Have you ever been around someone that you never have to guess what they were thinking or feeling? What they were thinking, their thoughts, dreams, hopes, excitement, emotions, always on display? It is a character trait that is both annoying and endearing? You can bask in who they are, or you dismiss them and try to avoid them. I think Joseph was one of those people.
Joseph is one of the most illuminating figures of the bible. We are given not only the historical accounts of his life, which are horrifying, but we also get to see the emotions, the fears, the disappointments, and the joy.
Joesph has multiple meetings with his brothers, were did the unthinkable to him, and are oblivious to his identity. Joesph comes to a point where he cannot hide his joy and excitement anymore. He has all this joy and happiness inside of him that he can only keep pushed down for so long until he pops.
For Joseph, faith was faith, and faith was life. He didn’t have to force it. His faith was what came forth from his life. The first time we see God even referenced by Joseph is in jail when he explains to other prisoners that dream interpretations come from God then, a second God reference is of the same substance, but for Pharaoh. While there is not much dialogue from Joesph proclaiming God, his life serves as a megaphone abut God. God comes forth in the life of Joseph.
‘God coming forth’, is exactly what Jesus is talking about in the first part of our gospel reading Jesus says.…
As I mentioned in our passage primer this week, there are several aspects of Matthew 15 with which I struggle. This statement from Jesus, ‘to eat with unwashed hands does not defile,’ is one of them, especially during our current pandemic. However, what is seen and/or heard immediately from this statement is not what Jesus is saying. He is not mounting an anti-hygiene protest, nor is he revealing that he has bought into an extremest conspiracy theory.
The earliest findings of any types of hygiene guidelines and laws date back to the Exodus when God, through Moses, gave the Israelites instructions on everything from washing their hands, to the disposal of human waste. These hygienic practices were a religious responsibility. About half a century later, under King David, these practices were expanded from being religious to being a societal practice.
More than any other people, personal hygiene was a founding principle of the Israelites, and Jesus was not contradicting this. Jesus was talking about something much deeper, he was addressing what we allow to exist inside of us, that which influences and changes what we put into ourselves.
A couple of weeks ago, I referenced our experience a decade ago with our daughter Grace spending 11 days in the hospital with Steven Johnson’s Syndrome, a severe, often fatal, reaction to medication. What I did not mention was that she, along with our son Caleb, had been taking the same medicine for the same sickness, for the same amount of time. Caleb had no problem with the medication and within a very short time was feeling better and back to normal. However, something in Grace’s system influenced the otherwise ‘okay’ medicine rending it toxic.
This is what Jesus is saying. Everything in our life is influenced by what is already at our core, what is inside of us. We put relationships into our life – they can mix with our insides and come out as a healthy lasting relationship, or they can come out as adultery and fornication. We put communication in, it mixes with our inside, comes out of our mouth as unifying and encouraging words, or it comes out as false witness, gossip, and slander. Our heart, our core, takes the non defiling things we put into our life and determines if they come out beneficial or harmful.
It all depends on what we allow to be inside of us.
Jesus is challenging the standard religious thought, especially as established by the institutional leaders. He is telling them that transformation does not take place by our practices alone, or anything that we think we must, or must not, do to be right with God. It is much deeper, it is that which comes forth from us that identifies that our heart, our core, what is our center.
Let’s get into this a bit deeper by looking at one word, the word that provides the true challenge of Jesus’ message – the word ‘DEFILE.’ The greek, in this context is κοινοῖwhich means ‘to defile’. The root word, which gives us clarity of the meaning of ‘defile’ is koinoó , which, in certain context can mean ‘to make unclean, pollute, desecrate’. Now, if we go deeper to the literal meaning of the root word, the word from which these all use in their particular context, ‘to make common.’
As we have witnessed in Matthew’s gospel, when it moves to another story or teaching, as we ‘move on’, ‘moving on’ is never ‘moving away’.
Jesus now travels to the major Roman port cities of Tyre and Sidon, home to countless pagan temples, populated largely by gentiles but sizable Israelite population resides there as well.
Remember, there is an intentionality of the chronological order in Matthew’s gospel, teaching moments are often followed by an experiential lesson as well.
As Jesus, and his disciples, enter the area, they are immediately confronted by a Canaanite woman who is shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ Jesus’ response is odd, it is very suspect, it is very ‘un-Jesus’ like. He dismissively ignores the woman, then, as she continues to make a spectacle of herself by screaming, the disciples join in suggesting that Jesus send ‘that shouting woman’ away. Jesus responds to the suggestion by pointing out that ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ She then gets in front of Jesus, kneels, and begs, ‘Lord, help me.’ Jesus responds with the seemingly racist and callous response of ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ The woman replies to Jesus with, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Now, she has Jesus attention as indicated by his response, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ After this, we are informed that, at that moment, her daughter was healed instantly.
The change in Jesus posture with the woman, as well as a positive and affirming response, signals that something significant has just taken place. I wouldn’t be surprised if the disciples share a look of confusion with each other.
This interaction just seems to increase in the odd and bizarre factor as this conversation progresses.
Let’s dive in and break this engagement down.
We begin by looking at Jesus’ initial response to the woman – he ignores and dismisses her, while the disciples, thinking they have picked up on a subtle cue meant for them, join in by urging him to get rid of her. This opening action, or inaction, on the part of Jesus was intentional, it was targeted, it is was a signal that this is going to be a teaching moment aimed at, not the woman, but the followers of Christ. He is using the moment to teach his followers, particularly his disciples, what he had just verbally taught about in the earlier verses. As the woman shouted, what was inside of the disciples, and probably inside the crowd as well, began to take hold, they thought the gate had been open to let their own attitudes come forward, it could no longer be held back, it all came pouring out out of their mouths, ‘Just send her away, Jesus!’
