Monday, March 8, 2010

The King: The Rule of Humility

Preached Sunday, March 7
Scripture Readings: Psalm 145; Matthew 15:21-28

One of the great points of the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman is that woman’s faith. In the end, Jesus told her, “Woman, you have great faith.” (15:28)

The strange thing about this story is that Jesus seemed to deliberately go out of his way to make it hard for her to have faith. At first he ignored her and gave her the silent treatment.

Next he told her that it wasn’t his mission to heal Gentiles, even though he had done it before. For instance, he had healed the servant of the Roman army officer. (8:5-13)

He talked to her about Gentiles being like dogs compared to the children of Israel. Were this mother and her little girl dogs? This was serious.

Not only was “dog” a common slur that the Jews used for non-Jews (at least for the ones who had invaded them, and lived among them where they didn’t belong). The word dog, when applied to a female of the human species, meant exactly what it means in English. In polite society it is an unspeakable word.

The truth is that something else was going on with that word dog: the “D” word. I’ll tell you about that later.

I would say that Jesus made this woman jump over some hurtles before he answered her prayer. But that image of jumping doesn’t fit, because you have to rise in order to leap hurtles.

Here it looks like Jesus was making the woman crawl. But she doesn’t crawl, either, because she seems to take to it, like to a battle of wits, and she wins that battle; or else Jesus lets her win. It is more like a limbo dance, like they did in the early 1960’s, bending over backwards to dance under a horizontal pole. The woman danced really low.

So, if Jesus was impressed by the Canaanite woman’s faith, it was a faith with a special quality. The quality of her faith was lowness. The special quality of her faith was humility.

In the Bible, faith is down to earth. It is honest. It is real. Faith is often very, very needy. Faith is humble.

And just as Jesus’ answer came as a result of some sort of conversation with the woman; faith is conversational. Faith is a conversation (communicating, listening, watching) with Jesus.

The woman started out shouting at Jesus. She wound up conversing with Jesus.

Faith is humble because, as with love, it is very much like Jesus. Jesus lived by a kind of faith on our behalf, in order to give us that faith as we receive newness of life from him. We can be faithful because Jesus was faithful, and because now he lives in us. And Jesus’ faith was a humble faith.

Matthew tells us that Jesus withdrew from the land of Israel for a little while. He went up into the non-Jewish territory (pagan territory) to the north, in the region of Tyre and Sidon, in what is now Lebanon.

Mark, in his retelling of the same story, tells us that Jesus, while he was up there, stayed in a house where he hoped to be undetected. (Mark 7:24) Mark also comments on Jesus’ attempt to be undetected as a failed attempt because, as Mark observes, “he could not be hid.”

Matthew tells us that “Jesus withdrew”, and this is something that Jesus simply did from time to time. (Matthew 14:13; Mark 1:35; 6:31) He would take off and disappear. He did this for his own renewal and his own recovery of strength and energy. He taught his disciples that they also needed to learn how to withdraw; how to rest and be renewed. We need rest and renewal, and faith needs to accept this need. This is how we let humility rule our faith.

Withdrawal is part of the life of faith. It is why faith is humble. Faith is honest, realistic, transparent. Faith includes having self-understanding (knowing oneself as one truly is, and being honest about what one needs) just as much as it is about understanding who God is: because faith is about the relationship between us; our relationship with the Lord and his relationship with us. Faith includes trusting that rest, and our need for rest, is a gift from God.

For Jesus withdrawing was a time for looking toward his Father and taking time for love. Jesus would surely think the thoughts we read in Psalm 145: “The Lord is faithful to all his promises, and loving toward all he has made. The Lord upholds all those who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down. The eyes of all look to you and you give them their food at the proper time.” (Psalm 145:13-15)

The proper time: there is a proper time for everything and so faith is not in a hurry. Faith can rest because it trusts God. Faith has enough self-knowledge to know that we are not indispensable. Or, if we are indispensable, faith puts even that in God’s hands. Faith knows how to rest. Faith plans to rest. It is like a taking a vacation.

The interesting thing about Jesus’ vacations is that they were almost never successful. Jesus was always found out and put to use. For Jesus to say, “Let’s go off by ourselves,” must have become something of a joke to the disciples (or at least to Jesus).

Our faith needs to be humble enough to rest, any way we can, when we need it. We need to take the time to be renewed, unless we think that we are better than Jesus who needed to rest.

The Psalm says, “I will meditate on your wonderful works.” (Psalm 145:5) Sometimes we do this, as Jesus did with his disciples, in the presence of those we love. Sometimes a place in the wilderness is best for enjoying God’s wonderful works (as when Jesus crossed to the far side of Galilee). Even a city (like the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon, on that particular failed vacation of Jesus) could be a place to rest.

