Learning the Gospel
(or You Say You Want a Revolution?)
“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time.
But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine
then let us walk together.”
This text is not often viewed as one of revolution. It is not like Moses shouting to Pharaoh, “Let my people go!”, or Isaiah calling out Israel’s injustice. It’s not a denouncing of Herod or the turning over of the tables in the temple. But I’m beginning to think that this is perhaps the most revolutionary text for this moment in history. Just take the last couple of weeks in Matthew’s Gospel, which help to form this theological revolution that Matthew is placing before us – in the feeding of the multitude, a God who has created abundance, not lack…in Jesus walking on water that what our hearts are set on creates our reality…and in this encounter with the Pharisees that just saying that you are a faithful follower doesn’t make you one.
In Matthew’s gospel, the whole of the teaching of Jesus can be summed up this way – God is not satisfied. That’s, of course, not the only way that it can be summed up and might be a little on the cynical side, but it is true. In Jesus’ teaching of God’s love without exceptions, his push against the legalism of his time, his inclusion of people who are most definitely “out”, he announces what he comes to call the “Kingdom”, what Dr. King called the “beloved community” and what we often call the “kindom.” It is what God wants things to be…how God created things to be, but not what they are. That’s why I think that this text is revolutionary, especially right now.
It’s been another hard week, with lots of existential and not so existential angst about who we are and where we are going as a nation. Charlottesville has been a three alarm in the midst of one alarms that have been going off for some time, but which some of us have been able to dampen by turning our attention to other things. I’m afraid, like many of you, that displays like this from the far-right, overtly racist elements of our national community are only going to increase, and it frightens me to think of where that leads.
So, I’ve been very uptight. I’ve noticed how tense my body is all the time and how preoccupied my brain is, so much so that I’m not sure if I am thinking clearly all the time. I’m outraged, all the time, and that is not very conducive to healthy or helpful strategizing. And I have been, at times, quite hopeless, feeling as though we have taken one step forward and 15 steps backwards. It’s enough to get a preacher really down, with little good news to share on a Sunday morning. In fact, I’ve thought that maybe I should pray for God’s guidance…to see if I can have a spark of divine inspiration. But I think it will take more than a spark at this point, I need a really clear, dramatic sign. Shall we pray for that this morning? You know, God…if humankind is doomed and all hope is lost, then give us a clear indication, like blotting out the sun in the middle of the day! Shall we take that as a sign?
It doesn’t matter – it’s not how God works anyway. Though the remarkable cosmic miracle that is a solar eclipse tomorrow afternoon can serve as a sign to us…a sign that there are forces at work in the cosmos, directing the orbit of planets and the movement of stars and that we do not have the final say to how the universe unfolds. But we do have a say…a part to play in the creation that God has set in motion – for God has given us life, and even some suggestions on how to live that life. We need to decide who we are going to be…and what it means to be a follower of Jesus at a time when claiming the title “Christian” gets used for all kinds of things – good and evil.
There’s a reason that Matthew links these two stories. In the first part of this story, Jesus teaches his disciples, in direct opposition to the religious boundaries of his time, that the so-called “purity” laws are not what makes for right relationship with God. Food can’t make you unfit for fellowship with God and other human beings, but evil can…and that comes out of your mouth, not in it. Now, we could speak metaphorically and say that sometimes the “food” we eat, the things that we consume from media or culture, definitely do defile. After all, no one is born with hate. We learn that crap. But Jesus wants to focus the disciples on the heart, on the inside nature of what is, in his culture, mostly an outside discussion. See, it’s what you look like, what you wear, what gender or tribe you are, what you eat, that makes you holy in his day and age. And Jesus feels so strongly that isn’t true at all that he’s willing to buck the system, to call out the tradition, even to defy scripture to make that point. The disciples report that the Pharisees are scandalized by this, because their whole identity is locked up in the world looking like they are used to.
Jesus is speaking words of revolution. To counter the system of hierarchy and privilege that so defines the culture around him is sacrilege. It is blasphemy. It is revolution. And when you speak words of revolution, people expect you to revolt. This is what his disciples expect of him, because they didn’t understand for a long time that his revolution was not to overturn the powers outside, but the power inside. His revolution was for our hearts and minds.
This is why the gospel is cultural, and political. From a religious perspective we are being asked in the gospels to choose. We may choose a practice of religion – a style found in ALL religions, by the way – that sees God as certain, knowable and static…and often also sees that same unchanging God as reflecting the very same values that the followers already possess, endorsing the same social, political and economic models, and hating the same people we hate. We may also choose to see a God who’s compassion is so vast, who’s love has no exceptions and who asks us to let that same love shape our world, transform our systems, and revolutionize our hearts and minds.
