Proper 15 2017: Learning From A Perfectly Human and Imperfect Jesus

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Link to text for preaching (Gospel of Matthew): http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=155

This sermon, like the story in Matthew that we heard,
is bound to challenge an assumption or two
and make some, if not all of us, uncomfortable…
maybe even angry.
You can let me know.

You and I are sealed in an invisible,
tamper-resistant chrysalis
enveloping us as a second skin.
Most of the time we don’t even know it.

We get out of bed,
shower and dress,
eat a bowl of gruel
or feast on a sumptuous breakfast,
and all the time we are surrounded
by this soft, pliable membrane
so strong it protects us
from innumerable injuries
and incalculable harm.

This invisible substance
is a synthetic weave of
thousands and thousands and thousands
of ordinary assumptions.

Many of the assumption we wear were inherited,
given by others who feathered our nest with them.
Some of the assumptions were given to us
by contemporaries, and some
garnered from our own personal experience.

Let me throw out a few easy examples.
A bank is a safe place to keep money.
A gray sky means rain.
Certain kinds of people should be avoided.
Kale is good for you but tastes terrible.

Our assumptions may or may not be true
but we act as if they are.
They often form the lines of the coloring book
we live within, or try to anyway.
We make thousands of assumptions every day
without even thinking about it –
we have to in order to get by.

Some people navigate their entire lives
by the assumption that people are out to get them.
Other people assume everyone deserves
the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise.

The fact is, neither assumption is factual;
neither one universally true or false.

Some assumptions are stronger
or more elastic than others,
while some are more dominant
even than our own experience.

For example, there is an age-old,
Christian theological assumption that God is perfect,
and divine perfection means
God is unchanged and unchanging.
But stack that up against our scientific
and flesh and blood experience of Life:
Every thread of knowledge we have
about the Creation,
is that everything changes.
We know, in fact,
that life is evolving,
forever adapting,
and even mutating.
So, if the very nature of the Cosmos
to which God gave birth,
is change,
then the assumption that God is unchanging
seems odd.

An unchanging, unchangeable God
would defy our experience.
But still, it is a pernicious assumption
to which popular Christianity clings to,
as if someone flailing overboard with a lifebuoy.

That is how powerful assumptions work.

The story in Matthew’s Gospel is a wonderful example
of just how blinding our assumptions can be.
You see, for nineteen centuries
the common read on this story
was as an example of how benevolent Jesus was.
“SEE!” the previous preaching narrative went,
“Jesus even lowered himself to address the needs
of a common Canaanite woman.”

This story we heard today,
was lumped in with all those stories about Jesus touching lepers,
and engaging in risky behavior
in order to befriend or advocate for poor,
marginalized people.
In short, they were hero stories
that marked Jesus as the best of the best.

But something doesn’t add up
between the traditional interpretation of this
Matthew story, and the story itself.

It begins with Jesus ignoring the woman.
But that is not all.
His bigotry toward her is pretty obvious.
He as much as calls her a dog
in fact, he does call her a dog.

Christian tradition ignored this obvious
and dark side of the story
because of an assumption:
that Jesus was perfect after all.

Jesus would not be so mean, it was reckoned,
but also, changing his mind mid-story
would suggest he had been wrong in the first place.
Our assumptions about Jesus
prevented us from embracing the story
as it was being told to us by Matthew.
The traditional interpretation was
that Jesus condescended
to meet the woman’s need,
and so it was an example of him humbling himself
because of his profound compassion.

But for the past fifteen years or so,
I have heard a new narrative about this story,
one that is not limited
by more traditional assumptions.
The new interpretation is based upon the assumption
of Jesus’ humanity instead of his perfection.
If Jesus was fully human,
as we have said in mainstream Christianity,
then he was also subject to human brokenness.

So if we presume that Jesus was truly human,
it means of course, he was imperfect.

Once we recognize his humanity,
we can read this story
in a way that makes more sense.
Here is an interpretation
that assumes Jesus was fully human.

A mother, desperate to save her child, accosts Jesus.
Now consider what we know
about the plight of peasants in those days.
There was no social safety net.
No medicine;
and without the do-re-mi,
not even access to spiritual healers.
It was a social caste system
that left poor women utterly powerless.

