August 20, 2017

Matthew 15:10-28

“Lifelong Learners”

Do you remember learning how to drive a car? For many Canadian teenagers today, learning to drive is an important part of growing up, and a sign of status when they get their license and the right to drive on their own, without a parent sitting in the passenger seat.

For a variety of reasons, I didn’t get my license as a teenager. Mostly because I just didn’t have time to take the course, and I didn’t really need a vehicle where I lived because there was a very good transit system. But when I finally did take the time to get it in my early 20s, I took the learning process very seriously.

I read, and re-read, and studied the little booklet with the rules of the road and the traffic signs before attempting the test to get my learner’s permit. And then I paid for the comprehensive driving course from “Young Drivers of Canada.” I went to every classroom session well prepared, having gone over the topics to be covered that day, and I did spectacularly well when it came time for the quizzes.

But I wasn’t like a Prairie farm kid, who had driven a tractor before driving a car. And I wasn’t like many friends I knew who had done a little driving at the lake with their family, or under some such circumstances gotten some driving experience.

That’s why I was so grateful for the in-car sessions with the instructor. It was those sessions that really helped me to learn how to be a driver… figuring out where your feet are in relation to the gas pedal and the brake so you don’t hit the wrong one accidentally, getting used to where you are in relation to other vehicles on the road, and what it feels like to drive and steer at various speeds. And of course, trying out the theories around three-point turns and parallel parking, and actually attempting to put them into practice.

Can you imagine learning how to drive just from the book? Can you imagine driving that car for the first time without the benefit of someone to show you how… just on the strength of what you learned in the classroom?

I read the longer version of the Gospel reading that is set for today, because the two sections (the first part with Jesus teaching, and the second part with Jesus healing a woman’s daughter) seem like the theory session and the practice session of a lesson for the disciples on who belongs in the family of God.

Jesus begins with the theory, as he teaches his followers something quite different from what they have been hearing from the religious leaders of their time. People like the Pharisees were very concerned about how the Jewish people kept the religious laws and practices of their faith, including the dietary rules that identified them as the People of Israel with a special relationship to God. People of other cultures and religions stood out as different (and were considered unclean) because they ate things like pork and shellfish, and didn’t worry about mixing dairy and meats in their meals.

But Jesus’ approach to other people (to foreigners, outsiders, and Gentiles) was different. He said that what defiles a person (what make makes them unclean, sinful, or bad) is not what goes into their mouth (whether they eat pork like a Gentile or even meat sacrificed to idols like some religions in that time). In other words, people are not automatically bad, based on their religion or culture. They’re not automatically bad, based on their colour or race.

Jesus taught that what defiles a person is what comes out of their mouth (what they say) because their words show what is in their hearts. So, if our words demonstrate hatred, or selfishness, or jealousy, or pride… that is what shows our sinfulness.

Just to be clear, Jesus says that what we eat just ends up in the sewer. What we say shows what is in our hearts. And obviously, it is our hearts that matter when it comes to being right with God.

Next, Jesus takes the disciples on a field trip to Tyre and Sidon (a region far away from their Jewish villages) to show them what it’s like to put that teaching into practice.

Okay, I don’t know if Jesus planned it as a lesson or not. Maybe it was just a coincidence that they met a Canaanite woman so soon after, an outsider who needed their help. Or maybe the author of Matthew’s Gospel put these passages together to show theory and practice side by side.

The way the story is told, however, it’s not totally clear who is the teacher in this practical encounter. Did you notice how Jesus didn’t respond, at first, to the woman’s desperate cry? Did you notice his initial response when he does finally speak? He says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

And then, when she pleads with him some more to help her daughter, Jesus utters the most horrifying retort, at least to our contemporary ears: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Can you believe that he really said that? He called the Canaanite, Gentile woman and her daughter “dogs.” He dismissed her – not because he didn’t have the power to help, not because he didn’t have the time to help, but because she was an outsider to his People, and not his responsibility.

Some interpreters suggest that it is Jesus who is learning here. It is Jesus who is learning, from the faith of a foreigner, that his mercy and love are meant to extend beyond his own People of Israel to all the daughters and sons of the earth.

Others scoff at the idea that Jesus could have anything he needed to learn (as the very Son of God) and they suggest that he put on a kind of show for his disciples, feigning rejection of the woman based on her nationality, and then turning things around to demonstrate how to put the lesson of his most recent sermon into practice.

