Monday, January 14, 2019

Was Jesus Racist?

Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.” But He answered her not a word. And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.” But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, help me!”  But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.  Matthew 15:21-28

Look, we all make mistakes.  It is a part of being human. We can’t get it right all the time.  After all, we have limited vision, and limited understanding. Our brains make glitches.  In fact, I was talking to the Church Growth Committee the other about about sending a group around to contact those who are not afflicted with any church.  I mean, affiliated. I noted in the bulletin that our Thanksgiving meal will be shared with gracious hostility. I mean hospitality. In our new Bible study we will share in prayer and medication.  No, wait. Anyway, we all make mistakes.

Today I want to clearly proclaim Jesus’ humanity!  It is interesting that in most of the NT the divinity of Jesus isn’t argued about much (except in the book of John), but there is quite a bit of discussion about his humanity.  Almost having to prove that Jesus was not only of the spirit of God, but he is most importantly human. After the Enlightenment, the western world has doubted Jesus’ divinity, but is mostly assured of his humanity, and some now doubt his existence at all.

I want to proclaim today Jesus’ full humanity!  That he did not know everything! That he got angry at the wrong things sometimes!  And that he made mistakes, perhaps really big mistakes! And I might be so bold as to suggest that we have the beginnings of a mistake in this passage.

Jesus travels outside of Israel to connect with the Jewish groups that live in Tyre.  He may have healed some folks there or he was just known to do that, but either way, a woman approaches him to heal her daughter who is mentally ill.  And he ignores her. She keeps at him, and he keeps ignoring her. Finally the disciples jump in and beg him to get rid of her because she was irritating them.  Then he says, “I am only here for the children of Israel.”

Now persistence is something that Jesus has praised in other situations.  In fact, he takes it as an indication of faith. And he has healed the servants and children of other Gentiles.  So the fact that she was not Jewish or the fact that she is irritating isn’t the problem for Jesus.

I will say that many people have tried to excuse Jesus here.  To say that he was secretly encouraging her to continue to ask.  That he was just testing her to see how far she’d go. That he was speaking sarcastically.  I can’t deny that possibility, but I don’t see anything like this in the text. Rather, I think the most important hint was early in the text-- that she was Canaanite.

From the time that they are children, all Jewish people are taught about the evil nature of the Canaanites.  That doesn’t mean that they all do evil things, but that it is in their nature to be evil and that it would be better that they never existed.

This is throughout the Torah and the Tanakh, the whole Hebrew scriptures.  The story of the Canaanites begins with Noah. All of humanity is destroyed, only Noah, his wife, his three sons and their wives have survived.  Noah, perhaps by accident, perhaps not, got seriously drunk and fell naked in his tent. Ham, one of Noah’s sons, saw him naked and told his brothers.  After this, Noah is furiously upset with Ham and curses Ham’s son, Canaan. But this seems like an extreme reaction. A little bit of reading between the lines, though, seems to indicate that Ham saw Noah naked because he was in the tent for another reason.  Ham, it seems, wasn’t satisfied with his wife and so had incest with his mother, Noah’s wife. This is why Noah didn’t curse Ham, but Ham’s son, Canaan, the product of an adulterous, incestuous relationship.

Is the story true?  That’s not the point.  The point is that the Hebrew Scriptures sometimes talk about the incestuous ancestry of their most hated enemies, such as Moab and Ammon.  It is a way to dismiss a whole nation or group of nations as unworthy to exist.

Later, when God tells the Israelites that he will clear out the Canaanites for them, over a long period of time.  But Moses commands them to destroy the Canaanites utterly, to kill every man, woman and child, to kill everything that breathes in their nation.  When Joshua failed to take them all out, then God revoked that command, saying that he would leave the Canaanites to test the Israelites.

The Canaanites were so hated that in later centuries, Jews who married Canaanites weren’t allowed to remain Jewish.  They had to divorce their wives or they would no longer be counted among the Jewish people.

The Cannanites weren’t even powerful enough to be considered a true enemy of Israel, they are weak, despised and hated by all Jewish people, not counted to be important enough to exist.  They were better off to be destroyed, and if not destroyed then enslaved and if not enslaved, then ignored.