It was a society that placed children
on the absolute bottom rung of the ladder
where their value was measured
by their potential for labor,
and if a female child, for her marriageability.
As a matter of fact, a poor female child
possessed by a demon –
or with mental illness if you prefer –
was truly a life without value or worth.
She would have been completely vulnerable
to all forms of human cruelty.

The mother must have been beside herself;
woeful in her fear about what would happen
to the daughter she loved.

Most such mothers
would chase down any and all options.
So despite the social and ethnic wedge between them,
she goes after Jesus.
Clearly, she had already learned not to be too polite –
that would get her nowhere in the first century.
So she charges toward the crowd of men
and shouts.

That’s important: she shouts.
She yells at Jesus
to stop and have mercy.

I like the image here
of Jesus as a deer in the headlights.
He is accosted by a strange woman demanding mercy.

We should remember too,
that mercy was a special feature of his stump speech.
So, just to fix the scene in our imagination,
a yucky-poo woman begs Jesus for mercy
and the first thing Jesus does, is ignore her.
How human.

Ignore it and hope it goes away.
Haven’t we all done that before?

But his disciples did not allow Jesus
to follow an avoidance strategy.
Instead, they begged Jesus, and I quote,
‘get rid of her.’
“Uh, um, I’m not here to help Canaanites, lady.”
Jesus says, motioning her to move on.
“I was sent to help the lost sheep
among my fellow Galileans and Judeans.”

Again, let us remember
what Jesus has said just prior to this event,
at least in Matthew’s version of the story:
“…What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions…”

Something dark has just slipped from Jesus’ heart.

In fact, he pretty much contradicted with actions,
everything he had just preached with his words
only a little bit before.
Hypocrisy is pretty human too.
All of us have violated our own values,
and veered far off the walk of our talk.

But the question for Jesus –
and for us – is what will we do about it?

Now in the more traditional interpretation of this story,
the one that assumes Jesus was perfect,
this bit of nastiness
is regarded as a “test” of the mothers’ faith.
Of course it is – blame the victim.
Jesus was just testing her
(he didn’t really mean it).

But if instead, we assume Jesus was human,
in the same way that you and I are human,
we begin to realize he was subject
to the bigotry and prejudices of his own day,
just as we are to ours.

So instead of testing her,
the story reads more like a test of Jesus, that he fails:
“Go away lady, you are not my concern.”

But wait.
Give Jesus a break.
There are good reasons for Jesus to ignore her
and to want some immediate distance between them.

Judeans and Galileans
saw Canaanites as morally unclean,
socially despicable,
and ritually filthy.
Keeping a distance from such low-life
was integral to the practice of good faith.
For Jesus, social distance and bigotry,
in this case, was “good faith.”

Plus, she is an unattended woman
and so Jesus had plenty of reasons not to get close.
Social and religious policy dictated that men
not enter into conversation or deal with in any way,
an unrelated woman –
especially one that was not with a man.

Jesus just wants her to go away.

He does not want to help her.
He may even have been disgusted by her.
His compassion was not aroused, nor his mercy.
He was likely repulsed instead, and closed off.
And on top of all that,
everything in the culture justified and reinforced
his rejection of her.

That is the reasonable interpretation of this story
if we do not begin with the assumption
Jesus was perfect.

Now allow me to hit the pause button on this story,
and briefly take a peek into our story today.
(I did not pick this reading from Matthew by the way,
even though it could not be more apt
for this week of horrendous discourse
over the pro-white supremacy rally in Virginia).

I am not going to preach at Donald Trump.
Clearly nothing I could say will reach him
so it is pointless for me to subject you to that.

Nor are there any Confederate War hero statues
in Geneva, at least that I know of,
so some Northern know-it-all preacher
squawking about something going on elsewhere
is not our issue today either.

But for those of us here today who are white,
we do have a renewed opportunity
to reckon with ourselves
and one another –
and I do want to take that opportunity.

