Welcome back to the church’s version of the Netflix series on the life and travels of Jesus. Our hero is a first century Jewish healer, a wise man who comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable. Last week, some holier-than-though men were hassling Jesus. Your people don’t wash their hands correctly before meals. These were same tiresome trolls who complained when you healed sick people on the day of rest and they had clucked that you invited yourself to dinner at the house of a very sinful man. So which was worse, guys, inviting yourself or getting contaminated by the sinful host?
Jesus is fed up, and he goes off on them: there is nothing outside of a person that defiles him. Rather, it is what comes from inside that defiles him.
This was not an argument about hygiene, in the modern sense of fighting germs and bacteria. Of course you should wash your hands. Often. We’re glad that our surgical team scrubs up correctly, and we all should wash our hands more than we do. Jesus didn’t know about germs, but he knew where evil came from, and it wasn’t from pork, or the lack of circumcision, or the dust on your feet from the roads, or the failure to say one’s prayers on time. Evil comes from the devices and desires of the human heart.
So in this morning’s episode, our hero has left the country. He’s gone to what we now call Lebanon, for a break. Nobody’s going to criticize him up there if he prays sitting down or standing up. He’s looking for some alone-time, so he quietly checks into a guest house. But a woman gets past security and falls at his feet. I picture her not even looking up at him when she speaks. Sir, please cast the demon out of my daughter, she says.
Jesus’ reply makes me cringe. Oh. Sorry, lady, but the children of Israel come first? Okay, you heard about me being the bread of life, maybe? But my own people–they’re still eating? You want me to toss their bread on the floor for you?
Without missing a beat, she replies, true, my Lord, but even little dogs like me can have the crumbs, though……….right?
OOOOOH, Pagan Woman 1, Jesus 0!
I know! Jesus has no clever reply. He is so impressed. (pause). Well. Because you have said this, the demon has already left your daughter. Go home to her.
This kind of story about Jesus is very rare. He’s usually been the one with the quick comeback ‘render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar’. He also usually cheers humility. He tells people to take the lowest place at a banquet, to turn the other cheek, to never take revenge, to humble yourself. But this nameless woman just out-humbled him. Call me a dog, that’s fine, I know what you Jews think of us, but you aren’t just any Jew. Demons listen to you, so PLEASE.
This is just one paragraph, one episode after Jesus finished telling off the annoying men who can’t see human beings and their sufferings except through their own tribal, religious, racial lenses.
And now here he is, discounting this human being’s suffering because of those same tribal, religious, racial lenses. But unlike the Pharisees back home, Jesus corrects himself right away. Never again do we see him quickly dismiss an ethnic outsider, a non-Jew
The next day they travel deeper into gentile lands and he heals a deaf man with a speech impediment. Jesus takes him to a private place, and places his fingers in the foreigner’s ears and if I’m picturing this properly, spits on his fingers and puts one on the poor guy’s tongue. He doesn’t wash his hands first, or say a prayer of decontamination afterward. Saliva, gross as it seems to us, is, to a spirit person, a sacred substance.
Then he tells them to keep this private. People ignore his request, as usual.
Of course we know how the story goes on from there. Spoiler alert for people watching this series for the first time, you can plug your ears if you want, and I’ll give you the signal when it’s okay to listen again.
Of course we know how the story goes on from here. Jesus becomes better and better known. Some think he’s a magician, others think he’s a revolutionary. Some say he is a prophet, a few think he is a god, or The God. The Romans end up not caring who he claims to be, since he is obviously not Zeus or Caesar or anybody important like that. They execute him with the approval of some Jewish leaders, and then the stories start circulating that he returned from the dead.
(signal). And that’s what’s coming. Sad and inspiring, and truly heroic all the way through, Jesus’ story brings us back week after week because it is so beautifully unfinished. We’re still living it. Hopefully.
His followers swore that the gospel was true, that Jesus was risen and alive, not just in fond memory, but in the action of the Holy Spirit of God. One of Jesus’ followers was named James, responsible for today’s Epistle. James was the head of the church in Jerusalem. The Mother Church, really. For 30 years after Jesus, he had the last word on all the big decisions the Church made. It is likely that he was Jesus’ actual younger brother. The Orthodox call him adelphotheos, the Brother of God, just as they call Mary theotokos, the Bearer of God. On the other hand, my Jesuit teachers considered James the cousin of Jesus.
James writes, When you jump up to greet the nice-looking, wealthy-looking newcomer to your synagogues, with this favoritism, how can you really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?
In other words, your behavior is shouting so loudly that no one can hear a word you are saying.
If someone new turns up at church, some of us don’t even say hello, because we’re shy or we’d rather talk to people we already know. If the visitor doesn’t look like they would “fit in,” do we make them beg from crumbs under our table? James says that’s the real test of faith: if a fellow human being has no clothes or food, and you simply tell them “go in peace! Keep warm! Bon appetit!” and you do nothing to help, all the lovely words you recite in church are worse than meaningless. How nice that you believe in Jesus. But faith without action is empty. The Golden Rule does not say “say nice things unto others so they might say nice things unto you.”
Christians disagree about what kind of action is required. Some say we must bring people to Christ lest they perish before accepting him. Others say we must receive the sacraments of the church with sincere hearts. Still others say we must imitate Christ’s example. None of us, however, believes it’s enough just to be nice. We need to do difficult things for the sake of those who need to feel more love. So our quiet time, our prayer time, our meditation, our worship is essential. Especially in these times of trouble, we need to spend more time recharging our spiritual batteries and less time wringing our hands and feeling powerless.
For me, that means doing a little spiritual reading – usually the daily Bible readings I get in my email every morning. It means limiting my diet of news that just makes me more anxious. For me, that means tutoring once a week and helping renovate apartments for people who don’t get to live in a nice house in Linden Hills. It means getting my weekly recharge of music and wisdom right here. And hugs.
The nameless woman took a leap of action because of her leap of faith: she threw herself at Jesus’ feet like a dog, prompting him to call her one. Jesus responded first with mere words, and shocking ones at that. But then quickly he knew he had to act. This pagan, foreign, miserable woman was preaching the Gospel to our Lord.
My dad was a man of great faith in God. He said so every once in awhile, but anyone who knew him could tell, not because he talked about it, but by the way he lived. His favorite Jesus quotation was “by their fruits ye shall know them.” In other words, what people do is more telling than what they say. And don’t judge until you see how things turn out. Actions speak louder.
Eleven hundred years after Jesus got told by that pushy woman, St. Francis is reported to have said, “preach the Gospel. If necessary, use words.”