Jesus is not the kind to destroy or enslave anyone.  He recognizes everyone’s right to exist and to live in freedom.  But he is, it seems, trying to ignore the existence of this Canaanite, despite her continuing, pitiful pleas. Jesus, on occasion, has no compassion for people who approach him, and this woman receives the worst treatment by him.

He tells her, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

To call someone a “dog” I’m sure you know, is the worst thing you could call a person.  It is the “n” word of the first century. It is the worst slur a Jewish person can give to a gentile.  Mostly because every gentile understands the full insult behind that slur, while they may not understand the other common slur for gentiles, “pig.”

But rather than be offended and storm off, rather than meekly withdraw from the rebuke, this woman has a brilliant counter to his slur: “But even the dogs will eat from the crumbs that fall from the children’s table.”

She is saying, “Okay, I am a dog.  I accept your slur. But there is no reason for you to refuse to heal my daughter.  You should heal her, even if you think you have the right to insult me and my people.”

She is still persistent.  She is still demanding. And she is humble.  Not humble in a quiet way, but humble in accepting the low position that she does not deserve.  No one deserves to be called a slur. Everyone should have a certain amount of respect accorded to those who have been made in God’s image.  But she accepts what she did not deserve in order to gain a greater benefit for her daughter.

At this point, if Jesus had accepted the training he had received as a good Jew of the first century, he should have sent her away.  He should have not had anything to do with her. Instead, I believe, that Jesus realizes that he has a conflict of principles.

He has alway said that those who have faith would be healed.  Not faith as simple belief. Jesus commended faith that was brash, persistent, resourceful and demanding.  He never required a person be of a certain nationality nor that they be polite. The very principles that God the Father and he determined insists that he heal this woman’s daughter.  However, the prejudices of his society, the perhaps unthinking biases of his people demands that he reject her.

I think that Jesus had a recognition that he was mistaken.  That he was siding with prejudice instead of compassion. That he was going along with the racism of his society instead of demanding a change for justice.  I think that he was face to face with an assumption that he hadn’t considered before. That a woman demanded that he end his bias against her and her people right then and there.

And I think he did something that most people, almost all people, wouldn’t do.

He repented.

I believe firmly that Jesus was tempted to do evil here, to refuse to help a woman because she was of the wrong ethnicity.  He came close, so very close to sinning against love. But this woman pulled him back from the brink. You know how? She was the only person in all recorded history to throw Jesus’ words back to him and to defeat him in debate.

So Jesus proclaimed, “I can’t believe your faith!  You are an amazing woman! Of course you belong in God’s kingdom!  I wasn’t sure, because I wasn’t sure that Caananites, the people who were condemned to death, should be among the people of God.  But you assured me! You and your daughter are fully deserving of God’s blessing! Be healed!”

I believe that Jesus, the Son of God, and Son of Man gave us a powerful example, here.  He paid attention to a people that had horrible prejudice against it and rather than obey his prejudices that he was taught since he was born, he listened to a marginalized person.  And thus, a person who didn’t deserve his mercy or compassion suddenly became fully deserving. Even so, we need to listen to the issues of women, of African Americans, of Native Americans, of Palestinians, of the immigrants, of the LGBTQ, of the homeless.  We need to pay attention to their pleas, demanding compassion, demanding help. We may think that they aren’t deserving. We may think that they didn’t work hard enough. We may think that they need to obey the proper laws. We may think that there is sufficient help for them already.  We may think that they are irritating, that their cries for help are just unjust.

But the example of Jesus compels us.  If the Son of God can recognize that his compassion is inadequate, that he needs to welcome another group into the fold… then perhaps we do to.  We should stop before we ignore the cries of the needy. And reconsider. And possibly repent.

Bible Study on Canaanties:

Noah and Canaan-- Genesis 9:20-27
Judah had a Canaanite wife, but his descendents weren’t by her-- Gen 38
God taking the land-- Exodus 23:20-33
Utterly destroy-- Deut 2:33-34; Deut 7:16; Deut 20:16-17
Revoking command-- Judges 2:21-23
Divorcing cannanite wives-- Ezra 9-10

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Salvation in Ancient Times (and today)

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners; to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord. Isaiah 61:1-2

One of the main hopes that Isaiah gives us is freedom from this oppression.  Over time, when oppression became such a permanent part of the landscape, church officials spiritualized the hope of Advent, the hope of the Bible, so people wouldn’t despair of the lack of progress.  So we would hope for a “salvation” which is usually intended to be a non-physical manifestation of freedom. But that is never the case in the Bible. Freedom specifically had to do with a physical, social release from being in that place where we would be punished for not succeeding according to our societal standards.
It is helpful, sometimes, to look in the ancient world and see what oppression meant to them, and see how it is different today.

