Sermon for 8/16/20: FHB: Or when two ethically valid mores appear to collide

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11 Pentecost,

Ps. 133; Genesis 45:1 – 15; Romans 11: 1 – 2a, 29 – 32; Matt. 15: (10 – 20), 21 – 28

It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. Matt. 15: 26b

Those who study twins, both identical and fraternal twins, have noted that twins quite often develop their own language.  They possess a second sense, as it were, and use a non-standard vocabulary which allows them to express themselves to each other, without revealing to anyone who may be listening in.  In my childhood, I knew two sisters, next door neighbors in fact, who were twins, though not identical, and I never knew them to use a special twin sister language.  Recently, one of the sisters contacted me, because my name was mentioned as a possible research source and she was curious to establish whether I was the one and same with whom she had played as a child.  I am, but decades older.  I did not ask her, [her call now 4 years ago], whether she and her twin sister had a special language.

I can attest, however, that my [twinless] family had a special family language, which my mother employed, but only when we had guests.  I share a bit of family history.  My father was already a young adult when the Great Depression was in high gear.  He recounted for us, personally and vividly, what the history books covered only too, too statistically.  He told us tales of days of a gnawing hunger, of having to forego higher education, in order to add to the family’s coffers, notwithstanding that he was one of only three siblings (having an older brother and a younger sister).  He worked long and hard hours in order that, together, his family had funds to buy food.  His goal, [he told] us, was to be sure that his children (should he ever had any) would be encouraged to pursue their education as far as their interests and abilities led them.  But primary for him was that they would never have to go to bed hungry.  I confess that, occasionally, I did go to bed hungry, but of my own accord: I refused to eat what he or my mother had prepared for dinner.

My mother, much younger than he and [who had] barely skipped the Great Depression, performed the traditional role of women of her generation, the three C’s: Children, Cooking, and Church (Kinder, Kochen, Kirche).  She believed that, as a Christian, she was obligated to welcome any stranger who came to our door seeking assistance.  It was not unusual to see her hand out a plate of food to a stranger at the door.  Also, she was happiest when Sunday’s dinner (in her generation, held on Sunday afternoon) included friends or associates from my father’s occupation, a partner in a small mortuary.  It was from her that my younger brothers, sisters, and I learned our special family language.  Often, when she had prepared enough for the family and a guest arrived unexpectedly, she would say quietly: O.K. children, FHB.  That, being interpreted into standard American, is ‘family hold back!’

With those three little letters of the alphabet, FHB, two equally ethically sound philosophical and religious mandates collided, [one] of my father[‘s] and [one] of my mother[‘s]; [my father’s mandate was] to care for children, and that of my mother to welcome the stranger.  My father insisted, recalling his own childhood and young adulthood of occasional severe scarcity, that we children should be given to eat, prior to any non-family.  My mother, on the other hand, sought to fulfill her Christian obligation to welcome the stranger.  As best I recall, cross words were never exchanged between the two of them in our presence, and it was only years later, in my young adulthood, that I questioned them both about FHB and what that represented.

The scenario p256px-Bernardelli-cristo and CanaaniteWomanresented to us in today’s gospel from Matthew revived for me that occasional scene from my childhood.  On its merit, this dramatic exchange poses a problem for people of faith who would see Jesus as the compassionate, generous shepherd of souls and healer of physical and emotional ailments, and as someone who challenged the norms of his day, especially those involving women and children.  The response [that] Jesus offers the Canaanite woman is, on the surface, a harsh, off-putting one.  Does John in his gospel not record that Jesus came to the defense of the woman who was to be stoned [for] her adulterous affairs with men in the village?   “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her!” (John 8:7)

Is the Jesus who, on the surface at least, rejected the petition of the Canaanite women the same Jesus whom Matthew recorded as admonishing his followers to care for the stranger among them?  (Matthew 25: 31 – 41)  Did Matthew make an error?  Is this the same Jesus of Nazareth who cured the daughter of the Roman centurion, or gave sight to the man who had been blind since birth? Or the Jesus who had only recently fed thousands and had rescued Peter from sinking?  Why, one is tempted to ask, should this woman appear to grovel before The Teacher, whom she clearly recognized as someone of importance?  She came uninvited and cried out: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David.” (14:22) And her cause was a truly worthy one—not for herself, but for her daughter.Canaanite_woman_asks_Christ_to_cure_Wellcome_V0034860

