists lining up behind my immobilized van know that they’d have to circumnavigate the obstacle.
What was intended as an act of courtesy was misunderstood by most if not all. Upon seeing me and my attempts to make eye-contact from the side of the road, people rolled up their windows and looked the other way. They mistook me for a homeless panhandler. Meanwhile the line grew longer and longer.
I was shocked by the rejection. Not that I was seeking friendship, but it was the denial of my personhood that got to me. People did not even want to look at me.
I cannot remember whether this happened before I met Lynne, a homeless woman in Abbotsford. Lynne was in her early 50ies and camped close to downtown. Lynne shared a bit of her story with me. One part consisted of having been sexually abused as a child (and the trauma that follows), the other part was about having no place to go. Merchants always told her to move on, did not want her in the vicinity of their store.
A year later I was honoured to speak at her funeral.
I tell you this because these are experiences of rejection, and rejection is what the Canaanite woman in the Gospel experiences. Rejection by the disciples who found her annoying and repulsive: A Gentile they did not wish to have contact with, and rejected by Jesus who says to her that she is second class at best, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” before he compares her and her kind to dogs. It is an awful story.
Perhaps we have experienced such profound rejection. Rejection because our ethnicity, cultural background, age, socio-economic status, perceived intelligence or education, convictions, sexual orientation, or something else, things that in one way or another define us.
Our Gospel passage is preceded by the rejection of Jesus by the establishment, which runs through the Gospels like a red thread.
In Matthew 15 we learn that Jesus’ disciples don’t wash their hands before they eat their bread. I imagine that washing your hands was not as easy in those days as it is with indoor plumbing today. Water had to be carried from a well and was a precious resource. While washing one’s hands was proper, it was much easier for those with privilege than it was for peasants, fishermen, and itinerant preachers.
Jesus answers by calling them on their selective following of the commandments, they washed their hands while they permitted children to support religious institutions instead of their parents. St Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians that you can do all things right and still miss the mark. It’s not about right, it’s about love which is much harder than right.
Jesus can’t do anything right, nor can his disciples. The offence of failing to wash their hands is the excuse to be dismissive of Jesus and his disciples. Jesus is rejected.
Purity, Jesus says, is a matter of the heart and those who are pure do not reject.
Perhaps you know of the Iona Community in Scotland. It is an ecumenical intentional Christian community. The hymn “Will you come and follow me” that we sing come from that community.
There is a skit from Iona that tries to make sense of Jesus’ harsh reply to the Canaanite woman.1 The point the skit makes is not that Jesus is rejecting the woman but that he only says what everyone is thinking.
I was not always convinced this was much more than a clever and encouraging skit.
But I believe the interpretation is correct, because the experience of the Canaanite woman is the experience of Jesus. Jesus is rejected. And unlike the rest of us, he does not kick the next person in line.
Jesus is God and God came in Jesus to end rejection. If Jesus had in fact intended to reject the woman, he would only have mirrored us and done what we do. But Jesus is greater and in following him leads us beyond ourselves, so much so that we do not have to reject others even while we may disagree with them.
There is another bit that struck me in the story. When Jesus says to the woman, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” he speaks as if there was only so much healing, only so much of God’s power, God’s grace and mercy in such short supply that they must be rationed.
This, too, follows the same pattern of irony. Just as Jesus the rejected does not pay back with the same coin, so there is no limit to God’s mercy and grace, love, and healing.
It is us who think of limited resources, forgetting that it is God who provides. It is us who think of scarcity when God offers abundance, it is us who create barriers when God tears down walls.
At the end of the story stands an outsider who shows the church that faith makes it possible to overcome rejection without rejecting others and to believe in God’s abundance in the midst of a world that prefers to think of economic necessities rather than divine gift.
Of course, we are the Gentile woman, we are the strangers who have become God’s friends, we are the descendants of migrants, we are the ethnically divergent, yet Jesus has has provided a place for us at his table and in his church.
1Present on Earth – Worship Resources on the Life of Jesus, Iona Community, Wild Goose Worship Group, Chicago. Il 2002: GIA, “Racist or Redeemer” – page 99ff