Sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost
A few years ago, I was teaching a confirmation class made up of 14 year old boys. We were discussing the incarnation, a topic I wasn’t expecting to generate too much excitement – they knew the Christmas story so this wasn’t anything new. How wrong I was. “God became a human?!” Like, just a human? God became a human??”
They spotted the ridiculousness, the riskiness, the offensiveness of the incarnation that we don’t usually pay attention to. But today, confronted by the story of Jesus’ encounter with the syro-phonecian woman, we have no choice.
“It is not right,” says Jesus to the desperate mother, “to give the children’s bread to the dogs”.
Jesus called this woman and her daughter dogs.
God risked becoming human which didn’t just mean that God would die. It meant that God would become embedded in the unjust and mean structures of our human world. God risked being, at least a little, racist.
Because that is what it is when you call another human being a dog because they are not of your tribe. In fact, “dog” was a commonly used slur for non-Jews at the time of Jesus.
But how can Jesus be racist? Or cruel? Or even insensitive? He’s Jesus – fully human, sure, but also fully divine, preaching the gospel of love and inclusion.
And yet, there it is, “It is not right to give the children’s bread to the dogs”
How you react to this story depends a little on what you think it means to be Jesus. If Jesus must, by definition, be perfect, it presents quite a challenge and there are a few ways in which people have tried to interpret it in order to preserve Jesus’ unfailing perfectness.
It was a test, to see if the woman really believed, really understood and so would persevere with her request.
“But Sir, even the dogs eat the crumbs under the table”.
It was a demonstration and the woman would have been let in on the scheme, included through a holy twinkle in Jesus’ eye or a barely suppressed smile, allowing her to make the point that Jesus wanted made for the benefit of those around him.
Jesus used the diminutive for dog – puppies – suggesting a gentle affection and underlying care, pre-figuring the image of the spoiled house pet catching crumbs under the table.
But, quite frankly, I don’t see much evidence for these interpretations in the story – nor do they do much to alleviate my concerns about the exchange. It was an astonishingly cruel test and calling someone racist slurs diminishes and dehumanizes them whether you force them to implicate themselves in it – to make a demonstration of themselves – or whether you disguise it with pseudo-affection. It’s just not okay. And Jesus did it..
Fortunately, I think it’s okay for Jesus to have made a mistake. He did not spring, fully formed from the head of his divine father, but rather experienced life as we do – growing and learning through the stages of childhood: “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and people”, Luke tells us. Why would we think this growth would have stopped once Jesus became an adult? I certainly hope mine hasn’t!
None of this, however, is to diminish the significance of this error – but it is to recognize that it is exactly the kind of thing that could happen because God became a human. Jesus was not an idea, some sort of platonic ideal, the universal essence of “human”, simply encased in flesh. Jesus was a human – and only one human. Because that is the only way to be human – one at a time, with a particular set of traits and experiences that connect us to other particular humans in particular ways
Some of our traits may put us in a position of power relative to other people. Some of our traits may put us in a position of powerlessness relative to others. Age, gender, race, language, class, sexuality – all of these things interact in complicated ways, shifting subtly in different contexts and at different times.
And Jesus was no different. He was an unmarried adult free Jewish man. As such, he had power relative to women, slaves, children, and some gentiles. He was vulnerable relative to Romans, to householders. The feminist theologian, Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, calls this dense web of social relations the “kyriarchy”. Unlike a patriarchy, which subsumes all power relationships under one dualism, the kyriarchy recognizes that individuals are connected to people above, below, and beside them in complex power structures. Every interaction requires negotiating those connections – dealing justly and compassionately with each person and conducting yourself with dignity and self-respect no matter the social locations at play.
This is hard work. It is hard to resist taking advantage of our privileges, hard to recognize when we slide into oppressive language or behaviour. And it is hard to demand that our full humanity be respected when someone with power over us is treating us as less than we are. But this is the work of the Kingdom of God and it is the work that both Jesus and the woman undertook in their encounter with one another. This challenging little story does not undermine his gospel of love and freedom, anymore than the crucifixion undermines his gospel of everlasting life.
Quite the contrary.
“But Sir,” said the woman, “even the dogs can eat the crumbs that fall from the children’s table”. She did not back down, when insulted by this man with the power to heal her daughter. She used his own slur to name something of her experience and convict him for excluding her from the good news. And Jesus listened to her. He didn’t have to. He could have ignored her, comfortable inside his own privilege. But he listened. He heard her pain and her dignity. He heard his own ugly slur. And because he listened, he was healed of his tribalism and because he was healed, he healed her daughter.
And because he was healed, he healed us. Opening a path of salvation, of wholeness and love and freedom.
This truly is good news. We, too, can be healed of the divisions that rend our human family. We can listen to those who are oppressed or excluded and find ways to welcome them, to share our power with them. We can listen to the ugliness that may come, unawares or intentionally, out of our own mouths and hearts and we can repent. We can name what we need from those who hold power over us and demand fair treatment and proper respect. We can seek to grow into the full stature of Christ, even as he also grew.