10th Sunday after Pentecost, year A, 2014 (preached August 17, 2014)
first reading: Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
second reading: Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
gospel reading: Matthew 15:10-20, 21-28
Today we have a very interesting gospel reading.
Initially it seems like there are two different unconnected parts. First Jesus talks about that which defiles a person – it’s what come OUT of us, not what goes IN. Then we have Jesus’ encounter with a Canaanite woman desperate to have help for her daughter.
While they appear unrelated at first, the two incidents in our gospel, and our reading from Isaiah especially, have a profound message – they all answer the question – “WHO’S IN, AND WHO’S OUT?”
Isaiah starts us off. We read, “And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord… these I will bring to my holy mountain… my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. I will gather others besides those already gathered.”
The prophet tells the Israelites that it’s not a matter of race or nationality that defines who’s in and who’s out – it’s faith. If you join, or commit yourself to the Lord, the Lord will commit to you. This is what Jesus was illustrating in our gospel.
The Pharisees were overly concerned with keeping the Law. They were more concerned about keeping the letter of it than the spirit of it. A big part of that was what could and could not be eaten, it still is for many of the Jewish faith – in other words, what you put IN. And if you couldn’t or didn’t follow the rules as they interpreted them, you were OUT.
But Jesus turns the whole thing upside down and backwards. He redefines who’s IN and who’s OUT, not by the outward following of dozens or hundreds of rules, but by what rules our HEARTS.
By his definition, it’s not eating certain kinds of foods, or eating with unwashed hands that defile. For Jesus, the things that defile a person are attitudes and actions that harm our neighbors: evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness and slander.
THEN he uses his interaction with the Canaanite woman to drive home the point to his disciples. Some have taken issue with Jesus’ harsh treatment of this woman, and on the surface I agree. But I have to believe that Jesus knew the Canaanite woman would persist, and in the end use her to put the disciples in their place.
Isaiah spoke of foreigners being brought IN and Jesus uses his interaction with this woman to illustrate just that. To the disciples this woman was definitely OUT. Outside the family of Israel, outside of righteousness, and certainly outside of their group. The disciples were even urging Jesus to sen her away. Tell her to get lost – we don’t want to deal with her.
In the end, not only does Jesus heal her daughter, he praises HER FAITH. He announces that she’s IN. This foreign woman, with two strikes against her – the fact that she was Canaanite and the fact she was a woman in that society – was welcomed IN. Not only does she get crumbs, she gets a place AT THE TABLE.
Because she recognized what the disciples and the Pharisees could not. That in the end, we’re all beggars at the table of the Lord.
Our righteousness doesn’t earn us a place, the accident of our birth doesn’t earn us a place, and certainly any sense of entitlement or perceived privilege does NOT earn us a place at the table, or as Isaiah describes it, on God’s “holy mountain.”
The Pharisees had it all wrong, Jesus even called them “blind guides.” And the disciples had it all wrong. It was the foreign woman, who presumed to have NO place, who Jesus lifted up and praised.
Jesus writes a whole new set of rules about who’s IN and who’s OUT of the kingdom. Or rather he hearkens back to the proclamation of Isaiah in our first reading.
This was HUGELY upsetting to those in power around him. Utterly offensive to the Pharisees, and extremely confusing to the disciples. So confusing that Jesus remarks in the first part of the gospel reading, “Are you STILL without understanding?”
Sometimes I think I can hear Jesus say that even now.
It’s a sad part of human nature that we try to separate people into IN and OUT groups. I remember my great Aunt Helen telling me that when she was growing up in the 1910’s and 20’s, there were people who wouldn’t speak to her because she was of German descent. Even though she was born HERE, an American by birth – she was OUT.
I know how impossible it can feel for kids in school, when for reasons they may not even know, they’re marked as OUT. The situation in Missouri right now stems from a whole race of people who believe they’ve been marked as OUT not just now, but for centuries.
Jesus tells us that all of our outward ways of distinguishing who’s IN and who’s OUT are just plain wrong.
Whether it’s the color of our skin, our ethnic heritage, the kind of clothes we wear, the car we drive, the size of our house or if we’re homeless… if we have a “checkered” past, if we’re sick, if we’re perceived as a burden because of physical limitations, or perceive ourselves as a burden for whatever reason… Our Lord says none of those reasons are valid in judging who’s IN and who’s OUT.
Through our baptism, through our faith, Jesus says we’re IN. Period. Praise God!
And Jesus calls each one of us who follow him, who call ourselves his disciples, to proclaim that message, to welcome all who seek to know his love, so that in the words of the prophet Isaiah, we all may be “joyful in [God’s] house of prayer…” and that THIS house in which we gather, and ALL places of worship “shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”