Lectionary blog for Sept. 9, 2012
15th Sunday after Pentecost
Texts: Isaiah 35:4-7a; James 2:1-10, 14-17;
About 20 years ago at a conference at St. Olaf College I heard a story about the famous theologian Karl Barth. During World War I he served a village congregation in rural Switzerland. His grandmother lived with him in the parsonage. One afternoon he returned home to find that his grandmother had organized a Bible study group that was meeting in his living room.
Young Pastor Barth stepped into the room, greeted everyone and then excused himself and slipped upstairs to his study. Throughout the afternoon he heard much loud and animated conversation from the Bible study.
At dinner that evening he asked his grandmother what book they were studying. “Ezekiel,” she replied. “Ezekiel!” Barth sputtered, “Why, Ezekiel is a very difficult book. It is full of problematic and hard to understand passages.” “That’s all right,” Grandmother said, “the things we don’t understand we explain to each other.”
OK, anybody ready to explain to me how in the Gospel lesson my Lord and Savior, my sweet Jesus, my king of kings and my lord of lords, the Son of God incarnate on earth could stoop so low as to call a polite woman in trouble and asking for help — a dog? Anybody got a ready explanation for that?
There are a lot of theories that float around: He didn’t really say it; he didn’t really mean it; we don’t really understand it because of cultural differences between the first century and now, etc. etc. The collective Bible study of the New Testament scholars has had a lively and occasionally loud discussion trying to explain it to each other.
Barth’s story sent my thoughts down a different track: What if the Syrophoenician woman was the one doing the explaining in this passage? What if Jesus was the one who did not fully understand and needed some help interpreting God’s will and way in this case? Maybe Jesus needed to have his vision cleared and his worldview adjusted so that he could see just exactly how large God’s love is.
All three of our Scripture lessons remind us that the coming of the kingdom of God has intense, this world, practical results. When Isaiah talks about healing, he is not speaking metaphorically. The blind see; the deaf hear; the lame not only walk, they run and leap and cavort; the mute not only speak, they sing for joy.
James takes his readers to task for failing to live out the faith that is within them. In particular, he rebukes them for showing favor to the rich and pushing aside the poor. While Martin Luther did in one place call James “an epistle of straw,” because he thought it favored works over faith, he also said, “I think highly of the epistle of James … he wished to guard against those who depended on faith without going on to works.” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 35 - “The Preface to James and Jude”)
In our Gospel lesson we see Jesus living out the coming of the kingdom by healing a young girl with a demon and a deaf man with a speech impediment.
But, but … there’s this difficult part about exactly who it is that the kingdom has come for. Is it only for the “children” of Israel, or is it also for the “dogs,” the Gentiles? Taking the text as it is, it appears that Jesus is saying that his mission is only to the Jewish people. If that is what he means, then he has failed to remember that the promise is that the kingdom will come from God through the Jewish people in order to bless all people everywhere.
In this story, Jesus stands corrected. Just like Barth’s grandma’s Bible study, the woman has helped Jesus to understand a difficult part of the Scripture and a difficult part of his call. The further Jesus goes in his ministry the deeper his understanding of his mission becomes. And this deeper understanding is a result of his encounters with people who aren’t afraid to confront him with hard and difficult truths.
A young adult youth leader I know was chaperoning his youth group at the ELCA’s Youth Gathering in New Orleans this summer. While out and about in the city one afternoon, they ran across a couple of homeless men on a park bench. The youth leader lives in a major city neighborhood with a lot of street people, so he assessed the time, the space and the group’s safety. When one of the men approached him and started talking, he reached in his backpack and pulled out an apple while signaling the kids to keep moving. The man was insulted: “I asked you if you believe in God and you try to give me an apple!”
The youth leader was struck dumb and somewhat appalled at himself. “Here I had spent all week talking to these kids about carrying Christ into the world, to the most needy among us, and the first chance I got to live that out in front of them, I blew it.”
But the moment was redeemed. The young man apologized and started talking with the man. Their time together ended with the man asking the group for prayer and so they prayed for several minutes together. It was, the group said, a very holy moment.
The good news of God’s grace and love changes people. It heals them, changes their relationships, changes the way they see right and wrong, rich and poor, us and them. It even changed Jesus and the way he saw the world and the way he saw himself in it.
May God’s grace come to each of us and change us. May it loose our tongues so that we may speak explanations of difficult truths to one another. May it open our ears so that we may hear the truth when it is spoken to us in love. May it free our arms to embrace those in any need. May it strengthen our legs so that we can go where God is calling us. Most of all, may it heal our hearts so that we can invite all God’s children to the table of God’s love.
- When have you learned from your mistakes?
- Can you name a time when you excluded others?
Delmer Chilton is an assistant to the bishop of the Southeastern Synod of the ELCA, with responsibility for eastern and central Tennessee, northern Alabama and northern Georgia. Ordained in 1977, he has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.