Faith is humble because it knows how to come to the place where we end and where God begins.

This is the kind of faith that the Canaanite woman who came to Jesus had. At first all we see her doing is shouting, and shouting, and shouting; “Have mercy, have mercy!” This woman had no dignity, because she had come to the end of herself. She had forgotten herself, because she was full of love and full of fear for her little girl. She had been completely humbled by the experience of her daughter’s possession.

And this woman was raised, and was expected, to be dignified. Mark tells us that she was “a Greek born in Syrian Phoenicia.” (7:26) I think this is a way of saying that she was a member of the elite.

The common people in that part of the Roman Empire still spoke a Syrian dialect of Aramaic. It was a language similar to Hebrew, and not very different from the Galilean Aramaic dialect of Jesus and the disciples.

But this woman was no commoner. There was an upper class in that part of the world that was born speaking Greek and belonged to the culture of Athens and Rome. This woman was part of that upper class. In Tyre and Sidon, she could have gone to the theatre and to the gladiatorial games. She was one of those people, and Jesus was a Jewish peasant (albeit a very important peasant, because he had the potential of helping her daughter).

This woman knew the puzzling stories that were told in the eastern part of the Classical world, about the predictions that there would be a King of the Jews who would rule the world. He would be called “the Son of David” after the greatest Jewish king in history. She also had heard about Jesus, and what Jesus was able to do. She knew that Jesus could heal her daughter.

She also knew that Jesus was Jewish, and that the Jews were very picky about whom they associated with. She was afraid she might need to be very careful how she approached Jesus, if she wanted him to listen to her and do what she begged him to do. She would be very careful to call him “the Son of David”.

At the same time, the woman knew the strangest of the rumors about Jesus. She knew that this Jesus would talk to absolutely anyone, touch anyone, visit anyone, heal anyone. And this is why she went to him.

Knowing all of this went into her plan, and it worked. Jesus said: “Let it be done for you as you wish.” (15:28)

Her daughter was healed. But she was only able to get through it all because, in her love for her daughter, and in what she knew about Jesus, she came to the end of herself and the beginning of the Lord.

We are like children in a classroom where the lesson is going above our heads, and we are afraid to ask a question. That would be a loss of dignity. Faith means knowing that you must care about something, or you must be the advocate for someone; and (like the Canaanite woman) you can’t let silence, or rejection, or the loss of dignity stop you. You must come to the end of yourself and carry out your task; in work, or in service to others, or in prayer, or in ministry. That is faith under the rule of humility.

Now for the “D” word: the word dog was a vicious slur. The dogs in Jewish towns were vicious animals. They were nobody’s pets. They were wild scavengers that ate the garbage in the streets and in the dumps. They were ugly, nasty, dirty, and dangerous. To compare a person to a dog was an ultimate insult.

But the Romans and the Greeks were different. They had pet dogs: dogs for work, for hunting, and for pleasure. Popular writers of the day made fun of upper class women who owned little lap dogs and pampered them like children. Families owned dogs as pets and playmates for their children.

In Greek there was a word for dog, but that same word could be changed, just a little, and refer to a whole other kind of dog. It worked the same as our words for “dog” and “doggie”.

There is a world of difference between a dog and a doggie. This story of Jesus, the Canaanite woman, and the dog word is about the “doggies”. You might even say “puppies”.

All of a sudden Jesus the Jewish Messiah was talking about a dinner table in the casual part of a Greek home, where the children are present and their puppies are under the table. Of course the puppies belong. Of course they are part of the family. Of course they can be blest and fed.

“Jesus, I am so different from you. You are so much more than I am. I was afraid you might have called me a dog, but am I only your puppy after all?” I think it could have made that woman laugh when she joined in the joke: “Yes, Lord, but even the puppies eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” (15:27)

Faith is humble because the Lord has disarmed our old nature on the cross and given us a new name and nature. We have been changed from junkyard dogs to puppies at the table. The change is even funny, so the best we can do is to be able to laugh at ourselves. It is the Lord’s joke and ours.

The Psalm says: “The Lord is faithful to all his promises, and loving toward all he has made…The eyes of all look to you and you give them their food in due season.”
When we come to the end of ourselves, and to the beginning of God, we find ourselves again made new, and with a new name. Jesus was prepared to die on the cross to change our name and our nature so that we could come to his table and eat; sometimes as his puppies, but also as so much more; as real children of the kingdom of God.

No comments:

Post a Comment