Next week, on August 28, is the 60th anniversary of the famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Before a crowd of a quarter million people, a bevy of speakers spoke, culminating when Dr. King delivered his singularly beautiful “I Have A Dream” speech. The core idea of the march, and of the speech, was overcoming the racial division--physical, economic, and social—that existed like a cancer in this country. There will be another march in Washington next Saturday, led by some of Dr. King’s descendants, calling for a renewed dedication to the unfinished work of equality and justice that remains before us.
At the beginning of the most famous section of his speech, Dr. King spoke of a dream—not just any dream, but one that was deeply rooted not just in American ideals but throughout scripture. Urging his followers not to lose hope, he said,
“So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
During that March, Dr. King and the other leaders were calling for a vision of equality and justice that broke boundaries and barriers erected through fear, hatred, and prejudice. These barriers even included laws intended to oppress people of color. And as a result of that march, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed nearly 11 months later. The most sweeping civil rights law since reconstruction nearly 100 years prior, this new law prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, or national origin. It outlawed segregation in public places, provided for the integration of schools and other public facilities which was still largely unaccomplished 7 years after the Brown decision, and made employment discrimination illegal. It was the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. It directly refuted the notion that discrimination again people of color was simply customary, “the way it is.”
Use of the law and custom to oppress people or denigrate them is nothing new, as we are seeing today. Prejudice and hatred against “the other” is nothing new. We get a surprising reminder of this in our gospel today.
This weekend we hear two stories in our gospel. First, we hear about the misuse of law and custom. Before the verses we read here today, the Pharisees have just come to confront Jesus about why his disciples continue to break the purity laws, such as eating with unclean hands, and Jesus has fired back asking them why they violate the commandments- specifically the giving of resources to the synagogue in order to avoid supporting, or honoring, one’s father and mother (vv. 1-9). So just offstage, we have the Pharisees complaining about Jesus and his disciples scorning traditional boundaries laid down “by the elders.” Jesus clearly rebuts the Pharisees’ emphasis on tradition by intensifying to commandments, since obviously, commandments take precedent over human tradition.
When the disciples ask Jesus to explain his remarks, Jesus exasperatedly explains that what comes out of the mouth originates in the heart, and bad intentions from the heart leads to real impurity. The six specific impurities he mentions all have to do with broken relationships. Jesus states that it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles, not what goes into it. For Jesus, true purity is about relationships, not about legalism. Jesus reminds us that what we say and do are far more permanent in their ability to defile and even destroy than whether one eats or touches something that is unclean.
Jesus is accused in the first part of our gospel reading of not having respect for the Law, tradition, and his own culture. In the second half of our gospel, he starts from a prejudice rooted in his culture, and is brought to new amazement by a demonstration of faith where the prejudices of his time would least expect them—from a Canaanite woman.
This unnamed Canaanite woman who approaches Jesus asking for healing for her daughter. Though she is an outsider, she cries out for mercy, a common prayer throughout scripture. She is at first rebuffed by both the disciples, and ignored by Jesus. She was told to be silent in the face of her desperation.
It was shocking for a Canaanite woman to approach Jesus—once again, pious Jews segregated themselves as much as possible from non-Jews, and especially not female non-Jews. But what great faith this woman does have—she does not follow the Jewish faith, but she believes in the power of this Jewish holy man to heal her daughter. She is very clear what is at stake: her daughter is “tormented.” Shut up, she is told.
The Canaanite woman asks for a miracle for her child, will not be denied, and actually argues back to make her case. Only one who believes that Jesus could actually do something would be so determined. Shockingly, Jesus then expresses that he was not sent for people like her. Nonetheless, she perseveres, and even Jesus is called to rethink and grant her request, admiring her great faith which caused her to persevere. Here is where also we see the tie with the claims in Romans by Paul—God’s grace and mercy is for everyone, and no one is left out. Where we might expect Jesus to proclaim this himself, here we see an outsider CLAIM this for herself and her daughter. The teacher is taught something by the student he is inclined to disdain. This epiphany to Jesus reminds us again that he was fully human as well as fully the Son of God, and could learn things and be surprised by them. It also reminds us that far too often are we prone to see others of different backgrounds as the enemy when in fact they are our brothers and sisters, with just claim upon us that should stir a just response rather than resentment. This also reminds us, as we noted in our reflections on Paul, that God’s love is universal, and is not limited to just people who hold the correct sets of beliefs or lineage. So how do the two halves of our gospel reading today go together? When Jesus is confronted about his disciples eating with unwashed hands, he issues a rejoinder about following the spirit of the law, which urges the building of relationships, rather than the “letter” of the law, which emphasizes purity even at the expense of relationships outside the fellow-pure. He then emphasizes loving intention over puritanical zeal. But no sooner has he then walked into Gentile territory than he gets brought up by a challenge to just how expansive his boundary-breaking mercy is.
