Who speaks for you? Who do you trust enough that you would align yourself with someone else’s ideas? It’s complicated, right?
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus, who is a Jew, seems to be arguing with the Pharisees, another group of Jews. Why’s Jesus talking about mouths and eating? Well, the part we didn’t read: a group of scholars identified as “the Pharisees” had asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.”
But it’s not just an innocent, honest question. And Jesus doesn’t answer it as an honest question: he responds to the criticism and snaps back: are you really so concerned about tradition that you don’t follow the commandments? There’s an entire commandment about honoring mother and father, but you tell your elderly parents that instead of taking care of them, you’re giving the money to God.
Now, Lutherans can get into trouble when we talk about tradition and the Law, and we’ll even talk about the Law as if the Law is entirely separate and apart from the Gospel. Jesus did not disrespect the Law nor abolish it—he did invite careful reflection about what the Law is for.
Jesus explains to his disciples: it’s not what goes into a person’s mouth that makes them unclean—whether food or unwashed hands or whatever—it’s what comes out of their mouth that makes them unclean. Jesus is not talking about vomit. He’s talking about how the Law holds people accountable, and how a person’s speech reveals their attitudes and reveals what is in their heart. We easily condemn ourselves by the words that come out of our mouths.
You want to know what’s in a person’s heart? Go for a drive with them. Through the city. Then get out on the highway. You’ll find out just how patient they really are, how generous, how forgiving. Ask my family how patient I was while driving just yesterday—I couldn’t get to where I wanted to go because there were roads blocked off, and I took that as like a personal offense to me. Is it just me? Does anyone else do this, too?
This is but one example of the activities that reveal one’s inhumanity. We’re all subject to some level of inhumanity. Maybe even Jesus. Today’s Gospel also includes the story of the Canaanite woman—in other Gospels, a similar story is told of a Syro-Phoenician woman. A woman comes to Jesus for help, and instead of giving her the help she is asking for, he insults her.
This is the part where we want to rescue Jesus. We want to explain away his actions—here’s why he’s righteous, here’s where he’s justified in saying this. Because he’s a man and she’s a woman, because he’s burned out from all these healings he’s been doing, because he’s exhausted and hasn’t had a chance to get any rest because every time he goes away to get some alone time people keep following him!
Pastor Pam Fickenscher, an ELCA pastor in Minnesota, gave a presentation about this Gospel lesson, alongside another Jewish rabbi, and Pastor Fickenscher said that in our attempts to rescue Jesus, we separate him from his Jewish community. This is a problem, because Jesus is a Jew. Separating him from his community doesn’t help us to interpret clearly what’s going on, and it sets us up to vilify Jews, which Christians have spent many many generations doing. Some Christians have put significant energy into persecuting Jews, as if that will make Christians more righteous.
In the first part of today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus is arguing with Pharisees, and Pastor Fickenscher brings up that Jesus is a lay teacher of the law—he has studied Torah and can be called a rabbi but he isn’t officially part of the Jewish religious establishment, he doesn’t have a priestly role. And of all the various Jewish religious groups, Jesus is most like the Pharisees. So if Jesus is arguing with the Pharisees, Pastor Fickenscher says what we’re overhearing here is a family dispute.
Hmm, a family dispute. So is this like the disputes we have within Christianity? YIKES. Do you line up with all Christians? Is it Jesus who brings us together? Or the various interpretations we have of Jesus, which can separate us pretty effectively? And if I had to guess, is it the groups with whom we have the most in common that upset us the most? Like other Lutherans, with whom we even share a name? But ELCA Lutherans are totally different from Missouri Synod Lutherans…a family dispute.
The Pharisees do not have to become villains to make this story work. The Law does not have to become a righteousness test. Jesus does not have to ideologically dunk on anyone who questions or criticizes him. Listen again to what Jesus says to his disciples: out of the heart come evil intentions…false witness, slander—these are what defile a person.
If we interpret this story to make Pharisees in particular or Jews in general into the enemy, then aren’t we just defiling our own selves? What happens when we have our own family disputes and make other Christians into the enemy?
I read an article in the Christian Century about a congregation in the United Church of Christ in New Mexico who hosted a listening experiment with members of an evangelical Christian congregation. Someone was able to build on an existing relationship between members of the different congregations—this was important—and a series of meetings was set up between five members of each congregation, facilitated by a neutral party, and there were ground rules for discussion.
The emphasis was listening, and participants were encouraged “to avoid questions that weren’t open and honest: instead of questions that begin with ‘How can you possibly’ or ‘Don’t you see’ or ‘Don’t you even care about,’ an open and honest question might be ‘How did you come to believe that?’ or ‘What is the most important part of that issue for you?’”
The writer of the article, Paul Hopkins, was a participant in these conversations, and after four sessions, it looked like everything went pretty well, and the conversation was civil and thoughtful. But in the written evaluations, some women reported feeling condescended to. One participant had written, “There are many people and congregations who consider themselves to be Christians and yet hold beliefs and engage in practices that are contrary to God’s word and Jesus’s teachings.” Hopkins writes, “I suspect we each had this opinion about the other: my Christianity is the real Christianity, and theirs is less legitimate.”
The listening sessions began with an agreement that no one is out to change anyone else’s mind. Then Hopkins wrote of his discussions with one of his conversation partners from the evangelical congregation:
“Both of us, I think, may have longed to persuade the other to believe some things as we did, and I am sure that this same hidden agenda was present as we talked more specifically about values and politics. I realized something I would never have admitted previously: that I am as drawn to evangelizing others as my evangelical siblings are. And in my own self-satisfied way, I’m convinced to my core of the truth of my message.
But how do we expand our understanding of truth or become aware of our errors if we who have ears do not listen? I think a little humility and a healthy dose of doubt might serve us all well.”
Look around, and where do we find humility? Look around in the Gospel lesson, and humility appears in the Canaanite woman, desperate for her daughter to be healed, so desperate she’ll endure insults and cry out for mercy and even accept the insults to seek mercy and healing. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs,” she says. Even Jesus can enter into dialogue, and think twice and change his mind and heal someone.
In this Gospel lesson, what began as a family dispute becomes an overflow of grace that heals people beyond the family. In the first reading, the Joseph story in Genesis: what began as a family dispute becomes grace that saves entire nations.
We don’t have to line ourselves up by our ideological differences. We don’t have to make anyone into an enemy. Instead, we can observe Jesus in his actions, we can learn from his Jewish traditions, and we can ask honest questions arising from the depth of our compassion rather than questions from the shallows of self-righteous judgment. God’s mercy endures, and God’s love heals, and the family of God keeps expanding.