In these brief four words, the disciples revealed a bigotry and a prejudice against the woman, as ‘all her kind.’ They, unconsciously formed a hostile attitude toward the woman because of her nationality, her color, her ancestors, basically ‘who she was.’ In the most blunt of terms, they were revealed that they were racists. We know that because her requests, and methods, were nothing new, thousands had come to Jesus doing the same thing for the same reason, probably, many who were also shouting – the disciples didn’t suggest sending them home, well except for when there were too hungry, when they became a burden. This time was different, this time it was a pushy Canannite, woman, a gentile. Sure, the gentile centurion had come to Jesus on behalf of his servant for healing, maybe, the servant was even a gentile. The difference, though, in that gentile situation and this gentile situation was all about presentation (or so they would have claimed), that man, the Centurion, knew how to act, he was respectful, he knew the words to say, it knew how to act right. He was following the unspoken rules that you follow as a gential and addresses a Israelite. This Canannite gentile Woman either didn’t know how to act correctly, normally, or she did but just refused to do so.
So, Jesus echoed the mind and heart bigotry of his disciples and followers, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ While this was true, the promise to Abraham and passed down to Jacob, did declar that all people would be blessed by the Israelites, Jesus coming to heal the Israelites would, conceptually, enable them, the Jews to go to the gentiles. While accurate, it was not true to ‘who’ Jesus was, and they should have known this by now. Sometimes, it is impossible to even realize what we have allowed to be hidden in the dark places of our heart and mind – especially racism and bigotry.
The disciples did not, and at this point could not, empathize with the woman, something in them did not want to. So they hated and despised her – Jesus let them see this as he opened the gate for these things to come forth from out of their lives. He echoed their thoughts, he mirrored their darkness.
While the disciples only saw a non-Jew, a non-Israelite, and a non-male; what they did not see was that this oppressed and desperate woman was a Canannite, she, like Rahab, Tamar, and Ruth, all shared ancestral connections with Jesus.
Next, we see the woman quickly move ahead of the still walking Jesus, and kneel in front of him, probably in deference bowing her head to the ground, blocking his way so that he has to stop. The response of Jesus to the woman’s repeated cry for help is to say, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ These words too, are not the mean spirited words they sound to be. The gentiles held a much different attitude towards animals. While the Israelites may have had animals around as a necessity, the gentiles endeared the animals they had as beloved family pets. So, the phrase ‘dogs’ would not have been taken as the insult it sounds to us – it was a description of the immense difference in the faith and religion of the Israelites and the scattered and dysfunction of the faith practices of the gentiles.
Her response is an unveiling of her unbridled faith, as well as of the expansiveness of God’s love and Jesus’ ministry. In saying, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table,’ the woman exposed her understanding of God, God’s love, and of her own belovedness by God.
She was saying, ‘yes, I know you came for the Israelites, but, I also know that you are enough, and have enough grace, for me and all peoples.’
Jesus is blown away by the heart and core of this woman as he sees what comes forth from her, as evidenced by his response to her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ He sees a faith that empowered by what is inside this woman.
This woman, who didn’t look like one that Jesus had come for, she didn’t wash her hands as part of a religious ritual, she didn’t observe the dietary laws or think certain foods were unclean, she didn’t have the right ‘pure’ bloodline, her nationality did not hold the power her oppressors held, she may have not been the acceptable color, she didn’t live in Jerusalem nor was she allowed in the temple, in all honesty, there are countless ways that she did not fit the proper mold of a faithful follower of Jesus…..unless you were able to see her heart, or if you were to be there, like Jesus was, when what was inside came forth.
Let’s look at this in a practical way, from a historical event, to see how what is inside comes out, and what comes out positively or negatively impacts all that are in a part of our journey.
On November 14, 1960, a US Marshall’s vehicle pulled up in front of the New Orleans home of Abon and Lucille Bridges to escort their 6 year old daughter to William Franz Elementary School. Little Ruby was wearing new dresses, socks, and shoes and ready for her first day of school.
As Ruby, and the Marshalls, arrived at the school, they were met by an angry mob. John Steinbeck, who was there to witness the moment, later wrote about what he had observed, specifically, he wrote about a group of women at the protest whose picture had been seen nation wide, –
Ruby was one of three children that integrated the public school system in New Orleans in 1960, however, Ruby was by herself at William Franz Elementary School. She spent the year traveling to and from school in the vehicle with the Marshalls, who in between would go back to her street to protect her house and parents. Lucille and Abon, her parents, suffered that year as he lost his job as a gas station attendant because of Ruby; their grocery store would no longer her family shop there; her sharecropper grandparents in Mississippi were turned off their land. Most parents removed their children from the school the day that Ruby arrived. Ruby, walked in through the screaming mob every morning and every afternoon. In between, she was alone in a classroom, just her and Barbara Henry, her teacher, brought in from Boston.
Now, as an adult 60 years later, Ruby shares life lessons she learned from that year, and her subsequent life, how those who didn’t join the hateful mobs made a huge difference in her life, ‘many others in the community, both black and white, showed support in a variety of ways. Some white families continued to send their children to Frantz Elementary despite the protests and danger, a neighbor provided her father with a new job, and local people babysat, watched the house as protectors, and walked behind the federal marshals’ car on the trips to school.’ It was not until Bridges was an adult that she learned that the immaculate clothing she wore to school were donated to her family by a white relative of Dr. Coles, her volunteer psychiatrist.
What is coming forth from us?
What is coming forth from you?
Are you, are we, settling for ‘common’?