Following Daily in the Steps of Jesus
For many years, the September edition of our former diocesan newspaper, The Pennsylvania Episcopalian, contained several pages of information about nominees for diocesan offices of one kind or another. Those little blurbs contained basic information about the nominees like the names of their congregations and any other things they had done in and for the church. One year when I was running for reelection to the Standing Committee, a group that is sort of like a Vestry for the diocese, I got my form to fill out in the mail one day. That it came by snail mail should give you an idea of how long ago that was! It only took two or three minutes to fill out the whole thing…except for “the question.” You see, the church in this diocese had lived through some pretty tumultuous times over the last decade or two partly because we were debating, often acrimoniously, about the same kinds of things that the culture was arguing about. Because of those ongoing issues, another question had been added to this short candidate information sheet. “The question” asked those who were seeking office to state in 50 words or less what we saw as the main issues facing the church then. The question brought me to a halt that day as I tried to get the thing done. Because of the situation unfolding in our diocese at that time, the question for me ended up being, did I think the same issues were at the forefront then as I had just four years earlier. I found that a really tough call to make.
In the gospel today, we have two compelling vignettes of Jesus. In the first is a teaching which follows from an incident we do not read about this morning. In that prior scene, the scribes and Pharisees, the arbiters of faithfulness in the Jewish tradition of Jesus’ day, have come out of their bastion in the city of Jerusalem and into the land of Gennesaret where Jesus continues his ministry of healing. They’ve come to challenge him about the failure of his disciples to keep the traditions of the elders. In a less than strategic move on their part, they choose to focus on the rather mundane failure to wash hands before eating. Jesus, never one to waste his time arguing about stuff that doesn’t matter, replies with a question of his own. “So we’re not keeping the traditions of the elders, eh? Well why don’t you explain why you break the commandment of God for the sake of your traditions?”
It’s after a brief but forceful tirade about their hypocrisy that he turns his attention to the crowd and instructs them about defilement as we hear this morning. “It’s not what you eat,” he says, “it’s who and how you are.” The disciples, acting as public relations officers and perhaps hoping to exercise a little damage control, warn him that he’s offended some pretty powerful people. Then, at Peter’s request, he expands rather graphically on what he’s said using words like “sewer.” What is of ultimate concern to God is what is in our hearts because that is what gives rise to our words and actions. Pretty easy stuff for us to understand…and so Jesus-like.
I think it’s as the action moves from Gennesaret to the region of Tyre and Sidon that you and I begin to be challenged. In this alien land he’s almost immediately accosted by a Canaanite woman. As a female pagan she threatened every notion of purity that Jewish tradition held so dear. Not only that, she’s unremittingly irritating. Undeterred by his lack of response, she keeps after him, badgering him to pay attention to her need. The public relations guys jump into the fray again, saying, “You really need to get rid of her. She’s embarrassing us.” In a kind of reversal, Jesus heeds their advice this time and makes what, to our ears, is a most un-Jesus-like comment. “I wasn’t sent to yourkind,” he tells the imploring mother. Taking advantage of this opening, she drops to her knees in the universal posture of supplication and begs, “Lord, help me.” His next comment strikes us as even more cruelly indifferent and demeaning. “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Where is the Jesus we know? He doesn’t sound much different than the scribes and the Pharisees he’s recently dismissed as hypocritical blind guides.
As I think about the issues facing the church today, issues that often have to do with the place of women…yes, parts of the church are still arguing about that…and issues that have to do with human sexuality, it seems to me that the debate about “purity” is as alive and well today as it was in Jesus’ day. As we debate the interpretation of scripture, it seems to me that we’re having a conversation that’s not a whole lot different than the ones Jesus used to have with the scribes and the Pharisees. That’s why the story we hear today about a woman with no standing to ask anyone much of anything beseeching the emerging Messiah to heal her daughter is so important.
One of the attributes we ascribe to God is immutability or unchangeability, and as an integral part of the Godhead, Jesus the Christ surely shares in that unchangeability. But it seems to me that Jesus the man, sharing fully in the limitations of human existence by becoming one of us, had his assumptions challenged and his understanding clarified as he journeyed through life just as surely as you and I do. So when this woman replied with a logic that could not be argued with by saying that even dogs get to forage under the table, he chose to recognize the truth in what she said, changed his mind and granted her request. In that moment and others like it, he allowed the scope of his mission to be enlarged beyond the historical parameters of the Jewish people and his own human biases to encompass all of humanity.
In the collect for today, we acknowledge that God has given us his only Son to be an example of godly life, and we ask for the grace to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life. As we think about what that means in our own lives…and in the life of St. James’ Church where we seek to participate in God…we would do well to remember that Jesus was focused but open to enlarging his vision. Jesus was resolute but not rigid. Like those scribes and Pharisees, and even Jesus himself as he encountered the Canaanite woman, when we allow tradition to trump God’s commandment to love unconditionally, we may well find ourselves replacing compassion with condemnation and exchanging radical hospitality for exclusion and rejection. We who pray this day to be Jesus-like must resolve, by God’s grace, to put away all those traditions, no matter how dear they are to us, and put away those attitudes, no matter how deeply embedded they are. We have to put away any and all traditions and attitudes which, in fact, make us un-Jesus-like.