August 20, 2017: Unusual Suspects by Rev. Rhian Walker (Matthews 15: 10-20; 21-28)

I have a bit of a fascination with robots and so I was loosely following some stories on the developments in robotics and Artificial Intelligence when I came across a story about some testing the US military was doing on land minds and robotics.

As you might know, land mines are responsible for many deaths, both during conflict but also post-conflict, particularly for young children, so there is a fair amount of incentive to find safer ways to detect and defuse them. The military had created a simple stick-like robot with multiple legs that could be carried and deployed easily from a number of military vehicles or ground crews.

Naturally they needed to test it, so they set up a mock course with land mines buried under the soil. The US Sergeant carrying out the exercise was to document its effectiveness. As he watched the robot traverse the test field, he noted it quickly found one mine. The explosion predictably happened. One leg blew completely off.

The robot kept moving. It found a second mine. Another leg blew completely off. It kept moving. But after the 3rd mine was found and the third leg was blow clean of the robot’s body, the Sergeant who was conducting the test called it off. When asked why, he said because he did so because it didn’t sit well with him to see something get blown apart like that. When pushed he blurted out “It’s inhumane to treat it like that.”

Inhumane. Now some people might say that this is just a case of anthropomorphizing: He is attributing human qualities onto something that should not have them, so he is making a serious error in judgement. But that is not what struck me. What struck me instead was his ability to extend compassion onto the robot and its existence. That he was able to imagine the value of life extended to a robot that didn’t look like a human or an animal, but he could still imagine the worth of that creature’s existence.

A robot that looks like a stick insect is not my idea of a usual teacher, but in that story, it pushed me to imagine where the limits of my empathy and compassion might be. Would I have been able to have that reaction to the robot’s existence? Could I stretch that far?

In the passage, today we have an extremely awkward encounter with Jesus. Jesus is teaching a great piece of spiritual wisdom that I can paraphrase like this: Don’t worry about ancient laws around purity, don’t worry so much about traditional practices and rituals. “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.” If your heart is not a heart of love, if the words that come from your mouth are not ones of love, of compassion, of justice, then you are defiling your spiritual relationship with God and the world far more than eating unclean food or forgetting to pray. Beautiful, right?

The reminder that our words and actions are actually our spiritual witness, that our behaviour is the testament to a belief that there is a God of Peace that is active in the world. Amazing!

So, it is all the more jarring that the next paragraph has Jesus encountering a shouting woman begging for mercy for her child, and his compassionate reaction is to ignore her. Now, for context, this woman is a Canaanite, which is one of the many tribes that the Israelites had issues with. Lots of religious and cultural competition existed between the two, with all the usual results. Jesus and his disciples culturally think they are superior to her. We have had plenty of examples this week about where that way of thinking takes us. Still though, Jesus has just done a speech about leading with a pure heart, and as this woman comes shouting at him, asking for mercy for her daughter, he ignores her.

And then it gets worse: the disciples ask him to send her away, she is irritating them with her shouting so he tells her: I’m not hear for you. I don’t have any time or interest in you. She tries again, kneeling before him and saying “Lord, help me.” And…nope. He insults her instead: I’m not giving the food for my children to you dogs.” There is no way of spinning this one people. No amount of Bible scholarship or translation of ancient Hebrew is going to pretty up this moment. He is being a jerk. He is insulting her and dismissing her: a woman in need, a woman coming for help for her child. Her response is amazing though: “Yes, she agrees, but even dogs will eat the crumbs that fall from their masters table.” Yes, she says, but even the least can be fed by some compassion, even the least can learn, even the least are worthy of mercy. Jesus answers praising how great her faith is and by healing her daughter. It seems that Jesus can learn from his mistake, and have his heart opened up and transformed by that encounter.

 

What is remarkable about this passage is that this woman, who is often rejected by the culture she lives in, who is marginalized and shamed, she is clear on her belief in God. She knows in her bones that all are worthy of love, of mercy, and of grace. And she is prepared to ask for that acknowledgement. For Jesus, she becomes one of his unusual suspects, one of the many unusual teachers in the Bible. In the Bible, the unusual teachers are not the rabbis, the educated or the rich, but the marginalized, the poor, and often the women. The people who appear to provide lessons are never the usual suspects.

I have been wondering about unusual teachers these days, because I am trying to balance the need for justice, the need to make sure we speak up and take a stand against violence, against racism and misogyny, and this climate that has crept like a virus into our culture right now. How does one respond to this in a way that is faithful to the desire and the deep belief that God sees all of us as holy creation?

That Jesus asks us to turn the other cheek when we meet violence? That we are to care for each other as if we are all part of the same body? It is tricky to see how those teachings can be reconciled.

And yet reconcile them we must. This time we have entered is going to push us to truly practice a love balanced with justice. It is going to make us ask ourselves difficult questions, it is going to make us decide when to put our bodies on the line, not just for ourselves but for others, and it is going to be darn right challenging not to meet hate with hate.

So maybe we should be on the lookout for those unusual suspects for teachers. We should look for those stories and encounters where we went in thinking one thing and allow ourselves to be transformed by someone else’s grace, or compassion, or mercy. Like the way the sergeant was by the robot, the way I was by hearing about his compassion, like the way Jesus is, by a difficult woman who shows him what trust and mercy looks like.

These teachers are going to start appearing everywhere these days, and it will be up to us to listen for the lessons they provide and to uncover the biases that we are holding onto. And this is urgent work! The time we live in is threatening to make us believe in our divisions and differences. So our spiritual work is to pay attention to this: to remember even Jesus could be humbled and taught, to remember that compassion is a practice, and that the heart is the one that should speak. I hope this is so. Amen.