We have the opportunity to curl our fingers back
from pointing at anyone else;
and to stifle our criticism of any other
group, class, or race of people,
and look solely into our own prejudices,
and take stock of our own privilege,
and how our prejudices
and our privilege
have been used, by us and by others,
to marginalize people.

We have a renewed opportunity,
right now,
to once again recognize
that God created us as inter-dependent creatures
that need and require us to be in relationship
with one another for wellness.

We have a renewed opportunity,
right now,
to recognize that race is a social construct,
an erroneous assumption
that European and North American Caucasians
have used for several centuries
in order to justify our colonialist foreign policies;
and we have used race
to establish so-called social sciences
that elevate people with our skin tone
and ethnic background over others;
and in ways we haven’t even recognized yet,
we have used race to marginalize people.

We have a renewed opportunity
right now,
to dismiss the wasteful emotional ballast we call guilt,
about those things done and left undone
by previous generations,
and dig into our own current moment in history:
and look at ourselves,
at our own speech,
and at our own behavior,
and then make changes.

We have a renewed opportunity
right now,
to look at ourselves and talk about our prejudices
and our privilege,
and how we can walk into the future
with better behavior.

Jesus faced this same choice,
the same opportunity for renewal
as we have right now.
Let me end this sermon by observing what he did
and then maybe we can take our cue from Jesus.

For nineteen centuries,
in spite of our own experience that tells us
we all are all bigoted in some way,
and that we all carry with us prejudices of some kind,
the assumption of Jesus’ perfection
would not allow us to see and hear
what is actually happening in this story from Matthew.

We know darn well that our bigotry
and our prejudices
block mercy and cloud any impulse
toward compassion.
That is our experience…over and over and over again.
If we begin from that assumption
then this story takes a different turn.

It is a measure of the mother’s desperation
that she responded as she did:
But Jesus, even the dogs
get to lick up crumbs
under the master’s table.”
Imagine the pride she had to swallow.
Imagine the anger and resentment
she had to manage
at the very moment she needed this man the most.

She did not believe she was a dog,
and certainly not her daughter.
Canaanites did not view Jews as their superiors
any more than modern day Palestinians do.
But she was desperate.

How many people and places
had she already tried
and yet her daughter still lived at the edge of survival?

It is her willingness
to subject herself to degradation
that finally pierces Jesus’ bigotry.

The woman’s fierce love and devotion
has revealed something to Jesus
that he did not want to see in himself.
Jesus knows in his bones,
that there are no dogs
when it comes to the love of God.
Jesus knew above all else
that God is compassionate and merciful
and that therefore,
his spiritual task
was to be compassionate and merciful also.

The woman held up a mirror of sorts
and in it, Jesus could see and hear
his own moral failure.

We all have a moment like that, don’t we?
Don’t we have a little hidden box of horror moments
when our own prejudice and bigotry,
or lack of compassion and mercy,
have been revealed – even if only to ourselves?
Isn’t it powerful to see Jesus
with such a moment?
Even Jesus?

Pick a prejudice, any prejudice.
Rich
poor
black
white
w.a.s.p.
Hispanic
Chinese
Muslim
Roman Catholic
Fundamentalist Christian
male
female
homosexual
heterosexual
transsexual
Iraqi
Israeli
Republican
Democrat…

If it is a prejudice, a bigotry,
then it dilutes our compassion
and tarnishes our sense of mercy.

That is the implication of this story from Matthew.
If we delete our assumption that Jesus was perfect,
and come to this story with eyes wide open,
then this story makes a lot more sense.

Opening our eyes
to our assumptions and prejudices
is a core spiritual task for any Christian.
Our assumptions usually close our eyes
and keep us from looking
for what we have not yet seen.

Opening our eyes
is a natural consequence
of removing assumptions
and the filmy cataracts coating our vision.

Not all of our assumptions are wrong,
and many of them protect and defend us
in ways we cannot even fathom,
but all assumptions are worth visiting,
and all assumptions can be examined for the impact
they have on our compassion and mercy.

Opening our eyes
means inspecting our assumptions
and reviewing their influence upon us.

Opening our eyes
in such a way that it frees our compassion and mercy
to encompass more and more people,
is a core spiritual task for every one of us.