Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 5, 2021
The Bible is full of things that we like to hear. Think of some of those verses: “Rejoice ye pure in heart” (Philippians 4:4). “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy-laden” (Matthew 11:28-29). “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39). We love these. We frame them on posters and put them in our homes. We post them on Facebook with rainbow backgrounds. We cross-stitch them onto pillows. All very well and good.
But, to me, this misses the whole sense of the Bible. As Marilynne Robinson said, “The Bible today is much thumped but little pondered” (The Givenness of Things). We cut out these little bits that we like and mostly ignore the parts that are not appropriate for family audiences. Think about Elijah the prophet calling upon bears to eat children. There’s David taking a woman by force. There’s a young man running around naked on Maundy Thursday night. No one is putting the story of Judah and Tamar on an inspirational poster. If you don’t know the story, look it up later. I can’t tell you know, there are children present.
So, what do we do with those tough passages? What do we do with those bits of the Bible that we just don’t like? What do we make of Jesus calling a woman a “dog”? There are a few ways around it. We could explain it away. “Oh, this was some later editor who put those words into Jesus’ mouth. Jesus was just too nice to say anything like that.” Or we could conveniently skip over it, like we do so many other verses in the Bible that make us uncomfortable. We could say that back then people were unrefined, and with today’s enlightened thinking and modern morals, we now know that is unacceptable.
But I find all these explanations lacking. I find them all to be a way to say that we should dictate the terms of the Bible rather than letting the Bible speak to us. Now, I’m not saying that it’s okay or good to call people of other ethnicities or genders “dogs.” Of course not. I find it vile. And never in a million years would I want this Bible verse cross-stitched on a throw pillow. But I think we should open our minds and face the truth. The Bible ought to make us uncomfortable. The Bible is the story of God’s covenant relationship with his people. So of course there are going to be some dark stories in there, as I know your family has its own dark stories.
And yet somehow, especially in the last one hundred and fifty years, the Church has shied away from this truth. Now it seems that we go to the Bible for “solace only, and not for strength;” for comfort only, and not for challenge (Book of Common Prayer, 372). That’s why we want the little biblical aphorisms and the quotes that make us feel good. It’s why we buy Thomas Kinkaid paintings instead of crucifixes. We want comfort.
And so we reap what we sow. If we tell people that God is just there to hold your hand and pat you on the head to make you feel better, then little wonder fewer people come to church nowadays. It’s too easy. There’s no “there” there. If we preach a vacuous faith then we end up with insipid churches. We reap what we sow. There is a new term to describe this weakened version of Christianity. It’s called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton). Moralistic – we think God wants us to be good, but usually in our own way. Therapeutic – this whole thing is mostly to make us feel better. Deism – God is not really close, but somewhere far off. There’s no challenge in this framework, only a mealy-mouthed fondness for a guy named Jesus who did some nice things a long time ago. It’s all become about making us feel good.
Look, if that’s what this whole thing is about, if that’s what Christianity is about – then count me out. I’ll be at the golf course if you need me. But chances are you won’t actually need me, because who would need the power of prayer and sacrament if this was all about making us feel good about ourselves? It’s this framework, this Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, that does not know what to make of these challenging words from the Bible. It doesn’t know what to make of Jesus’ exchange with the Syrophoenician woman. It doesn’t know what to make of the challenge of the cross.
My own personal testimony, my witness of my life with Jesus, is all about challenge. My relationship with Jesus has rarely been a comforting one. It has been a challenging relationship. I’m the dirty pot, and I feel Jesus scrubbing away at me every day. He’s scrubbing away my pride, my self-centeredness, my dependence on me and me alone. More often than not, my relationship with Jesus is painful, and difficult, and exhausting.
But this is what I have most admired about the saints in my life. They have never gone to Jesus for comfort only, but for challenge. The Christians that I want to emulate have always taken the challenging path in their life, not the easy one. It’s like some other uncomfortable bible verse I’ve heard before – something about picking up the cross and following Jesus (Matthew 16:24).
So, back to the passage at hand. Face the uncomfortable nature of this. Yes, Jesus is referring to the woman as a dog. Now remember, the Jews and Syrophoenician of the day were not on friendly terms. That’s putting it mildly – they had been fighting and killing each other for centuries. So for Jesus to welcome her into the community of God – to welcome this woman who comes from a people who have waged war against the people of God – is dynamite. And that’s the challenge for the day. Jesus welcomes in to the community of God precisely those who had been opposed to the people of God. Where there had once been a dividing wall, there is now fellowship. Jesus is tearing down the barriers and uniting everyone in faith. It’s tough. I know. But Jesus shows pity, and empathy, and love for a woman who had once been an enemy. Even us. Because when it comes down to it, I know that I am a dog. And it’s only by God’s grace that I have been fed the crumbs.
And that’s the best part – we get to comfort from God. But it’s a much better comfort than what we come up with. The comfort, the grace of the gospel is not about making us feel better. No, the grace is that Jesus is willing to welcome into eternal life anybody and everybody. Even a nameless woman who has probably never been to a synagogue in her life. Even me, a desperate dog of a sinner. The challenge and the comfort are the same thing.
Think about your own life now. Wherever there is a challenge, wherever you are desperate, wherever you are crying out to God – that’s where you should be looking out for God. Even if it feels as if you’ve been in the doghouse. The comfort and the challenge are both gifts from God. Indeed, this is the very heart of our faith. As our Lord Jesus Christ “went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified” (Book of Common Prayer, 99). Take the challenge. Don’t go to the Bible, don’t go to God just to feel better about yourself. Go to the Bible, go to God in prayer, so that you may be challenged. And with that challenge, comes the blessing of eternal life.