Monday, August 15, 2011

Good news: did Jesus sin?

My potentially heretical sermon on Matthew 15:21-28 from yesterday.

A  Mexican woman comes up to an American clergyman. She says, in broken English, “Sir, please help me and pray for my daughter, who is sick.” The minister responds, “No, because you don’t belong in this country,” and calls her a slang term for a female dog. 

Did the minister sin?
I would say, “Yes.” He has stereotyped this woman based upon her accent and looks and dehumanized her. He has not loved his neighbor as himself. He has fallen short of the mark. 

So since that’s basically what happens between Jesus and the Canaanite woman in the Gospel this morning, where do we go from here? If this story was about anyone other than Jesus, we would say that the Rabbi in question had sinned, repented because of the woman’s tenacity, and had some sort of conversion experience where instead of seeing a “dog” he saw a mother, a woman, a child of God.

But this is a story about Jesus, the one who we say did not sin. So either: what Jesus does in this passage is not a sin, or Jesus, in his humanity, did sin. Gulp. 

 This is the point in which on something other than a hot steamy summer Sunday, I would bring up Anselm and his work Cur Deus Homo, “Why the God-Man?” which explains in great detail the necessity of a sinless Jesus for our salvation. It’s hot, we’ll save Anselm for another day except to point out that while the church has never actually settled on one single answer to the question of exactly how it is that Jesus saves us—is it his incarnation? His death? His resurrection?—the notion that Jesus must be a perfect and sinless offering is in a lot of them. 2000 years of orthodox Christian theology will agree that Jesus did not sin. In the Anglican tradition, we always point to Scripture, tradition, and reason as the three legged stool on which we base our faith; tradition is clear on the question of Jesus sinning, and the rest of the Gospels are pretty clear too, except for this story (I’ve always felt that Jesus’ sassy response to Mary and Joseph after he hides out in the Temple for a few days in Luke’s gospel to be an expression of adolescent sin). 

But this is one of the sticking points in understanding Jesus to be fully human and fully divine. How human can Jesus really be if he did not know what it was to sin? Is not sin one of the fundamental characteristics of human beings? We all do wrong—from a startlingly early age, as I discovered with Nathan the first time that I realized that he was telling me a lie. If Jesus did not know what it was like to do wrong, and to need to repent and seek forgiveness, could he really claim to be human? Or is it the temptation to sin—which Jesus resists—the fundamental human characteristic, and our inability to resist temptation is what separates us from Jesus in both human and divine forms?

I don’t want the heresy police out after me this week—especially now that all my sermons are going up on the blog and are available for curious bishops to read. But if we do look at the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman, and identify that if we saw someone doing exactly this today we could consider it to be a sin, there is actually some very good news for us in that, and the good news is this: 

The church of 2000 years ago did not believe that to dehumanize a foreign woman was a sin, so there was no conflict between this passage and the doctrine that Jesus was fully human except in his sinlessness. Nor did the church of 1000 years ago, or even the church of a more recent era. But today, the church has finally realized that women are, indeed, human, and are indeed a neighbor worthy of love and respect. So while it did not appear that Jesus sinned to the church of yesterday, in the eyes of at least this church leader, it looks to me like he did.
And that is good news for the kingdom of God. We still have a long way to go in recognizing women’s ministry in the church, and in reducing discrimination and prejudice based upon ethnicity and religious heritage. But look how far we have come. A story in which it never occurred to anyone in the Church that Jesus might be doing something sinful comes down to us today and we say, “How could they not see it?” The revelations of the Holy Spirit did not stop 2000 years ago, they continue today, and will continue into the future, as we get nearer and nearer to Truth. 

And there’s even more good news, because look what happens in the second half of the story. Jesus knows he was wrong. How many of us, when confronted with someone who is holding up the mirror and showing us our sin, actually have the maturity and the grace to change? I don’t usually—at least not in the moment. Maybe after a day or two of reflection, I’ll realize I was wrong, but in the moment, I’m much more likely to get defensive. If someone were to accuse me the way the Canaanite woman accuses Jesus, I would disagree—say that she’d mis-interpreted my remarks, or that it wasn’t that she was a Canaanite, exactly, but that she was hitting me up for help in the wrong way, or at the wrong time, or something. Jesus doesn’t do that. He hears her, he sees her, and he realizes he was wrong. And then he makes it up to her. “Woman,” he begins—she’s not a dog any longer—“Great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish.”

Elsewhere in the Gospels, the disciples ask, “Lord, teach us to pray,” and Jesus teaches them the Lord’s prayer. Today I almost want to ask, “Lord, teach us to sin.” Teach us how to sin and repent and restore that which we have taken away by our sin immediately. What would a world look like in which this was how we handled sin? Where when we have been sinned against we confront it instantly but with humility. And when we are the sinner, we hear the confrontation and respond with maturity and grace and restore that which we had taken away.

We would have to know who we are: beloved Children of God. Perhaps that’s why Jesus is able to respond so quickly to the Canaanite woman’s accusation—he knows who he is. He is God’s son, the beloved, as the voice from heaven said at his baptism. He knows that even if he admits his sin and changes his mind, he will still be God’s beloved son. 

Do we know that in our hearts? Do we believe that if we admit our sins we will still be loved, still find grace, and actually find forgiveness? Or is it easier to keep denying our sins so that we can feel better about ourselves—to believe that we’re not one of those people who sin, we’re one of the good guys. Hear Paul’s letter to the Romans today: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” All are sinful, all require mercy, and all get mercy. Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free, Canaanite of the 1st Century, American of the 21st Century. We just have to believe it as much as that woman who confronted Jesus, and it will be done for us as we wish. Amen.

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