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Talking back

This week I preached at Epiphany, on one of the Top Ten Cringe-Worthy Pericopes of the Gospels. (This would make a fantastic list/review television show, don’t you think? I’d like Joel McHale to snarkily host, please, and discuss them! The Mary/Martha serving story and the Samaritan woman at the well, etc. Make it so, someone!)

While I have a grudging respect for this text, the problem with it is the same as many of the others in the Top Ten: they’re a litmus test for assumptions. If you read it, assuming that, of course, Jesus has to be right, always, and the stories are always about Jesus and His Rightness. And if you preach it from that angle, then you get to one answer. Which is fine, generally, nothing wrong with that. But this frequently leaves you with an object lesson not so much about what you, personally, should do in the world, as much as what those Other People should do in the world. (You are okay by virtue of already understanding the nature of Jesus and His Rightness, you awesome person, you!)

It is also possible, however, to more closely identify with the other characters in the story. So if you assume that the gospel stories are just as frequently about people just like us, and our reaction to Jesus and His Rightness, then you end up somewhere different. And generally, the gospel becomes a dynamic meeting place between God, and us, and our messiness.

Guess where I ended up!

Here’s what I said.

August 14, 2011
Proper 15, Year A
Matthew15:10-28

Fr. Roy Bourgeois was kicked out of his order last week. He’s a Roman Catholic priest, a Maryknoll priest, who, of late, has taken to travelling around the country speaking in favor of women’s ordination. Which was precisely his problem; according to the public statement from the Maryknoll order, they felt his public statements in favor of women’s ordination would give the mistaken impression that the entire Roman Church had turned a corner on this issue. So they kicked him out.
I met him when I was 18, interning at Sewanee, when he spoke to us about his work protesting the then-called School of the Americas.
And I sort of forgot about him, until a Phoenix taxi driver, a Hindu, discovering I was a priest, asked me if I knew of him.
“I’ve always admired his work,” he said. “He never had to take any of the risks he took.” He seemed like a man of integrity.

A man of integrity, and now his case is being referred to the Vatican, to see whether he will be permanently defrocked.

How do we know when to talk back? When do we decide when to challenge what we’re told? Especially when talking back is going to cost us something?

The gospel for today is a tricky one. Jesus and the disciples are evidently getting in trouble with the local religious leaders, mainly for suggesting that ritual purity is less important than purity of the heart.
Since the Pharisees were a group founded on the notion that the best and fastest way to achieve purity of the heart was through things like washing your hands, in accordance to the law of God, this suggestion of Jesus would not have been popular at all. It would have made them very annoyed.
So there’s a bit of a family feud happening– Jesus vs the Pharisees. And because it’s in the family, the rhetoric got really heated. Hence the blind leading the blind stuff. (it’s worth noting that most scholars now think Jesus had at least some ties to the Pharisees himself. That’s why there’s all this sniping.).

But what gets more troubling is when everyone heads away from Jewish territory, into Tyre and Sidon. Jesus has been saying that faith comes from within, and is shown through ritual and other works, which is fine and well and good, but here comes this poor Canaanite woman, and the wheels come right off the wagon.

Now, I’ve heard a couple different explanations given for what’s happening here. Some people think Jesus is acting deliberately dense to teach a lesson to his disciples on how not to behave. Sort of a weird object lesson of what he was trying to teach the Pharisees. Which I’d believe easier, if his disciples didn’t initiate the “send the foreign woman away!” campaign.
Some people think Jesus is testing her faith. Which just seems odd. Why has he started testing faith now, with pretend deafness and insults?
In any case, none of this quite disguises the fact that Jesus acts like a jerk to this woman. She comes to him, begging for help, and he first ignores her, then talks about her, then calls her a dog. You shouldn’t take the children’s food and feed it to the dogs. A much, much worse insult in the ancient near east than in our culture, and it’s not a compliment here.

But she comes right back at him. She answers right back.

And it’s her answer, it’s her mouthiness, if you will, that convinces Jesus of her faith. It’s that that convinces him to heal her daughter, and to pay attention to her. Her fight, her argument changes his mind, changes his behavior, and makes him listen. Her comeback makes him live up to what he was teaching in the first place.
It’s what’s inside that counts. Not race. Not ethnicity.

It was a big risk. Women didn’t speak to men they weren’t related to back then, generally speaking, non-Jews didn’t speak to Jews, especially not to rabbis. She’s taking a lot of risks.
But it’s taking this risk, that gets Jesus to look at her, finally, and recognize her faith.

Faith in her daughter, certainly, love of her daughter, certainly. But it goes deeper than that.

This woman shows faith in Jesus too. She doesn’t let Jesus get away with that sort of behavior. Somehow, sort of against the evidence, she expects better of him.

Because having faith in someone, in an organization, demands that we act as this woman did. Having faith in someone means we believe the best of them. It means we expect them to live up to what they proclaim, or at least that they try to. Walking the walk and everything, to the best of your ability.

it means that when they fall short, we remind them of what they are called to be. We don’t give up on them. We urge them on. We talk back. Even when it gets uncomfortable and unpopular, we talk back. We hold up the mirror of who they are, who they are meant to be, up so they don’t lose sight of it against all odds, and against all resistance.
Having faith in this country means asking it to live up to equal rights, due process, voting, all that stuff. Having faith in the church means you ask it to act like the church, as much as it can, please, even when it appears cheerfully hell-bent in the opposing direction.
Now, it’s a dangerous thing to have faith in a country, or in the church, or in anything, really. These things are human! They are filled with fallible people and you will get your heart broken, time and again.
But part of living on this planet is living in community. And so we are called to care for the communities we live in, for better or for worse.
The Canaanite woman goes unnamed in the Scriptures, but she’s the patron saint of all those who took a risk to hold the wider community
accountable to what we’ve been called to be. Short of the Second Coming, we are never going to entirely fulfill God’s vision for the perfect Church or the perfect city or the perfect state.
But thanks be to God, that we have examples of those who hold the mirror up to us, all through out history, to help us get there. And may God give us the grace to listen to their words of faith in our time. Amen.

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About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

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