Whenever you’re interpreting the Bible, you’re asking, “What does this have to do with us?” One way to do that is to ask who we are in the story. As Lutherans gathered today, after the events in Charlottesville last weekend and the events of the subsequent week, who are we in this story? I think if we want to be faithful, then we are the Jews: Jews then, Jews now. Jesus turns us from the former into the latter.
Jews then. We join Matthew in an episode already in progress. The Pharisees have confronted Jesus, asking him why his disciples have no respect for tradition—in this case, ritual handwashing before meals. This is not done to prevent infection. Exodus 30 prescribed handwashing for priests as purification before entering the Temple. During the Exile, there was no Temple. After the Exile, there was diaspora—Jews everywhere. Judaism grew to include those who believed they were God’s priestly people called to do God’s work on behalf of the whole world. These rabbis, Pharisees, interpreted Temple regulations, like handwashing, as applying to daily life for God’s priestly people. Jesus has been at odds with the Pharisees on several matters. Today, the disciples aren’t doing the priestly hand wash, and the Pharisees say to Jesus, “Jesus, you’re always condemning us. Why aren’t you condemning your disciples when they fail to do the ritual handwashing?”
We pick up the scene with Jesus’ response: “It’s what comes out of your mouth, not what goes in, that defiles you.” The Pharisees hear that and say, “We find that offensive.” To which Jesus says, “Yes, I imagine you do.” And then Jesus warns, “Folks, these Pharisees are like blind guides of the blind. Don’t listen to them.” The Pharisees have taken symbols and stories, language and ritual that once helped them see that Exile was really God calling them to something new, and they’ve turned this all into their ultimate concern in life. The Pharisees have mistaken their tradition of ritual handwashing for God. Sounds ridiculous when we say it.
I wonder what is handwashing for Lutherans. What’s something we’ve turned into God? We Lutherans are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. We couch Luther’s theology so deeply in North European culture that the two are hard to separate. More than any other mainline church in North America, Lutherans are ethnic. We elevate Swedish or Danish or Norwegian or German culture to the level of doctrine. If a congregation isn’t overtly one Nordic ethnicity, it usually embodies white middle-class American values. There is not something inherently evil in setting hymns to Swedish folk tunes, in wanting to come home to a nice house in a safe neighborhood, or having your prayers often come around to whether you are doing with your life what God wants you to be doing. God has not overruled or abrogated those things. They are not God. Nor do they fit the experience of most Christians on earth, past or present. Most Christians on earth, most people on earth, fit well the role of the Canaanite woman.
There’s nothing wrong with her; she just isn’t Lutheran, or, rather, Jewish then. She comes to Jesus, trusting him, and not trusting in her proud Phoenician heritage (which, frankly, makes our heritage look lame). When Jesus suggests Canaanites are dogs, she replies, “Yeah, I suppose all humans are dogs compared to God Almighty.” And Jesus says, “You get it! I don’t know why the Pharisees don’t get it, but you do.”
Brothers and Sisters, if we are to be faithful today, we will confess that we are the Pharisees in this story, we are the “Jews then.” We stand in a long tradition of stories and symbols, language and ritual, that helps us know and speak of God. And that tradition is not God. The Canaanite woman puts her hope in God because she knows that her being Canaanite offers her no hope. The Pharisees think their being Pharisees gives them something. As a result, they use that special relationship with God to justify prejudice against people like the Canaanite woman. This is like how our own Lutheran tradition brims with ugliness—Luther’s anti-Semitism, complicity in European colonialism, overt sexism, and deafening silence on racism. Luther’s insight on justification by grace through faith does not give us a free pass on those. We are supposed to be like the Canaanite woman. As Karl Barth writes, “the Church hopes in God, precisely because, humanly speaking, it has no hope.” That’s a matter of being Jews then. What about being Jews now?
I said that if we are to be faithful today, Christ calls us to be Jews now. Christ calls us into solidarity with the targets of hate. Today, that includes Jews. Hatred of Jews was an undisputable part of the Charlottesville rally. When the mob is chanting anti-Jewish slogans and Nazi-era catchphrases and giving heil Hitler salutes, I’m gonna conclude that the mob has at least some anti-Jewish component. Of course, the mob possessed hate for many groups. Jews in this case can represent anyone targeted. Christ calls us to solidarity with the targets. Christian solidarity last weekend was the Christians who prayed for peace and community, despite being surrounded by a torch-wielding mob chanting “blood and soil.” Christian solidarity last weekend was the Christians who prayed with police and medical personnel before, during, and after the rally. And yes, Christian solidarity was the clergy group that tried to block the path of those who advocate harm to others.
But that is now the past. Christ calls us to solidarity, still. That includes admitting that this was not an isolated incident far away. According to the SPLC, Indiana hosts 26 hate groups, “organizations with beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.” The Daily Stormer, a Nazi website that gained recent notoriety for defaming Heather Heyer—who was hit by the car in Charlottesville—that website operates out of Indianapolis. If you don’t want to drive that far, you can wait for the latest swastika or racial slur to be painted on a house or car here in Porter County.
It’s real. It happens here. When it happens, the faithful response is to condemn it, to ask the victims how we can help, and to listen to what the victims tell us. Listen to the targets of racism. They can tell us what happens. They know what they need. They don’t need us to outsmart them. Jesus didn’t say to the Canaanite woman, “You say your daughter is possessed by a demon, but I think what you really want is Saint Thaddeus’ famous Chicken Casserole.” No, he does what she asks. That’s solidarity as Jesus does it. And we can do it because Jesus does it.
We’re at the turning of the Gospel of Matthew, here. Since his baptism, Jesus has been ministering to those who stand in the tradition, those who claim the stories and symbols, the language and ritual of Israel. It hasn’t expedited the coming of the Kingdom, and it hasn’t sanctified and forgiven the world. Christ in Matthew is about to change his strategy. The faith of the Canaanite woman seems to be the tipping point. Jesus won’t announce the new program for a couple of weeks, but he will announce it. He will not abandon his chosen people. By no means. He will save the world by confronting head on the parts of his own tradition that mistake their culture for God. Jesus will act by becoming a target of the Sanhedrin. The end of the journey for Jesus is on Pilate’s portico. It’s a notorious scene: Pilate washes his hands of Jesus’ blood—I’ll kill him, but I won’t accept responsibility for it—and the crowd cries, “His blood be on us and on our children!” It’s been used by anti-Jewish groups within the Church to blame the Jews for Christ’s death. Problem is, we are the “Jews then.” We are the ones who would kill someone for failing to meet our cultural expectations. The blood is on us.
Moreover, this is all according to Christ’s gracious plan. For the blood upon us is the blood of the Lamb of God, pure and sinless. The blood that makes all things holy. Try as we might to contain God’s goodness and keep it all to ourselves it has exploded onto the world, and it has gotten all over us. Christ, despite our best efforts, has forgiven us and made us holy. This is our witness. This is the point of our tradition. Our Lutheran Christianity is faithful, paradoxically, when it points to the Christ who is outside of it, who saves us just as we think we’ve finally got him nailed down. Our witness today is faithful when we own the ugliness of our tradition, and marvel at how God has turned our sins on their heads. Our Church is faithful when we recognize that, humanly speaking, we have no hope, and therefore all the more radically place our hope in Christ who invites us to stand with him.