God loves you. No exceptions.
Today I had the privilege of leading the online service - we are going to continue online services through September, due to the Covid-19 situation. If you would like to join us, you can either leave a comment, or go to our church website (see the "About" page) and we will contact you with the appropriate password. We would love you to be there!
It’s not the Jesus we’re used to hearing about, is it? After all the lovely passages that have been read to us today, from Isaiah telling us about “foreigners” loving God’s will to the warm fuzzy feeling from Paul reminding us that God is merciful to all, and the Jesus we know and love telling off the Pharisees for being so concerned about washing of hands and other regulations that they do not care for those in need – then we meet a Jesus who refuses, initially at least, to help a woman desperate for his help and healing for her daughter, and refers to her as “a dog”.
What are we to make of this passage? How are we to view the uncaring disciples who want to send away the woman, and the grumpy Jesus who insults her and tells her that he is only there to save the lost sheep of Israel? How do we balance this with the Jesus who talks about God’s abundant and open mercy?
These are questions that have caused heartache for many people – perhaps you are one. I certainly read this passage and thought “I don’t like this Jesus”. Some people have tried to understand it by saying that Jesus was testing the woman’s faith: would she continue to ask for help, or would she give up? Others have suggested that Jesus was being like this to teach the disciples a lesson: by acting like this he reflected their prejudices and shamed them into realising how closed and unmerciful they had been. Yet others have suggested that this was merely “banter” and Jesus said all these things with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye, so the Canaanite woman knew he was only teasing her. And if you choose to reflect on the passage and to decide one of these was the case, then that is fine. We don’t know. Maybe we will never know.
But I wonder if, instead of this being a friendly joke being shared, or a teaching moment for the disciples, this was in fact a learning point for Jesus. After all, the very heart of the incarnation is that God became fully human. We will, in a few minutes recite the words he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man and this means that he, like us, never stopped learning and discovering. He wasn’t born with a doctrine fully fledged in his heart, he didn’t know everything about his relationship with God from the beginning: like us, that relationship had to develop, and become richer, and more fulfilling. He learned: through life, through others, through Scripture, through prayer, through struggles and joys… he learned about God, and his relationship with his Father grew ever stronger.
Not long before this encounter, in Chapter 10 of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus sends the disciples out…listen again to the words he uses: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Do not go among the Gentiles, he says, Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel, he says. But then, later on, after the Resurrection, he sends the disciples out again, with rather more different, rather more inclusive words: Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…
Now the emphasis has changed, and we see how Jesus, now the Christ, the Risen Lord, the Messiah, is opening the gates of glory to all. All are welcome, God’s mercy is for all nations. This is reflected in Paul’s words, as he builds on lessons learned: For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. God has not abandoned the lost sheep of Israel, for as Paul reminds his readers God is not fickle: he has made a Covenant with the people of Israel, and this Covenant is not to be broken, even though the Jewish people may have been disobedient. But God’s love is now for all, with the prophesy of Isaiah being fulfilled: Thus says the Lord God,who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered. Now the gospel is for all people.
So back to the reading from Matthew…here we are, with an exhausted Jesus, and some concerned disciples. Before this incident, Jesus had been teaching, and healing all who came to him; then he got involved in exchanging words with the Pharisees: they were out to trick him, he was getting frustrated with their obtuseness. Peter then came up to him saying “I don’t quite get it, can you just go through it one more time?” Even in his response to the disciples, Jesus was a bit snippy: “Are you still without understanding?” he says, probably rolling his eyes, as he explains once more. After this the whole party trailed into a Gentile, possibly hostile, place and Jesus is probably looking forward to a good wash and something to eat, when this woman appears shouting and wailing and refusing to take no for an answer…
How often have you been in a situation like this: you’ve had a bad day at work, the cat has been sick (again), the weather is awful, the kids won’t do their homework, whatever it is…Someone asks for help or you see something that needs doing, and you think “No, not today” and make up some excuse. Sorry, God but you’re not getting my time today. Someone else can do it.
And then…the person says something that brings you up short, or you remember a word from the passage of the Bible that you read this morning; a reminder of what generosity is about pops into your head, or a line from a poem, or a prayer, or a sermon…and you realise that you have to do it. Because God’s love is not just for you, or for those who go to Christ Church, or for “the respectable” it is for everyone. Whoever they are.
And you sigh, and roll your eyes at God (or is that just me?) and get on with it.
I wonder if it was like this for Jesus. Here he was, faced with yet another person demanding his help, and this woman wasn’t even one of his own – she was a Gentile, not one of the people of the Covenant. So when the disciples turned to him and said “She’s taking no notice of us – can you deal with it?” he snapped at her I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Go away, woman, I haven’t got time to deal with this: I’m here for the Jewish people. There’s enough of them need saving without you getting in on the act.
But she won’t take no for an answer, and asks again, to which he insults her, insinuating that as she is not one of the Chosen, she’s no better than a dog begging for scraps. Jesus really isn’t being very pleasant here, but is suddenly drawn up short by her arguing back that even dogs are entitled to food…Even those outside the Covenant are entitled to God’s love and mercy…
And I wonder if too Jesus heard an echo of himself saying to the Pharisees “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person
In these words he challenges us, and himself, into understanding and accepting that what you say and do reflects what you believe…And does he really believe that God only loves the Jewish people? Does he really believe that nobody, except the people of the Covenant, are entitled to his teaching, and healing? Does he really believe that God’s love is exclusive, not inclusive?
I think that in this exchange, Jesus had a breakthrough moment. I think that he had a shift in his thinking – he understood that the lost sheep were not just the lost sheep of Israel, but anyone who needs the Shepherd. That he was not just the Messiah long awaited by the Jewish people, but that he was the way to life, to reconciliation to God for all.
And we need to understand that God’s welcome is for all, and act on it. If you watched the PowerPoint presentation before the service you might have seen one of the slides with the banner that says “God loves you. No exceptions” And then it says “The Episcopal Church welcomes you”. We are the Church – and we meet under the umbrella, if you like, of the Episcopal Church. And so we are saying that we believe this: God loves everyone. No exceptions – whether the person is gay, transgender, heterosexual, bisexual, disabled, autistic, intelligent, learning disabled, young, old, black, Asian, white, man, woman, drug addict, alcoholic, Muslim, Jew, agnostic, Hindu, refugee, unemployed, managing director, homeless..….the list goes on. Anyone. NO exceptions
We are being challenged here : what does our welcome look like? Are we truly open to all, or do we exclude certain people – even without realising it? Do we think that only certain people worthy of our help? Have we realised, as Jesus did, that everybody is valuable in the sight of God? And do our words and actions really reflect that?
Jesus answered the demands of the Canaanite woman, because she taught him that everyone is entitled to hear the word of God and to experience his generosity. Have we also learned that lesson, or are we still living a life that believes some people don’t “deserve” to be helped? We are called to live God’s love in the world, so I leave us all with a question:
What is the nature of God’s love: is it exclusive and conditional, or is it inclusive and unconditional? And do we reflect that love in the way we live and speak and interact with the people we meet?
We have experienced your love.
We know that you love us, without exception, without holding back.
Your love has been poured out over us with abandon.
And yet, so often, we want to hold that love back,
judging others in your place, as "worthy", as acceptable of your love.
Help us to be more like you,
to realise that you love everyone. No exceptions.
And help us to act out this abundant, liberating, life giving love.