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Sometimes, Grace is a Challenge

A sermon on Matthew 15:10-28

[For an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Charlie Firth on Unsplash]

For a long time, I really hated this gospel story.

Or, to be more accurate, I hated part of this story. The first half is just fine, helpful even! Jesus’s teaching about what it is that defiles a person – that it has to do with what is in our hearts, and revealed through our speech, rather than our conformity to legalistic religious rules – that is the kind of teaching that feeds my faith. It pushes back against misguided religious habits of morality policing and control through shaming. And it offers us a better benchmark for evaluating the state of our hearts: what does our speech reveal?

Does it reveal disregard for others’ lives (murder)? Or a willingness to betray our commitments (adultery)? Or a prioritizing of our own pleasure and satisfaction, regardless of the consequences (fornication)?

Does our speech show a readiness to claim things for ourselves to which we have no right (theft)? Or to betray the truth, even if it harms others (false witness)? Or to assassinate another person’s character (slander)?

“These are what defile a person,” Jesus says. These are the instincts and attitudes that nurture sin in our hearts. And our willingness to give them voice shows that we are either unaware of how contrary they are to God’s will, or – worse – that we don’t care.

This is a teaching that I can apply in my daily life in ways that actually change my daily life. I can ask myself “what does my speech reveal about my heart?” and when it reveals a problem, I can confess it and ask God to uproot it! This is in the kind of gospel that breathes life and strength into my faith….

It’s the second half of the reading that poses the problem: The problem being that Jesus acts like a jerk!

He and his disciples travel to a Gentile area, but when one of the local women approaches him, begging for help for her child that only he can give… He first ignores her, then he tells her that he only helps his own ethnic group, and when she persists, he insults her with a racial slur, calling her and her child dogs!

What is the world is going on here?!

Where is the Jesus who regularly crosses boundaries to spend time with outsiders, and is moved with compassion even when he is worn out and grieving? How could he so dehumanize this woman who is coming to him for help?

Now, I’ve heard justifications that suggest he is just using this interaction as a teachable moment for his disciples… he's giving voice to the prejudice in their hearts, in order to teach them that these prejudices are wrong.

But, that’s not exactly how the story goes. He ignores the woman before the disciples express any negative reactions to her pleas. And even if he were reading their minds, and setting up this conflict on purpose, how is that any better? That means he is just using this desperate woman as an object lesson – subjecting her to humiliation and dehumanization in order to teach his own friends in a sneaky, “gotcha” way. So, that means Jesus is being a jerk to the woman AND to the disciples!

It kind of lets Jesus off the hook for the racist statement, because he doesn’t actually believe it, but that’s problematic too. Because it suggests that it’s OK to use racist language as long as you “aren’t really a racist.”

That argument reeks of the reductionistic, good-bad binary[1] way of talking about racism that assumes there are just two groups of people: racists who are “bad,” and non-racists who are “good.” And when we reduce racism to that binary, our goal becomes proving that we (and Jesus) are “good” rather than focusing on preventing the harm done by racism.

So, no! I don’t think it helps make this story more comfortable by twisting it around to convince ourselves that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said. That’s why, for a long time, I really hated this story.

But I don’t anymore.

Now I find this story – the story of Jesus' confrontation with the Canaanite woman - incisive, and challenging, and deeply life-giving.

My perspective changed when I let go of my need to see Jesus as above correction. Because correction is exactly what Jesus receives in the story that we actually have (rather than the story that we expect, or that we want). In the story that we actually have Jesus does something problematic. He fails to show compassion to someone in need, and his words reveal why: He has a limited view of his own mission, assuming it is only for the people who share his heritage, and he lets that unthinking prejudice limit the ways that he offers grace. He does, in fact, say something racist to a person who came to him for help.

But the target of his dehumanizing dismissal refuses to meekly accept his denial. She defiantly calls him out. She brilliantly uses the metaphor of the table – the place where he has pushed boundaries in his ministry among the Jews – to call him to push a little harder and make space for her, and her child.

Her defiance and strength in the face of his prejudice is inspiring… and it is so powerful that Jesus accepts her correction. He hears it, and he learns from it, and he praises her.

Imagine that! A man of authority, one who is hailed as a teacher and leader, says something unkind and racist. And when the foreign woman he has just denigrated pushes back, he doesn’t get defensive or try to justify himself! Instead, he honors her. He holds her up as an example of faith - the highest praise he can give - and he gives her the help that she had been asking for.

She IS an example for us. She models persistence, and the courage to reject attitudes and behaviors of exclusion. She demanded that her voice be heard, even by someone who had shown her that he thought of her as less-than because of her race. She is an example that we can all look to when we see something wrong – an example of how NOT to give up, and how to call people to live up to the moral values they claim to hold. She is a shining example of strength in the face of hate, as she is an example of faith.

And Jesus...he is an example of a different kind. And example of what to do when we receive a challenge like the challenge from the Canaanite woman. Even though Jesus starts out a little too human for our comfort, the example he offers us is in how to switch course. How to hear a challenge that exposes our prejudices and actually take it in, and let it change us for the better.

Jesus started this reading teaching his disciples about how the words of our mouths show what is in our hearts, and when the words of his mouth revealed something ugly, he faced that lesson. He did not “take offense” as the religious leaders did when he called them out. Instead, he took the note. And he shifted his attitude and his behavior.

Debie Thomas describes it this way:

“Jesus shows us – in real time, in the flesh – what it means to grow as a child of God. He embodies what it looks like to stretch into a deeper, truer, and fuller comprehension of God’s Good News. In the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman, the Son of God himself must face his own blind spots, his own rudeness, his own prejudices, and allow himself to be opened to the full, glorious, and uncomfortable implications of the Gospel.”[2]

The full, glorious, and uncomfortable implications of the gospel are that grace is NOT about perfection, it’s about growth.

And this IS incredibly GOOD NEWS! It means that when we are faced by our own mistakes – whether they be failures of compassion, or unconscious racism, or any of the million ways that we fall short of God’s good will – we don’t have to get defensive. We don’t have to try to justify ourselves or deny the ways that we have caused harm. If even JESUS could make mistakes, then surely we do. And if he could change course when confronted with his failure, then that is our path as well. The willingness to be challenged, and to change, is the way grace breaks through.

Jesus warned that “every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted,” and that sounds scary. It makes us want to protect ourselves.

But as long as we are willing for our hearts to be weeded, it’s good news. It means we can be freed. It means we can grow. Just like Jesus did.

Thanks be to God

[1] For more analysis of this framework of the “good-bad binary,” see the work of Robin Di’Angelo.


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