Crumbs of Mercy – Sunday, August 16, 2020
Read Matthew 15: 10-28
When our son was in high school one of the teachers interested some students in starting a debate team. The students spent time with an issue and researched pros and cons so that they could support one stance or another depending on which side they were given. Our son learned the skill of making a convincing argument even though it may not support one’s personal opinion.
We’re about to see more of this skill in the political realm! Earlier this year we had the Democratic debates where potential candidates jousted with each other, each trying to convince the others and the viewers that their world view was the best for the country. Viewers listened and tried to discern how each person lined up with what they believed.
The candidates would light into each other with what often seemed like strong animosity, but now that there is a candidate and running mate, the animosity is disappearing and folks are rallying around. This is not unusual – it happens in all the parties with each presidential election.
The conventions start this week. They won’t be what we are used to, but we will see and hear speeches. It doesn’t matter which party it is, we will see people supporting the very same folks they have at some earlier time disparaged. People who once upheld one thing will now be supporting the opposite. It’s time to toe the party line! You’ve been given your candidates, now support them. Once you may have debated the “con” side but now you’re on the “pro” side so stick to it.
Toe the line… that isn’t just in the political world that folks have to line up with a set of directives or policies or beliefs. In the military, soldiers are given their “marching orders” and they had better obey. Don’t get distracted by something along the way. If the mission is to get to a particular place by a certain time, don’t get sidetracked by a need you encounter along the way. If the order is something you don’t agree with, that’s not your call.
The same is true for many companies. And yes, even religious organizations like the United Methodist Church. These are our values, our policies, so toe the line.
Now imagine if you will a conversation between Jesus and God. God is giving Jesus his marching orders – I’m sending you to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Your job is to save the lost sheep and you’ve only got 3 years to do it. Do not stray from this mission by being distracted by people who are not those of Israel.
So Jesus sets about trying to help the lost sheep of Israel which includes taking on the religious leaders, Pharisees in particular. Today’s scripture lesson in Matthew has 2 stories that don’t seem to connect. If we take the entire chapter into consideration perhaps we can get a bigger picture and maybe some insight into a story that can be troubling at best to some of us.
The chapter starts with the Pharisees complaining and accusing Jesus’ disciples of not properly following hand washing traditions before they ate. Jesus blasts them, calling them hypocrites who follow tradition but break God’s commandments. He quotes Isaiah, saying “this people honors me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.”
And, so, the disciples point out that Jesus has offended the Pharisees. Well, we can see from what follows how remorseful Jesus was about that! The Pharisees had implied that people who ate without proper ritual hand-washing were defiled or unclean, contaminated. Remember that unclean people were to keep away from others, “isolate” if you will, they were treated as though they were contaminated even though they did not have the science then to know about viruses.
Jesus says that it’s not what goes into the mouth that makes a person unclean, it’s not eating with unwashed hands, it’s what comes out of the mouth, what is spoken, that reveals the condition of one’s heart and how clean or uncontaminated it is.
What follows next in the scripture on a quick read does not seem to connect to this. But I think it does, so bear with me! Remember about the debate lessons, when a person takes one side or another and supports it even though it may not be what that person holds true, and remember the imagined scene of God giving Jesus his marching orders.
This second half of today’s reading has Jesus encountering a Canaanite woman who shouts at him to have mercy on her and heal her daughter who has a demon. The disciples want her sent away but she persists even when Jesus does not respond to her.
A Canaanite would have been considered unclean and defiled, contaminated. There was animosity going back centuries between the Jewish people and people of Canaan. My daily devotional, written a year ago, said engaging with Canaanites would be like “encountering a lethal contagion.” So think of this woman and her daughter as highly contagious carriers of the coronavirus. She was to be avoided, or you, too, would be contaminated.
Jesus says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” This is his mission, and as any good follower knows, the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. In our imaginary scene of God giving Jesus his mission, Jesus would respond to God, “Right. Got it sir: Israel only, no diversions; my time is short, no time for outsider distractions.”
But wait, what is coming out of the woman’s mouth? Jesus said that what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart. She calls him Lord, Son of David, she asks for mercy. These are not vile words. These reflect a heart of faith, a heart that recognizes someone far greater than the Pharisees saw. They certainly didn’t address him this way.
But Jesus still toes the line and says, “It isn’t fair to give the children’s food to the dogs.” Ouch. What is coming out of his mouth?
Then another heart-response from the woman: “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall under their master’s table.” Even a crumb of mercy will be enough. Just a crumb.
What faith is this? At this point, Jesus drops the company line, the mission statement, his marching orders. He gives up trying to hold on to the wrong side of the debate. Nope, love always wins. Mercy wins.
The heart of God couldn’t stay confined by a mission statement or tradition or doctrine or policy. And isn’t that what he tries over and over to get across to the Pharisees? Traditions of cleanliness can never be more important than showing mercy. Human doctrine can never confine or limit God’s love.
God’s heart is like a huge crumbly loaf of bread that is broken and shared over and over and over leaving crumbs everywhere. Even when people are denied access to the table, crumbs spill from it and fall down where mercy is available to all.
It doesn’t matter whose mouth reveals an undefiled, uncontaminated heart. The response to such a heart is mercy, grace, love.
That heart could belong to someone who in Jesus’ day did not wash their hands and was ritually unclean, it may belong to someone of a rival and hated culture like a Canaanite woman, it may belong to someone of a different political party, or racial or ethnic group, or religious denomination shouting for mercy, but if their mouths reveal what is in their heart and that heart is full of faith, then even a crumb of mercy will not be denied by God and will bring healing and wholeness.
Perhaps you desire a crumb of mercy today, or perhaps you are aware of others whose cries are going unheard. And we who share the loaf at Communion, are we not also called to offer Christ’s love to others and to show mercy? To listen to shouts for mercy from mothers and fathers who fear for their sons’ and daughters’ health, safety and livelihood and respond in love?
Jesus said, Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy (Mt 5.7). May we toe this line. May crumbs of mercy abound. Amen.
Prayer of Humble Access – from the former Methodist Holy Communion service
We do not presume to come to this your table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness but in your manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under your table. But you are the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy.
Grant us, therefore gracious Lord, so to partake of this Sacrament of your Son Jesus Christ, that we may walk in newness of life, may grow into his likeness, and may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.
~ Evie Doyon, August 2020