Proper 15A Sermon (2002)

Proper 15 (August 14-20)
Texts: Matthew 15:10-28;
Gen. 45:1-15; Rom. 11:1-2a, 29-32


On Sunday, we read the story of Jesus walking on the water to the disciples through a wind-swept sea. Matthew’s gospel adds a wonderful account of Peter getting out of the boat to walk on the water to Jesus. But he takes his eyes off the Lord and begins to sink.

Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matt 14:31)

We asked what is faith, if Peter had little of it at that moment. We had a surprising answer to that question after we looked at two things: first, how the Bible uses the frightening waters of the seas as an image for the threatening nature of human violence; second, with that image of being drowned in violence in mind, we can see how this test of Peter’s faith out on the stormy sea was a foreshadowing of the big test to come, when Jesus would let himself be swamped under in the storm of human violence awaiting him on the cross. Jesus predicted that the disciples would all fall away when that storm of violence came. Peter showed momentary courage — just like he did when he stepped out of the boat — he followed Jesus to the high priest’s courtyard. But, then, again as happened on the lake, he began to sink under. He denied Jesus three times when the accusations started flying in his direction. Jesus wasn’t there this time to immediately extend a hand and lift him up — not until Easter, when Jesus’ heavenly Father would first lift him up to once again rise above the stormy waters of violence.

So the answer we gave to our question about faith was this: True faith is not getting pulled into the stormy waters of violence. Jesus is the prime example. He faced the drowning waters of our human violence by neither running away from them, nor by returning it with a violence of his own. Rather, he let himself be pulled under for three days, only to rise once again above them. Easter morning is a repeat of that miracle of walking on the water. Jesus didn’t get pulled into our human ways of violence but instead rose above them to offer us forgiveness instead of vengeance. Faith is learning to respond to the stormy waters of human violence like Jesus did, with courage but not violence. In short, faith, I believe, is learning to respond to violence without violence. (See the Proper 14A sermon.)

In today’s Gospel, I think we once again have a test of faith for the disciples, but it is one that they witness in other folks. Matthew 15 begins with the Pharisees challenging Jesus about the Jewish (and my mother’s!) rules for cleanliness: his disciples don’t wash their hands before eating. Jesus speaks to them about what is really clean and unclean. The dirty things that go in your mouth aren’t as important as the dirty things that come out of your mouth. Jesus hasn’t directly insulted them; he has merely put forward another view on the matter. But notice how the Pharisees respond. The disciples notice: they are uneasy about the fact that they are offended by what Jesus says to them, and they tell Jesus so.

But notice the story that comes right after this one. Jesus, for some reason, goes way off their normal beaten path, far northeast over towards the Mediterranean coast, in the region of Tyre and Sidon. This is a place among foreigners, among people with whom Jews didn’t ordinarily mix. And, sure enough, they are accosted by one of these foreign women who asks Jesus to heal her daughter. Now, there’s no two ways to get around this fact: Jesus out-and-out insults her, basically calling her a dog. Why would he do such a thing?! Why?!

Some people are comfortable with saying that Jesus was behaving as a normal Jew. Notice that the disciples don’t record their uneasiness at this point. Jesus had simply disagreed with the Pharisees, yet the disciples felt compelled to make sure Jesus knew they were offended. Jesus calls this woman a dog, but they apparently don’t bat an eye. They had already urged Jesus to get rid of her. Yes, perhaps that was a fairly normal thing to do, to insult a foreigner.

But Jesus wasn’t normal! I could perhaps accept the fact that Jesus thought his mission was among Jews first, and that this woman ‘taught’ him otherwise. But I can’t accept the fact that Jesus would insult someone so rudely. He called Pharisees hypocrites. But to call someone a dog? I don’t think so.

Unless . . . unless this was a lesson about faith for the disciples to witness. Jesus knew this woman’s faith. The disciples had just seen how the Pharisees had become offended simply because Jesus disagreed with them. Now, after taking them far off the beaten path, he insults a foreign woman who — instead of becoming offended, as she no doubt had every right to do — persists to trust that Jesus will heal her daughter. Jesus responds by pointing to this woman’s faith. Do you see the lesson about faith — faith in the sense that we are talking about it, namely, as not responding to violence with violence? The Pharisees are simply disagreed-with and yet take offense to the point that they will eventually be among those who plot Jesus’ death. This Canaanite woman, on the other hand, is called a dog, and instead of vengefully responding in like kind, with return insults or worse, she continues to plead with Jesus for healing. Neither does she simply get discouraged and run away with ‘her tail between her legs.’ No, she is a child of God and she will continue to expect mercy and love. This is faith, says Jesus. The disciples have been taught what faith is by witnessing opposites: the Pharisees took offense and responded with violence for no good reason; and this Canaanite woman responds with faith when she has every right, according to usual human way of responding, to take offense and respond with violence.