For instance, in the ancient world, a person wasn’t put into prison for a crime.  The majority of the time, they were placed into prison for debts. If they owed a lot of money, first they would take possessions, like articles of clothing, and hold them until they were paid.  If they still didn’t pay, they would get security guards and place them into jail until their family and friends bailed them out with the full amount of money that was owed. Either that, or the debtor and his family would be sold into slavery to regain some of the debt owed.

Slavery was also a form of oppression.  Slavery was rarely for life in the ancient world.  It was forced labor with little or no pay for room and board.  But slaves in the ancient world could often work for others who were not their masters, so they could earn money to pay for their release.  In Roman society, an average period of time of slavery was six years. In Hebrew society, all debt slaves had to be released every seventh year, so the maximum a person would be enslaved would be six years, according to the law.  But it is still an oppression, a period of time in which one may not work for themselves and they might very well lose their families in this process.

Another form of oppression in the ancient world is not having land.  Every family is supposed to have their own land, their own place to make their living and their home.  If a family is forced to sell their land, or lose their land because someone steals it, the government is supposed to step in, according to the law, and restore that land back to the family every 50th year.  They had a timeline in which the oppression would end.

And, of course, there is illness, disease, disability and mental illness.  These were seen as forms of oppression, a spiritual oppression, forced on people by evil spirits. And we can clearly see how that would limit someone.  If someone cannot see the basket or has no arms to throw, how can they make the basket, meet the social obligation? If they are raving or enraged all the time, how can they meet their own needs or the needs of others?

Advent is about the freedom from oppression.  Frankly, the whole bible is about freedom from oppression.  That is what “salvation” or “deliverance” means— not a spiritual release, but a release from various oppressions that come upon people.  When we spiritualized oppression, when we say it is only about “sin”, then we are blaming people for things that they had no control over, we are then oppressors.  When we keep people in situations where they cannot meet their own needs, or take their resources that they use to meet their own needs, then we are oppressors.

What does freedom from oppression look like? Not a promise that our sins are forgiven.

It looks like release from illness, by having decent healthcare.
It looks like fair wages for one’s work, that one can live on.
It looks like freedom from debt.
It looks like land that one can live on.

The hope of the ancients looked like this. Nothing has changed.

Monday, January 7, 2019

The Four Spiritual Laws of Moses

Let’s talk about the four spiritual laws.
Not Bill Bright’s four spiritual laws.  He’s one of those people who are guilty of spiritualizing real issues people deal with every day.  No, I’m going to talk about Moses’ four spiritual laws. These spiritual laws are what forms the backbone of most of the Bible, including the teaching of Jesus.  So let’s get to them and you’ll see how they apply to what we have been talking about.
  1. 1. God has a plan for your community to live in justice and peace— First of all, Moses isn’t talking about individuals, but peoples.  Perhaps an ethnicity, perhaps a community with a variety of ethnicities, but a people who sees them. And God’s plan isn’t to make us individually happy, but for us, as a community, to live in justice and peace with each other.
  2. 2. Oppression separates us from justice and peace.— Not our individual sin, but people who have power, who use that power to keep us from meeting our own needs.  Oppressors could be governments, or wealthy people, or religious people, or families or many other people or groups with power. Groups of human beings have great power, no matter how that group is collected.  And if a powerful person or a group of people move the basket, or blame people for being unable to meet the standards they themselves create, then they are oppressors. For instance, to take a privilege, like having certain colored skin or being able to pay for electricity or running water, and establishing that as a standard to live or to have children, and they will take your right to have children or to live because of that standard, then that is oppression.
  3. 3. We separate ourselves from oppression by crying out to God for deliverance, an act of grace.— The third spiritual law has to do with crying out to the highest judge.  The God of the Hebrews is the god of slaves, the god of the poor, the god of the oppressed. Not the god of one ethnicity, nor the god of one religion, but the god of the poor.  And God’s job is deliverance from oppression. God created the world and gave it to humans to rule. But if one group of humans force a second group to live and work for the benefit of the first because of their power, then God, as judge of the world steps in and brings salvation, deliverance, freedom from oppression.  God asks only that we cry out and ask, even demand, that deliverance. Because God will not step in to take over the sovereignty that God established us from the beginning. God delivers by request only.
  4. 4. God requires that in receiving deliverance and grace, we also generously give it.  So God steps in and delivers the poor, the enslaved, the oppressed. God grants them freedom from their oppressors and grants them resources to live, to survive.  Some would say that this is unconditional, but Moses didn’t and neither did Jesus. There is one standard— that we are to live according to the deliverance we have received.  If we have obtained freedom from debt, we are to give freedom from debt. If we were immigrants in other people’s lands, we are to give place to immigrants. If we have had education granted to us for free, we are to give education for free.  If we have been healed, we are to heal others. Whatever we have received, we are to give. That is the payment. We will talk about this more another time.
For now, we need to see our place in Advent.  Advent is about the hope of release from deliverance.  It is a time of prayer, when we will cry out to God for deliverance.  It is a time of longing for peace and justice.