If I am honest, I confess that I, a man of the 20th and 21St centuries, cringe each time this little but highly significant dramatic exchange appears in our lectionary. The Canaanite woman appears to grovel and would debase herself: “She said, ‘Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.’” (15:27)   “Master?”  “Crumbs?”  Hierarchy and residue come immediately to mind.  It would be perhaps useful to take a slight detour into the socio-political history [of] the time that this encounter occurs.

The Canaanite woman—by what means she was identified as a Canaanite is unclear—belonged to a people who no longer ruled the land [occupied by] the people of Israel.  Recall that it is Canaan [that] God promises Abram (a.k.a. Abraham) if he would agree to go there and live according to the commandments of the God of Creation.  Canaan or the Land of Canaan acquired its name from Canaan who was the grandson of Ham, the youngest of Noah’s sons.  By chance, Ham and his son Canaan had come upon their father (i.e. grandfather Noah) while Noah lay naked in his tent, recovering from a drunken stupor.  Ham reported their father’s condition to his older brothers, who then walked backward into the tent in order to cover their father’s nakedness.

Drunkenness_of_Noah_belliniWhen Noah awoke and was told of this incident, he cursed his son and grandson that they should have seen him naked.  The Canaanites became a confederate of tribes, but their common name was Canaanites.  At the time of the appearance of Jesus, the Canaanites were no longer a strong nation; rather, Israel ruled the land.  Thus it was not totally out of order that the Canaanite woman showed respect and deference by her analogy, that dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.  The Israelites were the masters.

This interchange between Jesus and the Canaanite woman, albeit initially seeming harsh and off-putting, becomes for the disciples of Jesus who witnessed that interaction what we moderns call “a teachable moment.”  The woman did not belong to their favored group.  Therefore, as a woman and as a non-Hebrew, someone not of the immediate tribe of Israel, she “deserved” in their eyes to be cast aside or belittled.  She just did not belong!

Recall, if you will, another time in the ministry of Jesus, when outsiders were looked down upon and his disciples suggested that they, too, should be silenced.  At the commissioning, the sending forth of the disciples two by two, several of those disciples reported upon their return that they had discovered others, not from their select group, who were performing acts of kindness and healing in the name of Jesus.  They recommended to Jesus that they be stopped.  Stopped not because of their good works they were doing, but because they did not belong, they were not of that special and select group sent out by Jesus.  On that occasion, Jesus refused to give in to his disciples’ narrowmindedness and desire for exclusivity.  Rather, they must and should acknowledge that good can and does come from others who believe in God’s will that “brethren should dwell together in unity.”

As people of faith in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth who came to live among us humans, that we might have an example of how to accomplish right, the same faith which accomplished the goal of the Canaanite woman, we live ourselves under the same mandate that Jesus levied upon the two-by-two reporters, as well as those disciples who would have sent the Canaanite woman away empty.  To have done that would have denied the Song [that] Mary sang: “He has put down the mighty from their seat and has exalted the humble and meek. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”  We must daily ask ourselves the question whether we are executing forgiveness and justice and are casting a glance that goes beyond our physical sight-range.  As biblical record informs us, Jesus did come to save the people of Israel from the same fate [that] brought the Canaanites to naught (i.e. ungodly behavior) but biblical record informs us further that Jesus took on human form in order to reach all humankind, no matter tribal, ethnic, or national identity.

In this context, it becomes clear to us that Jesus uses the appearance and petition of a woman, descendant from [a different] ethnic and tribal group, in order to dispel any notion that ethnic or national origin incurs favor or standing before God, the Creator of all humankind.  What does bring us into union with God is our faith in God’s eternal goodness.  Pray that we lose not that faith, nor allow others to diminish the faith that God has placed in us all to perfect a union on earth as in heaven.