Sunday, August 20, 2023
The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Love God, Love your neighbor, no exceptions
The Rev. Mark Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77450
The lectionary gives me a choice this week about our gospel. The first section is where Jesus addresses a group of Pharisees and scribes who have come from Jerusalem. They are upset that the disciples aren’t properly following the laws about handwashing and Jesus gives them a harsh lecture about their own hypocrisy. Then there is a second seemingly separate story about his meeting with the Canaanite woman. At first look these don’t seem to have anything to do with each other, but I think they do have something to do with each other and there is good reason to put them together.
As usual the setting is important. In the first 10 verses of the chapter Jesus is arguing with Pharisees about ritual purity including their criticism of his followers for not washing their hand before eating. Now they didn’t know anything about bacteria or washing to kill germs, this was a ritual. The Jewish world of Jesus’ times was filled with purity rituals and kosher laws. Many of them were developed during the Babylonian Captivity to keep them and their culture from being assimilated into the Babylonian society. That was how the Babylonians handled conquered people, they made them into Babylonians. Took their civil and religious leaders to Babylon and like the Borg in Star Trek assimilated them into their society destroying their previous traditions. The books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus come from this time and these books are filled with 613 commandments about how to live. All designed to keep their society together while in captivity.
Jesus however is saying that rituals do not make you holy. Jesus turns this whole world on its head and says, how we treat the other, how we live with each other is what is important. That is what comes from the heart and the heart in that world was the seat of all emotion and actions. Those evil intentions murder adultery fornication theft false witness and slander that he mentions are commandments 4-10. What defiles is how we treat each other and that is the focus of the last 7 commandments! This is in line with our own definition of sin, which includes breaking relationships with God, creation and each other. Our definition of sin is not a list of actions but concern over the results of those actions.
This is a really important point. Remember that Jesus says he came not to overturn the law, but to fulfill it. When asked what the greatest commandment is he answers basically love God and love your neighbor. On these two principals hang all the law and the prophets. Combine this with the definition of sin in our prayer book which is breaking relationship with God, another person or creation and you have a way of living that Jesus is talking about for us today.
Then we have the story of the Canaanite woman and we see Jesus acting in a way that seems almost shocking when he calls her a dog! So what is going on here? There are two schools of thought about this passage and it is one that is hotly debated. Did the Canaanite woman catch him up short, make him get frustrated while he was maybe having a bad day or did Jesus know exactly what he was doing. How you answer this tells you a great deal about your image of Jesus. It is also a great example of how people can disagree without hating each other.
One school says that Jesus is perfect and could not make a mistake or actually mean it when he called the woman a dog. That was quite an insult in case you are not aware. So, was he testing the woman and the disciples? Did he want to test how deep her faith was? Did he want to show the disciples that a Canaanite could have a deep faith and was not a dog, but a beloved child of God?
Or does being fully human mean that Jesus might just have meant what he said and this outsider this other person taught him a lesson. Was he truly astonished that this woman was right and had pointed out that his call was to all the world? That is a message of Matthew’s gospel for the gospel ends with Jesus sending his disciples out to proclaim the gospel to all the world.
No matter what you believe about Jesus, without sin or that he might make a mistake, he might “sin” this is an important turning point for Jesus and I don’t think Matthew was really worried about an answer to this question. In fact I doubt it is a question he even thought about.
Here is an example of how there can be two completely different interpretations of the story and both are equally valid. Neither is the sole right answer or wrong answer. The question is more about your individual image and understanding of Jesus and we can all sit in the same pew while we disagree about the answer for it is more about us than about doctrine.
This is where I believe we have an important lesson for today. All the pharisees were considered holy men, experts in Jewish law and highly respected by the community. They were doing what they believed was what God wanted them to do. Jesus asks them to reconsider but then is faced with a situation where he needs to step past the Jewish laws that did consider the Canaanite woman as other, as not among the chosen of God.
I am starting a series of videos for the Wednesday theology lunch. I know people are busy so rather than read a book right now we will watch and discuss these which feature a large selection of contemporary theologians. In the first one we watched this past week there is an African American pastor who says that growing up the most important thing in her church was to get the right answer. So if they didn’t know the answer they would go to the “radio bible man” to get the one answer. And anybody who disagreed was wrong, for there can only be one answer. Today she is far more comfortable saying, “I don’t know!” Then she listed a bunch of question where she doesn’t know the answer and said, “The more I know the less I know.” She doesn’t need a single answer and can live with the fact that there may be multiple answers.
So is it necessary for Jesus to be sinless? I don’t know and what’s more it isn’t of ultimate importance, but the lesson that nobody is outside of the love of God is something that I do know. That is the lesson of the story of the Canaanite woman. That’s what Matthew really wants us to understand. It is what he wanted his community to understand and as a result to go outside the confines of Judaism and as he says in his very last verses to preach the gospel to all the nations baptizing in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Tex Sample in the opening of the first video said that he always envisioned the Santa Fe trail as two wagon ruts going across the west. He has since learned that in places the trail was 6 miles wide. All leading to the destination but across a wide variety of routes. This is where we need to find ourselves today. Modern Christianity is a wide path with many routes all leading to a relationship with Christ and ultimately with God. The path is less important than the destination and the journey, the growing and wrestling with our questions is the most important part.
The focus is that we are all on a journey to ultimately meet Jesus, but we all have different ways to get there. Each journey is unique and personal, and we need to respect each person’s path. The critical piece in all this is that we must, while traveling the path, remember that Jesus expects us to love God with all our hearts, all our minds, all our souls, and all our strength and to love our neighbor as ourself. Healthy congregations, growing congregations are ones that understand this concept of journey and respect the journey of each other This is true of conservative congregations, middle of the road congregations and progressive congregations. Believe it or not this has been studied and statistics prove it. The faith journey is all about relationships with each other even when there are disagreements because ultimately this is all about our relationship with God and Christ.
In a world full of divisions, disrespect, and intolerance there is no more important lesson than this. Love God, Love your neighbor, for God loves everyone, no exceptions, of I this I am sure.