Sunday, August 14, 2011

Reversing Our Expectations

Here’s a story that might start us off in a bright mood. It’s been a while since I’ve added some good humor to my homily and so I thought, why not.

It’s about these three grownup children, two of whom were quite financially well-endowed. The oldest one was an architect, the second was kind of out of the ordinary — she was the CEO of a Car Dealership and the youngest was a Priest (which explains why he’s not financially as well-to-do as his other siblings).

Soon after their mother’s last birthday, the three discussed what gifts they were going to give at her next one. They also wanted it to be kept a secret. When their Mom’s 95th birthday came, Jimmy, the eldest, invited his Mom and his siblings for his surprise of the day. They even drove their mom blindfolded. As it turned out, he built a huge house for his mother.

And while they were still inside it, the second child, Barbara, invited everyone outside, for them to see her gift. As it turned out, her gift for Mom was a Mercedes, with a driver.

The youngest, Father Bob, was just so happy with the simple gift he got for his mother. You see, Helen, his mother, had always enjoyed reading the Bible but at 95, she couldn’t see that well anymore. Fortunately, Father Bob was able to get her a talking parrot that could recite the entire Bible. It took 12 years for the parrot to do the trick. All Mama Helen has to do is name the book, chapter and verse, and the parrot would be able to recite the passage, and in King James Version. He was completely sure that his Mom would again enjoy her daily scripture reading with the aid of this remarkable reciting parrot.

So after dinner, the three left their Mom in her new house, absolutely confident that she’d enjoy what they’ve given her. The following week, the children started receiving thank you letters from their mom, thanking them for their gifts but with some comments.

 “Jimmy,” she wrote to the eldest child, “The house you built is so huge. I live in only one room, and now I have to clean the whole darn house. I wish you had built me a smaller one. Jimmy mumbled something and said: ‘Oh, well. Maybe next time.’

She wrote to the second child.  “Barb, You know that I am too old to travel. I stay at home most of the time, so I rarely use the Mercedes. But the driver looks handsome! I’ll keep them both.”
Barb also murmured something and said: ‘Oh, well. Maybe a motorized wheelchair next time.’

And to her youngest, she wrote: “Dearest Bob, my good looking Reverend”, “of the three of you, you, indeed, have the good sense to know what your mother likes. So thank you for the chicken; quite odd looking but after I’ve cooked it, it turned out to be just as tasty.” Father Bob was so stunned and could only say: ‘O my Gosh!’

It’s funny how some things which we are very sure of, could turn out precisely the opposite – completely different, as illustrated by what happened to Fr. Bob’s gift. Rather than becoming an aid to Mom’s daily scripture reading, the skilled parrot ended up in the casserole.

Seriously though, there are quite a lot of things that end up contrary to what they were originally meant to be. They include ideas or beliefs and attitudes that we have always believed to be so right and proper and therefore should not only be carried on to the next generation but also be defended when questioned by others.

At times, however, such convictions get reversed. Rather than being carried on in perpetuity, the reverse becomes the outcome. Today, we have a good example of such reversal and I hope that this reflection might shed more light to it. And so, we begin by revisiting the lesson appointed for this 9th Sunday after Pentecost. (Matthew 15:21-28)

The verse that points to the “reversal” issue I’m referring to is the one that says: “And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ (NRSV Matthew 15: 23b)

‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us!’ Hearing these words today would immediately make some of you wonder why that was said. ‘How dare they say such a thing?’ you might even add. After all, they were Jesus’ disciples and it would have been so unlikely for them not to let Jesus, the Compassionate One, do his thing. The expected words from the disciples should have been: ‘Bring her to Jesus; he will listen to her plea!’

If you are inclined to say similarly, you’re actually mouthing off a different viewpoint; which is not by any means saying they are necessarily wrong. In fact, had you been among their company, you would have re-echoed those sentiments. You would’ve said straight to her face, ‘Take a hike.’

Yes? No? You don’t think so? I think you would have, because, you see, the disturbing mindset implied in the words ‘Send her away’ was so prevalent in the ancient world. All communities and groups by then would have reacted in a similar fashion. At that time and irrespective of which group it would be, a lot of decisions were based on who was “in” and who was “out”; who was “us”, who was “them”; who was in the "inside" and who, obviously, was on the "outside"
In this case, the person asking something of Jesus was not a Jew; she was a Canaanite; she was not from the “inside”; but an “outsider”, a “Gentile”. In the minds of the disciples, this ‘outsider’ had no business requesting something of Jesus nor was Jesus expected to show her any serious measure of kindness or respect. They were sure that Jesus would have agreed to their suggestion that she be sent away.

