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The Hunger Games

Sermon - 8/14/11
Rev. April Oristano
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Matthew 15:10-28

The year is 85.  LXXXV.  The Empire is Rome, the nation is Syria – we’re pretty sure about that.  The Roman Empire is the center of the universe, according to them.  And in Antioch, there lives a community that gives birth to the gospel we call Matthew.

We come into Chapter 15 of Matthew and will quickly notice many similarities to the chapter before it – Chapter 14 – where Dan took us 3 or 4 weeks ago through a comparison of the 2 great banquets – the banquet of Herod and the beheading of John the Baptist and then into the banquet of God, where Jesus and the Disciples feed the 5000.  I understand that it was the writer’s intention all along to make us see this comparison – and he does so again and again – even with Chapter 15.  This chapter is broken into 3 parts – and the 3rd, the story of the Canaanite Woman that approaches Jesus, is the lectionary passage for today.  But here , v. 21 starts with “leaving this place…”  Wait, that sounds interesting, what place?  So you back up to the previous section which begins at v. 10 with some offended Pharisees.  Wait, why are they so offended?  Well we have to back up.  So, I will start our reading today at Matthew 15:1. 

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.’ 3He answered them, ‘And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4For God said, “Honor your father and your mother,” and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” 5But you say that whoever tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God”, then that person need not honor the father. 6So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. 7You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:
8 “This people honors me with their lips,
   but their hearts are far from me;
9 in vain do they worship me,
   teaching human precepts as doctrines.” ’

10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, ‘Listen and understand: 11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.’ 12Then the disciples approached and said to him, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees took offence when they heard what you said?’ 13He answered, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.’ 15But Peter said to him, ‘Explain this parable to us.’ 16Then he said, ‘Are you also still without understanding? 17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.’

21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ 24He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ 26He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 27She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ 28Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.


It’s a good story, isn’t it?  Full of surprises, questions, gray areas…

There is a system at work here.  A few, actually.  First the scholars want us to not get hung up on the who in the story, but the what.  The who is only important to their time -

It is believed that after the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70, many sought refuge outside of Israel and moved into Syria and other neighboring areas.  The Pharisees became the prominent Jewish community in those areas and so in this context are viewed as the ones in charge.  Jesus wrestles with the law keepers, the tradition holders.  The rule enforcers.   They believe Jesus is breaking Jewish law.  He’s upset the system.

So Jesus wrestles with the law, with the understood order, to bring about a new community, a new awareness, a new way.  His response to them is that God still expects a basic level of respect and love for one another – and the rules that do not maintain that fundamental law of God need to be changed. 

He continues…

“[These] are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”  Right?  Well, it’s good to wash your hands, it’s true.  But his other point is important.  Yes! Absolutely.  It doesn’t matter what you eat or how you eat. 


We are now starting to feel powerful in the story – Matthew wants us to check ourselves – lest we get too arrogant. 

A Gentile woman then enters the story and challenges/wrestles Jesus.  And we learn that even Jesus has an expected order, an understood mission, vision, and can even be cruel, hurtful, discriminatory.  (at the very least Matthew’s understanding).  She has upset his system, even though he’s in the business of breaking down most systems he is still in one.

I love this – we need this reality check!  In the church it is all very well and good to come together once or twice a week, wrestle with the Scripture, the creeds, the laws of our faith and to find the appropriate boundaries.  It’s important work, to leave feeling the presence of God, to feel that energy, that creative and abundant Spirit and power.  But when you clock out of here, it is then that we are put to the test – when who you think you are meets who you are.

So we enter into these chilling verses, because when the system is first challenged by the woman Jesus says nothing.  Denial.  It works for a while!  And you know he heard her.  She’s screaming at him down the street.  And when he responds it is not the Jesus we are ready to stand behind – I mean what happened to that guy about 3 verses ago?  Was he not listening to himself? 

John in staff meeting this week said “I have always felt I am the one excluded by this passage – why would Jesus declare that he came only for the “lost sheep.”

Jesus would never do this.  Or what if Matthew is moving us somewhere important.    Several commented in staff meeting “I like that Jesus was taught by the woman”–because now, by the example of Jesus, we are challenged to face our own isms – our sexism, racism – and asked to then improve ourselves.

There is another story, that moves me in a similar way – and it really packs a punch.  It is not set in the past but

”In a not-too-distant future, the United States of America has collapsed, weakened by drought, fire, famine, and war, to be replaced by Panem, a country divided into the Capitol and 12 districts. It is not a nation without power – there are many resources, enough for everyone, but the Capitol controls everything and most Districts go without even the basic resources to feed and educate their children.  Another system.  Each year, two young representatives (ages 12-18) from each district are selected by lottery to participate in The Hunger Games.”