There’s one other feature about our Gospel Lesson that is just the tip of the iceberg in teaching us about faith. So far, I’ve put the matter of faith in terms of violence, of learning nonviolence in the face of violence. This is the ultimate goal, because violence is the ultimate threat to our learning to live together in God’s love and peace. But it isn’t every day that we are faced with the ultimate threat of violence, and faith is an everyday thing. No, day-to-day we are faced with all the many little things that lead up to violence. We are faced with the things that lead to envy and anger and resentment, and when those little things build up to a boiling point, that’s when we are faced with violence, with the acts of more ultimate hurt that break apart relationships and even lead to death. It’s like what Jesus says to the disciples about the things that defile us coming from the heart, from our deepest desires. When those desires become twisted, then we begin to fall into that list of things Jesus names: murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. Is there a way to summarize faith as living from day-to-day and not being led down the path to violence?

I think there is one word that Jesus used to summarize our stumbling and falling into violence, our continually falling into broken relationships. That’s what the sheet you have today with your bulletin is about, that word I think Jesus used to summarize the opposite of faith, namely, the Greek words skandalon, the noun, and skandalizo, the verb. Yes, we get the English words scandal or scandalize from them. [Survey highlights from the handout “N. T. Word Study: skandalon and skandalizo in the Gospel of Matthew“:]

  • Notice all the different ways this word is translated — everything but the most literal, “scandal”! A signal to us that it is a complex word to understand.
  • According to the gospels, Jesus used this word a lot, and in seemingly crucial places.
  • Matthew records Jesus as using this word by far the most, so we’ll see this word often in the weeks ahead.
  • In a way, I began to introduce this word to you last week, in the story of Jesus predicting Peter’s denial (the last two instances, in Matt. 26).
  • In today’s gospel, notice that it basically stands as the opposite of this Canaanite’s woman faith: the Pharisees are scandalized, “offended,” by what Jesus says to them. The woman is not scandalized by being called a dog, but has faith.
  • So we might also learn to talk about faith as not being scandalized.

This is exactly what I’d like to do over the coming weeks, as we continue to encounter this word skandal- in Matthew’s gospel. As I said, it’s not an easy word. It’s meaning is many-faceted, as witnessed to by all the ways we translate it into English. But we do have a number of weeks to learn it, and I think we will be richly rewarded in learning it, because, as I think you’ll find, it’s so much about our everyday lives, so much about our everyday stumbling into sin, ultimately, about our continually stumbling into violence and broken relationships.

Today, I’d like to finish by relishing one of the Bible’s most wonderful, down-to-earth stories, as a way of introducing this word skandal-. It’s the story — the soap opera, really — of Joseph and his brothers. [Relish telling the story:]

  • How Jacob comes to play favorites with Joseph among his twelve sons, as the oldest son of favored Rachel. It’s great soap opera stuff, isn’t it? Scandalous, isn’t it?
  • Joseph is scandalized by his father’s favoritism. Details of Joseph being the favorite son: the techni-colored coat (Andrew Lloyd Webber), the dreams of his family worshiping him. Soap opera stuff, right? Scandalous, right?
  • The brothers are scandalized, too, and it leads to violence! They plot to kill Joseph, settling for selling him into slavery.
  • Joseph’s amazing rise to power from Potiphar’s slave to Secretary of Agriculture for the Pharoah.
  • Lo and behold, Joseph’s brothers find themselves before Joseph, begging for food. Soap opera stuff, right? Scandalous, right?
  • But Joseph isn’t scandalized! Instead, he forgives his brothers.

Faith is learning not to be scandalized but instead to be forgiving, like Joseph, like our Lord. We will learn more about faith as not being scandalized in the weeks ahead. Until then, our Lord comes to feed us today with this faith, with this forgiveness, with this not being scandalized, just as on the night in which he was betrayed into the hands of scandalized men….

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Our Savior’s Lutheran,
Racine, WI, August 14 & 18, 2002

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