This reminds us that Jesus was fully human, and even Jesus could have a bad day. But he was always willing to learn, and fully engage with those he encountered. In this case, that unnamed women reminded him of who HE really is. He is the embodiment of God’s mercy, and calls us to humility, compassion, and openness to each other as well.
I don’t know about you, but this speaks a word for our time! We see over and over attempts to erase the history and full citizenship of marginalized people again, right now in 2023 in a cheap bid for power by “othering” them. We see powerful persons laugh at those who cry out for mercy, and for justice. Perhaps we can see that even Jesus had to be reminded that grace isn’t grace if it only goes to the deserving according to some human calculation. The woman knew that Jesus’s ministry was founded on grace, mercy, and healing. Her great love for her daughter would not allow her to be silent when she saw this great healer come into her country. Her daughter’s illness could have made her lose her faith—it’s a common thing for tragedy cause faith to be shaken. She is willing to risk insult and rejection because she believes the only hope to help her daughter is Jesus. How bitter must have been those words she uses to rebut Jesus’s initial rejection, willing to confess the people of Israel as “masters” and willing to accept the implication that she is a dog slavering for scraps. Perhaps we can look beyond the outward markers and see her not as a Canaanite, not as a lowly woman, but as a person acting out of hope, acting out of faith, acting out of love—the great three anchors of our existence in relationship to each other and relationship to God. And in the end, it is Jesus who has been reminded that when it comes to God, no human boundaries or borders can stand against the power of love. No matter who we are, God loves and cares for each and every one of us. I am reminded of the beautiful image of God as a tender mother in the Book of Isaiah. Jerusalem lays in rubble, and the people believe God has ignored their pleas for mercy. In Isaiah 45:14-16, any who have felt ignored or forgotten by God are comforted by these words: Zion says, “The Lord has abandoned me; my Lord has forgotten me.” Can a woman forget her nursing child, fail to pity the child of her womb? Even these may forget, but I won’t forget you. Look, on my palms I’ve inscribed you; your walls are before me continually. God loves us with unquenchable love—and calls us to embody the same. In Jesus’s time and in our own, there are multiple man-made barriers that separate one group of people from each other, contrary to the common heritage we all share as beloved children of God. By that common heritage of being made in God’s image, we are called to work for the flourishing of all people—something that even Jesus gets reminded of in our gospel this weekend. This love is the foundation of God’s dream for us. Our faith that we affirm in our baptismal covenant calls us to renounce the forces of evil and respect the dignity of every human being. Those are not just empty words. They are part of a sacred call and covenant which we reaffirm repeatedly throughout our lives not just at Pentecost or All Saints’ Day, but in our words and actions. We are called not only to believe in the healing and saving power of Jesus, but, to ourselves be love in action and pursue that gift of healing for all, no matter how different they are from us. As the motto of the Diocese of Missouri puts it, to make and be disciples of Jesus for the life of the world. May we ever seek ways to be merciful, to be faithful in love, to care for each other, to not be silent, but speak up for healing, justice, and equality for all.
Our readings today promote the idea of justice, mercy, unity, and above all love as being the foundations of the beautiful dream God holds for each of us, and for ALL of us. And sixty years after the March on Washington, we see the rise of hate groups and attempts to use law and custom to erase the dignity and full worth of marginalized people once more, we can hear an echo of the Canaanite woman’s cry and make it our own: Have mercy, Lord, for we stand before you in need of healing. Have mercy, Lord, for we have denied our brothers and sisters and kindred the hearing and response their claims deserve. Have mercy, Lord, for we have denied your goodness in ourselves, in each other, and in the world around us. Heal the breaches that divide us, not through our silence, but through a willingness on our part to examine our hearts, and live into the promises of freedom that have hung over us, waiting to break through the clouds of injustice and prejudice for too long. And then, may we join in having a better dream for the future—and the will to work for that future. Rather than a requiem for a dream, may we have a renaissance for the dream:.
I dream of a day when we can break through the silences that seek to cover over our divisions in the name of a false peace that is grounded in denial of justice to those oppressed by evil systems of exploitation. I dream of the day when we too can sing of how good and pleasant it is when brethren live together in harmony, when we listen to each other with open hearts and recognize our common humanity. I dream of a day when we live into taking seriously God’s promises of abundance, grace, and healing, and responding in kind to each other.
-- The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire