By Linda Rex
August 16, 2020, Proper 15—If there is one thing we are good at as human beings, it is finding ways to differentiate ourselves from other people. We seem to find ways to elevate ourselves while demeaning others, or including ourselves while excluding others. One of the worst things we as Christians do so often is to use the Word of God and our religious faith to create unhealthy boundaries between ourselves and other people.
The one place where we as followers of Christ should find common ground is at the table of thanksgiving—communion. Here we each acknowledge anew with gratitude that we participate in Christ’s death and resurrection, and that we find our true life in him. Here every person who trusts in him is bound to the community of faith, no matter his or her race, ethnicity, gender, economic or social status, or any other type of differentiation we might come up with.
The gospel passage for August 16th tells the story of a Canaanite woman who came to Jesus seeking deliverance for her demon-possessed daughter. Unfortunately for her, orthodox Jewish people of that day believed they had to separate themselves from the Gentiles. This meant she was excluded from any connection with the Jewish rabbis or synagogues. The fact that she sought help from Jesus showed an understanding and appreciation for who Jesus was that the Jewish authorities had denied. They ridiculed any possibility that Jesus was who he said he was—the Messiah.
Previous to his encounter with this woman, Jesus had been talking to the Pharisees. They had criticized Jesus’ disciples for not observing careful ceremonial washing before they ate. Jesus pointed out their nitpicking observation of their traditions actually prevented people from obeying God and loving others as they were supposed to. For example, they said if a person gave to the temple coffers the support which was meant for the care of their dependent parents, that it was acceptable. But Jesus said that doing so broke God’s command that parents be honored and cared for by their children.
Later Jesus explained to his disciples when they were alone that it wasn’t what a person put into their bodies that made them unclean, but what came out of their hearts. Whatever we eat eventually gets used or discarded by our bodies. But what comes out of us in what we say and do is often what defiles us. He said, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders.”
Matthew, in his gospel, says that after this conversation with the Pharisees, Jesus left Galilee and made his way into the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon. Was he trying to avoid more of these provocative conversations so he could focus on teaching his disciples? Perhaps. But what is interesting is that their next experience was meeting this Canaanite woman crying out to Jesus, “Have mercy on my daughter, Son of David!”
Here we have someone who is excluded from the Jewish fellowship who is calling Jesus “Son of David”, a title only appropriate for the Messiah. Why did she call him this? Was she a Gentile proselyte? In any case, she seemed to be much more in agreement with who Jesus was than the Pharisees were.
The disciples, though, seemed not to have learned much from their previous experience with the Jewish leaders. The Jewish scriptures spoke of the day God’s salvation would be known among all nations. A foreigner coming to Jesus and asking for mercy was welcome—it said so in the writings they read in the synagogue. But it was their traditions regarding the Gentiles which created the barrier between them and caused them to resist including this woman in what they were doing.
Yes, Jesus was sent first to his people, Israel or the Jews, but not to the total exclusion of others. Jesus came to his people first so that when all was said and done, every human being would have a place at his table—all could come to him in faith and be received.
Jesus’ comment to the woman about taking the table food and feeding the dogs could have been an insult. But she knew that in a family, even the pet dogs had a place at the table, picking up the scraps off the floor. Even today, we often consider our pets to be part of our family, included in our life and worthy of at least a few choice leftovers after the meal. Speaking in this way, the woman touched Jesus’ heart, and so, in compassion, he healed her daughter.
Jesus remarked on her faith. While the disciples were busy trying to avoid having her bother the Messiah, the Messiah was busy being who he was—the bringer of salvation to all people, both Jew and Gentile. She trusted him to be compassionate and gracious, and so he was. She asked for mercy and she received it, because she trusted him to provide it.
What joy there must have been as this woman’s daughter was finally free from what had brought such chaos, pain, and suffering in her family! What Satan had meant to steal, kill, and destroy was replaced by the love, healing, and mercy of God—the renewal of the family bonds. This was but a small reflection of Jesus’ eternal intimate bond of love with his heavenly Father in the Spirit.
Perhaps it would be helpful to take a few moments to reflect on what barriers we may have at work in our lives which need to be replaced by love, compassion, and mercy. Who do we know who needs the tender touch of our Savior? Perhaps instead of criticism, condemnation, or isolation, today we may offer prayer, understanding, and a kind word or smile. What barrier can we replace today with God’s love and grace?
Holy Spirit, grant us the heart of Jesus towards each and every person we encounter in our lives. Enable us to see them as you do—one whom you came for, Jesus—one whom you love, Abba. Grant us the grace to love our enemies, to do good to those who treat us ill, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. This is only possible through you, Jesus, and by your Spirit. In your Name we ask this. Amen.
“Also the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, | To minister to Him, and to love the name of the LORD, | To be His servants, ‘every one who keeps from profaning the sabbath | And holds fast My covenant; | Even those I will bring to My holy mountain | And make them joyful in My house of prayer. | Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar; | For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.’ | The Lord GOD, who gathers the dispersed of Israel, declares, ‘Yet others I will gather to them, to those already gathered.’” Isaiah 56:6-8 NASB
“That Your way may be known on the earth, | Your salvation among all nations. | Let the peoples praise You, O God; | Let all the peoples praise You. | 4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy; | For You will judge the peoples with uprightness | And guide the nations on the earth. Selah.” Psalm 67:2-4 NASB
See also Matthew 15:21–28.
By Linda Rex
I was reading in some Karl Barth tomes this morning and got caught up in his writings regarding the kingdom of God. I agree with Barth that if any of us truly caught the vision of the kingdom Jesus brought and illustrated for us here on earth and began to live it, we would turn the world upside down—or more likely, end up dead because we so radically opposed all that society stands for.
Indeed, as Barth pointed out, it would be almost suicidal in our society to live in the way Jesus lived—always turning the other cheek, living free to move about rather than owning things, caring for the outcasts and rejects, and refusing to conform to the religious and cultural traditions of his people. He honored the governments and institutions of his time, but at the same time, he never yielded up his position as Lord of the cosmos and his right to rewrite the God-concepts and societal norms of his peers.
Thinking about all this makes me wonder if we have ever truly come to grips with what it means that Jesus came to this earth as the king of a divine kingdom. What does it mean that someone who is other than us became one of us, lived as we did, and yet lived and died in a way none of us would or could live and die, so that one day we could share the world he came from?
Seriously, that almost sounds like a script from “Ancient Aliens” (no criticism or ridicule intended). Indeed, while his followers were anxiously preparing for the invasion of a political kingdom, Jesus had something totally different in mind. While they were thinking in terms of positions of power and who would be the greatest, Jesus was hammering out what it would take to transform a human being into the image of God he or she was meant to reflect. Jesus was working on a transformation of our very being while everyone else was thinking about getting ahead in the human sphere.
Our culture today for the most part is wrapped around our marketplace, whatever form that may take. What we own, or what we want to own and how we will pay for it, consumes our attention. Our culture is money and power driven, whether we like it or not.
I can almost see Jesus with his scourge chasing out our cash cows and other financial obsessions. It has infected the church, just as it did many centuries ago, and has created so much grief in the process. How often we have had to be pained by the sight of another Christian leader infected with greed, falling from grace! It breaks my heart, especially since I know the capability of my own human heart to fall prey to that disease.
I’m thrilled to see and hear that God through the Spirit is calling people everywhere into relationship. Relationships should always supersede the demands of the marketplace. If we can keep the reality of who we are and who we were created to reflect foremost in our minds, then surely all the rest will fall into perspective.
Maybe, instead of constantly collecting more things for ourselves, we could follow the lifestyle of a friend of mine. Her policy was that whenever she was given something, or something nice came her way, it was because God had someone in mind for her to give it to. Believe me—I saw this in action and it was a beautiful sight to see!
This is like the kingdom of God as expressed in the early Christian church. The believers shared so that no one was in need. No, it wasn’t a communal society. But it was a fellowship, a communion. They loved and cared for one another so much and so well that no one had to go without. In the process, others noticed and became caught up in the experience with them.
Jesus’ effort to change the world was accomplished through the changing of our very being as humans. His work through his life, death, resurrection and ascension has been and is life-changing. The kingdom of God is a kingdom that crosses all human kingdoms and cultural boundaries. It is open to each and every person because the gift of the Holy Spirit, who Jesus sent to transform human hearts and minds, is available to everyone.
Perhaps if we were less willing to content ourselves with the trappings of this human life and sought instead to embrace the gift of radical grace in the Holy Spirit, we might find ourselves experiencing in fuller measure the kingdom of God now in our lives and in our culture. Bonhoeffer, in his book “Ethics” talked about how important it is that the body of Christ influence its culture and the government of the world in which it lives. We don’t try to create a theocracy so much as we live out the kingdom of God in our being, and that living it out in all we think, say and do will dramatically transform the world around us.
The path to the death of our human kingdoms and the darkness in our world is the path that Jesus took on our behalf. Through death and resurrection, Jesus ended the kingdom of darkness and in its place, inaugurated the kingdom of God.
At some point we’re going to need to release our grip upon the things of this human existence and begin to embrace the values and lifestyles of God’s kingdom. And the only way that will happen is through our sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection. We express this symbolically through water baptism, and we partake of Christ’s life in an ongoing way as we eat the bread and wine of the eucharist table. As we daily turn away from all the things we depend upon and idolize, and turn to Christ instead, we experience the life and death of Jesus in our human existence.
Living in the reality that there is a world or kingdom that is ours that is beyond this life enables us to hold loosely to the things of this human existence. Accepting that one day they will all be gone and all that will be left is what has been built in the spiritual sphere, in our relationships with God and others, helps us to stay focused on what really matters.
One day this will all be gone—and it could happen in this next moment—and what will be left? Just ashes? Or a beautiful being refined by suffering and glowing with love and grace? It’s worth considering.
Father, thank you for sending your Son Jesus to establish a new, glorious kingdom that includes all of humanity. Thank you for sending your Holy Spirit to dwell in human hearts and to bring to pass a transformation of our lives and our world. Forgive us, God that we resist you and deny you entrance to our hearts and lives, and instead fill them up with clutter of every shape and size and shut you out. Grant us the grace turn to you and to reject anything that may stand in the way of a loving relationship with you and with others. May we trust you to finish what you have begun in us through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever.” Revelation 11:15