For a while there, they saw Jesus not saying a word to her. Jesus was actually silent. And to get this Canaanite moving out of their way was the result they were gladly hoping for.

Well. were their expectations met? I don’t think so. Remember our story about Father Bob? He truly hoped for the expected result. It got reversed, wasn’t it? The skilled parrot never got the chance to recite Psalm 23! It was delicious, though.

So here’s how the disciples’ expectations got into the reverse gear. The disciples were most likely listening closely and he must have glanced at them when he says: ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’  The disciples would have shouted a loud Hip Hip Hooray based on what they heard from Jesus. They could easily just have said: ‘Way to go, Yeshua!’ That was Round 1 and Team Disciples scored big.

But wait, what is this they see? This Canaanite had the guts to come close and knelt before Jesus, saying, ‘Lord, help me’. They must have said: “That can’t be real! This Gentile, this ‘Outsider’ can’t be that close to our Rabbi.  That’ll make Jesus and us become unclean.” “What’s with you Yeshua? This is not what we hoped to see in you! To their relief, Jesus told the Canaanite: “It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.” There goes Round 2. Again, Big Score for Team Disciples.

By now, they thought Jesus had been acting like what was expected of a Jew. Jesus was telling this ‘Outsider’ that Jews are the only ones who should matter, not her or her kind. It would have been highly unlikely for Jesus to have said otherwise. It’s as if Jesus dropped the “N” word, except that in this case, it was the “D” word. “It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the DOGS.”

That remark would have shut the woman up. That would have sounded like one of the modern racist remarks that we, in our time and place, would have been familiar with. The disciples could have really hit the ceiling with this remark and would have really started to feel the bite of smugness and were beginning to feel too complacent! But to their big surprise, this Canaanite would just not quit! Not a bit! She made this huge retort by saying: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.”

This Canaanite is saying that, even if Jesus were right, that the goodness of God is intended solely for the Jews, surely the “crumbs of that goodness” would fall to pitiful people like her and her daughter! She has faith that God’s goodness is bigger than the household of Israel, and that all God’s creatures – even Canaanite dogs – can receive it!     

And that was the turning point. Those words elicited from Jesus something huge! I would submit that it was Jesus’ light bulb moment. It was his “Aha! Moment”. Those words radically altered something that was expected to get carried on in perpetuity but had an entirely different and opposite result. Jesus, without any equivocation or mental reservation, told the Canaanite: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”

The disciples must have had the biggest shock of their life. Whatever spiritual arrogance that was beginning to foment inside them suddenly turned cold, splashed with the cold water of reality. Their world suddenly turned upside down with the words: “Woman, great is your faith!” It became quite puzzling for them. How could that be?  What was Jesus talking about? Was he not one of theirs?  And how could Jesus possibly say that this woman had faith? In their minds, she, like all non-Jews, didn’t have any faith.

My good friends, I’d love to know what was the disciples’ take on that “reversal”. How did their conversation turn out later that day? Were they able to change their hearts and minds?  Did they start to see others differently?  Did they recognize that they might have been wrong about some things all along? Did Matthew include this story in light of what was going on with their faith community which was beginning to look different than they expected? 

I’ve often wondered how fast it took for the disciples to get transformed to where they found themselves, especially when Jesus was no longer with them. Without a doubt, they must have had difficulty in allowing all they had seen and heard from Jesus to truly shape their hearts and minds. In a similar fashion, sometimes our thoughts and convictions can get engraved in stone, unassailable even in the face of overwhelming evidence.

And that is the challenge I’d like to leave you with today. The biggest concern we ought to face is whether we will allow what we have learned as Christians to help shape our own hearts and minds. It being that if we take an honest look, each of us can probably find a few things that are holding us back. There must be some deep-seated attitudes within us that are actually contrary to who we believe God is and who we believe we are as his creatures.

These points of contradiction do surface out in our attitudes towards others. Our gospel lesson for today points to the “reversal” that, perhaps, should begin to take place in those areas where the contradictions manifest in our relationships to others.

It is my hope and prayer that we will have the wisdom and courage to begin looking at these “reversals” if only to rejoice with the same great feeling Jesus once had when he addressed the Canaanite as a “woman of faith”. Hence, I ask you this. When do you begin getting on the reverse gear?

Have some conversations among you and may God, in Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit rejoice in your respective “reversals” and tell y’all: “Great is your faith”.

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