If we have what we need, if we can make the basket, then we need to be praying and working for others who are oppressed.  Because we live in a world of oppression. We live in a world where powerful people regularly take advantage of those without power and discard them when they are done.   And Jesus promised us all deliverance from those powers, and he only asks that we participate is people’s release from debt, slavery, landlessness and sickness. Here's a video of the teaching . (below the video is Moses' scriptures on the subject)

1. God has a plan of peace and justice for your community.
Exodus 3:7-8
Yahweh then said, ‘I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying for help on account of their taskmasters. Yes, I am well aware of their sufferings. And I have come down to rescue them from the clutches of the Egyptians and bring them up out of that country, to a country rich and broad, to a country flowing with milk and honey.

Deuteronomy 7:7-8
Yahweh set his heart on you and chose you not because you were the most numerous of all peoples—for indeed you were the smallest of all— but because he loved you and meant to keep the oath which he swore to your ancestors: that was why Yahweh brought you out with his mighty hand and redeemed you from the place of slave-labour, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

2. Oppression keeps us from peace and justice.
Exodus 1:13-14
The Egyptians gave them no mercy in the demands they made, making their lives miserable with hard labour

Exodus 5:5-6, 9
And Pharaoh said, ‘Now that the people have grown to such numbers in the country, what do you mean by interrupting their forced labour?’  That very day, Pharaoh gave the order, ‘Give these people more work to do, and see they do it instead of listening to lying speeches.’ 

3. We cry out to God for deliverance and God will deliver.
Exodus 2:23-25
The Israelites, groaning in their slavery, cried out for help and from the depths of their slavery their cry came up to God.  God heard their groaning; God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  God saw the Israelites and took note. 

Exodus 14:13-14
Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid! Stand firm, and you will see what Yahweh will do to rescue you today: the Egyptians you see today you will never see again. Yahweh will do the fighting for you; all you need to do is to keep calm.’ 

4. We offer freedom as we were granted freedom
Exodus 22:20-23
‘You will not molest or oppress aliens, for you yourselves were once aliens in Egypt.  You will not ill-treat widows or orphans; if you ill-treat them in any way and they make an appeal to me for help, I shall certainly hear their appeal, my anger will be roused and I shall put you to the sword; then your own wives will be widows and your own children orphans. 

Deuteronomy 15:12-15
If any of your people sell themselves to you and serve you six years, in the seventh year you must let them go free. And when you release them, do not send them away empty-handed. Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the Lord your God has blessed you. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today.

Deuteronomy 16:10-12
Celebrate the Festival of Weeks to the Lord your God by giving a freewill offering in proportion to the blessings the Lord your God has given you. And rejoice before the Lord your God at the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name—you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, the Levites in your towns, and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows living among you. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt, and follow carefully these decrees.

Deuteronomy 10:18-19
He it is who sees justice done for the orphan and the widow, who loves the stranger and gives him food and clothing. Love the stranger then, for you were once strangers in Egypt.