See these two parts of Matthew’s tale must be together, for in the first part we get this bold statement of a God who works differently than we are led to believe, even different than we are led to believe today. For make no mistake, my friends, we have our own dietary laws, even if we’re allowed to eat whatever we want. We have our own litmus tests. But it is the second part that matters, for this is where the revolutionary words must become revolutionary actions. And it’s all great to say that we are to love our enemies, but it is quite another thing to actually do that.
In the second part of our section of scripture for today, Jesus himself gets called out. He displays the same symptoms of this illness that we all have contracted. There in the region of Tyre and Sidon, a place Matthew’s readers would have known as “foreign” and, therefore, completely unclean according to the tradition, Jesus preaches these words against the “purity culture” in his religion and then, immediately afterwards, he encounters an “unclean” woman – a Canaanite, a foreigner, an historical enemy of the Judean people – and she asks him for help. Perhaps she has just heard him preach to his disciples that these rules of clean and unclean don’t mean much and so she takes him at his word. She kneels in front of him – which is a sign of worship and humility, and begs for her daughter to be healed. And despite the fact that she comes to him with all the right honorific titles and begs for mercy, he completely ignores her. Nevertheless, she persisted. Breaking all the social rules, she shouts at him and is finally forced, in what would have been a terribly awkward and embarrassing scene, to say, “I was sent only to the people of Israel! They are like a flock of lost sheep. It isn’t right to take food away from children and feed it to dogs.” In other words, God’s help, God’s love, is only for a chosen few.
It is one of the most dramatic moments in the gospels, and one that we don’t hear enough. I’m frankly surprised that it has survived the centuries of editing that has gone on in our scriptures, because it makes Jesus not only human, but a little too human. Jesus has prejudice? Jesus is victim to the same infection of tribalism and racism that we also hold in our hearts? The woman, Matthew tells us, says only this – “Lord, that’s true, but even dogs get the crumbs that fall from their owner’s table.”
BOOM – mic drop! Jesus, you just got called out, dude! You can’t possibly say that being unclean is about what’s in your heart, not what you eat or how you wash and then walk away from this woman because she’s unclean. That would be like the class bully who gets forced to apologize through gritted teeth…no one’s buying it. The Gospel doesn’t record Jesus’ gasp, the shocked look on his face, the moment of heartbreak he has as he realizes the vast chasm between what he has been teaching and what lies in his own heart. What it does record is his response. “Dear woman, you really do have a lot of faith, and you will be given what you want.” At that moment her daughter was healed. What the Greek says is – great is your faith, the only time in Matthew’s gospel that Jesus calls someone’s faith great. He has just lamented the disciples lack of faith on the water during the storm and he will continue to do so throughout the gospel, but here he has encountered someone who has such trust in her own value, in her created-ness, that she defies all the norms, climbs all of the socially-defined walls and says – Here I am.
I think I know which path this group has chosen, which God we believe that we all worship…the God of grace and compassion and love without exceptions. But this necessarily means, my friends, that our lives must be transformed, that there must be some revolution in our own hearts. And that’s not just a one-time deal. I don’t know exactly how to confront racism and bigotry, to “fix” it as if it were a broken taillight or a squeaky door. I know that it is an infection that has lived in our collective body since the inception of our nation and that it continues to manifest itself, and despite our attempts to get rid of it, we never seem to dig out the roots.
When Jesus speaks his revolutionary words about God’s love and God’s availability, I’m not sure he expected to have that be so immediately put to the test. I’m not sure he anticipated what he’d be asked to give up – his sense of “the way things are”, his position, his pride – quite so directly. When we speak of racial justice and inclusion, the same question hangs on us, too – what will we need to give up in order to see our revolutionary words become a revolution in our own hearts? What are we willing to learn? What unexpected moments await us when we’ll have to realize that we, too, are tribal? Or exclusionary? Or racist?
And then, when that moment comes…will we be willing to step forward, to apologize if need be, to seek reconciliation, to change? Will we be willing to say something, to do something when we see injustice and racism right in front of us? For perhaps it is not only what comes out of our mouths that defiles, but also what doesn’t come out of our mouths. It is the tacit acceptance of injustice, an injustice that we know is wrong but which benefits us, so we stay silent. Jesus knew that keeping this woman down was a way to keep him up, but he also knew, or I think he got reminded, of what “up” really means. For that, this lesson from Matthew teaches us, is the real act of revolution…to accept that God is a God of love, and peace and justice, and to change our hearts because of it.