written by Guy Hewitt
In many instances, faith has been the fuel to ignite the flame of freedom. History is replete with examples of people of faith who, following a Divine imperative, defiantly broke the restraints of tradition and social order to unleash radical change.
Notwithstanding the considerable role of faith in the US Civil Rights movement, noting the exceptional role of The Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., The Rev. Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, among others, it was primarily black churches that led the charge.
The ambivalence of many traditional denominations to the issue of racial justice was due in part to some being ignorant to the issue and others deeming it ‘political’ rather than the democratic, legal, human rights and social justice issue that it was. Most significantly, many mainline churches perpetuated the prejudice and racism of the Ethno-European socio-political hegemony that helped legitimize the enslavement of Africans and Indigenous People of the Americas. Jim Crow was sanctioned by some southern Christian theologies.
Our Lord Jesus Christ’s radical counter-culturalism, His embracing of the marginalized: women, lepers, tax collectors, adulterers, and the poor, heavily influenced the Civil Rights movement. In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr King wrote of his Christian duty “to carry the gospel of freedom” across America and emphasized that his faith was a “source of courage and strength” as he worked towards the “fulfillment of the beloved community.” But was Jesus completely inclusive when He dismissed the pleas of the Canaanite woman for her child stating, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
The Gospel for Pentecost 11 (Matthew 15:10-28) is about things that defile. A crucial tenant of religious life at the time of Christ was being clean, which was not about hygiene but rather closeness to God. Being unclean or defiled meant that by some deed you were separated from God. In the appointed Gospel, our Lord Jesus Christ delivered a very radical message of what truly separates us from God and keeps us out of the Kingdom, which is not whether we adhere to purity laws but rather our motivations: what “proceeds from the heart, is what defiles.” As told in 2 Cor. 3:6 we are part of a “new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
In the verse preceding today’s Gospel (Matt 15:8), Jesus quotes Isaiah to convey His abhorrence for those who “honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me…” Then as is now, it is the honoring of God with our lips, while our hearts, our beings, are far from Him that separates us from God and His Kingdom.
Though not codified, purity laws remain today. Today we have social conventions that carry sanctions for any breach. Today albeit at a decreasing rate, people exclude others based on gender, class, ability, sexuality, religion, looks, and as we only too well know, race and ethnicity. The James Baldwin film I Am Not Your Negro vividly depicts America’s historical and lingering white supremacist motivations and deep-seated anti-black attitudes. Chillingly, a seemingly normal, traditional, Southern white woman speaks across time as she matter-of-factly affirms this racism stating, “God forgives murder and He forgives adultery, but He is very angry and He actually curses all who do integrate.”
When Jesus says to the Canaanite woman, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”, we encounter one of the most brutal moments in the Good News. Here we see Jesus projecting Jewish Covenant privilege and in plain view denigrating this woeful mother with harsh, prejudiced and discourteous language. His seemingly is the kind of discrimination we see today, the kind of bigotry that fueled the Black Lives Matter movement.
There are those who suggest that Jesus was playfully testing the woman, that this was a ‘teaching moment.’ They suggest that the word for dogs is really puppies as opposed to a nasty cur. These are the interpretations of white privilege; those having learned about racism cannot conceive of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, being racial.
This story opens a Pandora’s Box. Can the Son of God be racist? And if so, should we be worshiping Him! The answers are no He was not and yes, we can! Too often, we overlook the fact that Jesus was as fully human as He was divine. He was a person of His time – a first-century Jewish born into a world of boundaries, discrimination and exclusion. This was part of the Incarnation.
Hebrews 4:15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Rather than being a ‘teachable moment’ for the disciples or the woman, it is quite possible that this was a ‘teachable moment’ for Jesus and that the Canaanite woman was the means for this transforming lesson.
We read that the Canaanite woman shouts at Jesus. Hers are calls of desperation, cries for mercy. In her shouting, the woman employs a strategy that civil rights leaders would build on – nonviolent resistance. The Canaanite mother is seeking to publicly shame Jesus into action; she is seeking to prove that Gentile lives matter.
From Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King responded to the charge from local clergy that he was an outside agitator stirring up trouble for them. He wrote, “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Similarly, the Canaanite mother refuses to be excluded from the Kingdom.
The actions in today’s Gospel are neither a personal nor a political protest. This is the strength of love. This Canaanite mother refuses to let Jesus go until she secures a blessing from her child; mothers with sick kids are formidable like that. Mothers with sick children won’t let anything get in the way of the care of their child: not unsympathetic medics or health regulations or lousy insurance, not even a slightly narrow-minded messiah-type. She demands Divine justice in the form of healing.
Jesus tries to ignore her, the way people today often avoid panhandlers, but the woman knows how to ‘talk the talk’ and cries out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” To call Him ‘Lord, and ‘Son of David’ is a very distinctly Matthean message that this Gentile may worship God! Out of her mouth comes the very opposite of defilement.
In the theatre of public shaming, the woman ups the ante and “walks the walk” by coming and kneeling before Jesus. This isn’t someone who honours God with their lips but whose heart is far from God; she worships Him with “heart, soul and mind” and in so doing detonates a theological bombshell. She also offers an analogy more powerful that His, “even the dogs,” she says, “eat the crumbs that fall from the table.” This mother teaches Jesus something new about the Kingdom – she widens its inclusion to be genuinely inclusive and Jesus recognizes this Truth proclaiming, “Woman, great is your faith!”
Those who may worry about Jesus’s sinlessness need not fear. All that was to come to pass did. Jesus recognizing what was unfolding reorients Himself away from His humanity towards the way of God. That is why Hebrews says He is “without sin” for unlike us, He does not prevaricate but simply recalibrates and goes the way of God, which is love for all people.
Today’s Gospel is a teaching moment for us all about difference; underscoring that there is no privilege in the Kingdom of Heaven. Any privilege that exists in the world is a human creation. The order of the world whether by race, gender, class, ability, sexuality, religion, ethnicity or the like, is of our making, not God’s. All lives matter equally in God’s Kingdom. Our defining of ourselves is, in reality, our defiling of ourselves. It is our making of rules about who is in or out, about who is right or wrong, and who is loved or not – rules that protect the privileged rather than comfort the vulnerable – that separates us from God for what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.
The Reverend Ambassador Guy Hewitt is a priest in the Diocese of Southeast Florida and a strong proponent of a social Gospel and doctrine of inclusion.