And these Hunger Games are literally a fight to the death. The 24 kids are placed in an arena and forced to fight one another to the death to the entertainment of the Capitol and the other districts.  The winner is then celebrated for life as the victor of the Hunger Games.

It’s not pleasant, I know, The Hunger Games is not for the faint of heart. and it is violent but not more so than the Bible.  Look at that call to worship, that is Psalm 9.  And it wasn’t but 3 weeks ago we had the beheading of John the Baptist.   That story messed me up as a child, made a lasting imprint – it may have been the first time I questioned my faith but I was only 8 and I didn’t realize it then.   I said “That was cruel and wrong and there has got to be a better way.”  My point is that the themes and situations in the Hunger Games are no more violent than the Bible and we gather every week to make sense of these stories for our lives today and this book is set in a future with unsettling parallels to our present.  (It doesn’t make the violence right, I know. Let’s move on).

The system of the hunger games is that the more in need you are – the poorer you are the more indebted you are to the Capitol, and their lottery system.  On the other end of the spectrum, in the more affluent districts, where your name might be entered only once, these are communities where the most victors come from – because training and education are afforded to these children.   But every child is entered at least once.

And the families have no choice.  All citizens of Panem are required to watch The Hunger Games on television. What would you do if a person you loved was chosen?  Well, when her beloved younger sister Prim is chosen as one of the “tributes, from District 12” Katniss Everdeen, our heroine, volunteers to go in her sister’s place.  The other District 12 rep is Peeta, a boy with whom Katniss soon develops a complicated relationship. 

Katniss is an outsider, for sure.  A have-not.  Call her a Canannite.  And is thrust into the world of the Capitol – the haves.  This girl has nothing provided for her – and upon entering the games has a personal fashion designer, a make up and hair team, television interviews, mentors, chefs, busboys – working showers and toilets, water whenever she wants it, a private room…and is then just as fast, thrust into the arena – a reality tv show to the death, fully equipped with your ability to vote for favorites and gamble on the outcome.  Katniss must gather all her skills as a hunter to stay alive.  But as important as staying alive is the need she has to keep her humanity, to remain a caring human being in the face of the brutality of these Games.  And she challenges everyone in Panem – the spectators, the contenders, the Capitol – she becomes determined to not only win but to make them all see how wrong they are.  How something has to change.

The whole story is so exciting and thought-provoking.  The action alone will keep you going, but it is the way you are suddenly found questioning your own world and worldview that makes this book a keeper.  And why this entire chapter is important to read together in Matthew - They force you to consider who is “good” and who is “bad.” And you see that there are no black and white answers.  They both push us to ask ourselves if we are insiders or outsiders – are we from the Districts or the Capitol?

Panem gets its name from the latin “Panem et circenses” or Bread and Circuses/Games - pushing us to see what is already there – a system of distraction, meant to keep the people in line  - this metaphor was used to describe the Roman Empire in the years that preceded its decline, where power was achieved by giving the hungry something to eat and entertaining them instead of engaging them.    

The Year is 2011 friends. The nation is America.  The Empire – good lord it’s money I think.  It controls us.  Some have it.  A lot don’t.   We are also in a system.  Some days I’m in the system, some days out.  How insidious the system is because just this week – I’m reviewing the headlines online.  There is some reporting on the Iowa Straw Poll, for the Republican Party’s Presidential Nomination.  And one look at the picture of the candidates and I said out loud to Kelly – “It’s like seeing the 8th season of Big Brother or American Idol, when you don’t care at all about the outcome, I don’t like any of the contenders, I think they all lack something”and I go to the entertainment news…Like it’s just a game.  And in that moment I resign myself to accept – that I have no power to change that system.   But we do.  What about London?  When the youth of London rioted this week we were left to ask ourselves who is right and who is wrong?  Good and bad?  But then turn your eyes to the system in Somalia, Kenya, where not even 20% of those the US and the world sends aid to actually receive it.  That system of power and oppression is hopeful that we will just accept it, eat our dinners and go back to work in the morning.    

In every system the powerful are counting on those weakened masses, either because of years of hunger, because of years of playing the game - that game that kills their hope – their children! -  to feel no power to wrestle or respond.  It is Jesus that brings a new bread – no entertainment – bread to feed us where we are really starving.  Jesus is the example to follow –his struggles give us hope for our own.   As do The Canaanite woman’s, Katniss Everdeen’s, - one person at a time, ready to respond for they are no longer entertained and are ready to accept the consequences of addressing the powers that be.  When we wrestle with our own power and how we use it.

When we look at Impoverished children and families we see everyday, those lost in the system, afraid of the system, left out, hoping for the crumbs off the table. 

When we can identify with and understand those that are struggling with life and with God.  Then we too wrestle with God, and like God, like the community of Matthew, we wrestle like children of God.  That is what Matthew calls Great Faith.

May we live into the legacy that Christ calls us to. 


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