I don’t really know which interpretation is right. But whether Jesus was learning or just pretending, there was a good lesson to be learned by those who witnessed the encounter and by us who read about it today.

It may have been a pretty new and radical idea for Jesus’ first followers – the concept that God was not only FOR THEM, but FOR ALL PEOPLE without distinction.

The Hebrew Scriptures of their Jewish Faith did contain two distinct traditions around “insiders and outsiders.” In one of those traditions, the Israelites learn to guard their identity as God’s People in order to remain pure and faithful to the One God. The commandments give them a way of living that keeps them separate from others, and they put a high value on making themselves distinct through special practices and dietary laws that are designed to keep them close to God.

But there is another tradition within the Hebrew Scriptures that is found in the writings of the prophets (like our reading from Isaiah today). And in this tradition, the Lord uses the prophets to challenge and correct the People of Israel… calling them to treat foreigners with dignity and respect, teaching them to welcome and include people they thought of as outsiders, and letting them know that they are not the only children who are loved by the Father, the One God of ALL the people.

In theory, and now in practice, Jesus is critiquing the Pharisees’ emphasis on separateness and a special relationship with God. And he’s teaching his disciples to embrace the prophetic tradition within their faith that was already beginning to think more broadly about God’s People.

When it comes to this kind of learning, it seems that the theory is often a little easier to manage than the practice. If we were starting to think that we live in a pretty tolerant and peaceful society, in which diversity and difference are accepted and celebrated, and people live as good neighbours in a democratic society… then the last week in the United States may have reminded us that we have a long, long way to go.

White supremacist and Neo-Nazi rallies, counter-protests, and violence in the streets… people who hate and reject others literally based on the colour of their skin, their religion, their culture, their gender, or their sexual orientation. And these people were marching through the streets with torches and weapons, and making their racist views well known.

And I hate to say it, but I expect that a good percentage of them would identify themselves as Christians. Some of them probably even go to church. They must have heard the theory, right? They can’t have missed the simple instruction to “love your neighbour as yourself,” even if they might have been confused by today’s more difficult Gospel story.

But no matter whether they went to Sunday School in a Presbyterian Church (like Donald Trump, I hate to say), or whether they listened to some sermons or memorized some Bible verses, these guys sure didn’t get the point. They didn’t learn how to put it into practice.

We’re much better than them though, aren’t we? This is Canada. We love multiculturalism. We want to welcome refugees, we become friends with our Muslim neighbours, and we appreciate the diversity of our communities. The Vancouver counter-protest yesterday had a massive number of peaceful people gathered to protest racism, and one news outlet said it was more like a party than a protest!

I wish that I could say that WE faithfully and consistently put the theory of our Christian faith into practice. But if I’m honest, I have to admit that I don’t always do it. And I expect that neither do you.

On my Monday day-off last week, I spent some time doing various errands. One of those was to take our cans and bottles to the Sarcan depot. Since it was the first time I needed to do the recycling since moving to Regina, I looked up the nearest depot online, and found one on Angus Street, just north of the railway tracks.

I pulled into the crowded parking lot, and squeezed into the last parking spot that was open. I grabbed my bag of beverage containers from the trunk of the car, and walked towards the entrance.

As I approached the building, I noticed quite a crowd of people milling around outside, smoking and talking. And I felt a flutter in my gut. I felt a little nervous as I realized I would need to walk through that group to get into Sarcan.

And you know why, right? You can guess why I experienced that slightly anxious moment… because they were all Indigenous people. The fact that I felt it, and the fact that you knew it, betray the fact that we still have prejudices and we still make assumptions about people based on their background, culture, or race.

Now, I didn’t slow down or turn around, and I didn’t say anything rude. In fact, I did my best to make eye contact and to smile. Because I have learned (in theory) that God’s love and mercy and care is for ALL people, and I WANT to put it into practice in the way that I live and interact with others.

In reflecting on Jesus and the Canaanite woman, one commentator sums it up: “The real lesson of this incident – the main reason why Matthew made sure to record this story in the first place – is to challenge all of us in the church to imitate Jesus in being willing to extend the gospel to all people, starting with the ones who, for whatever reason, we may initially deem beyond the pale.”

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