Sunday, August 20, 2017

“Believe the best” versus “Assume the worst”

Matthew 15:10-28

At the Franciscan Retreat I attended a few weeks ago, we discussed a practice that I have found very helpful. The idea is simple. Instead of jumping to the worst possible interpretation of something that was said or done, we look for a best possible interpretation. Most of the time, I do this, but sometimes, I forget. My feelings get hurt, and instead of believing the best, I assume the worst.

Today, I want us to spend some time with this. First, let’s practice the two statements. Believe the best …. Assume the worst.

For example, one year one of my sons didn’t call me until late in the day on Mother’s Day. I assumed he had forgotten me. And I complained about it to my husband. I assumed the worst. It turns out he had to work that day, and the evening was the first chance he had to call. So, now, I try to remember he works for a living, sometimes on unexpected days, and I try to believe the best about him.

I think this practice can help us understand today’s gospel reading. First, Jesus gives this long speech about looking at the heart and not the rules when judging someone. It starts when some leaders notice that the disciples eat lunch without first washing their hands.

Very often in the Gospels, we read stories of the leaders judging others, assuming the worst about them. There are laws which define who may enter the Temple and when, the laws about women and when they are clean or unclean, laws about what to eat and when to eat and how to eat it. These laws are intended to keep Israel righteous in God’s eyes.

Those who ignore or disobey the laws are judged in the assume the worst column. But Jesus says, if the leaders are going to judge people at all, they should begin by believing the best about them. There may be reasons for their disobedience – like poverty, limited food choices, or lack of water for proper cleansing. Jesus will also make it clear that sometimes, the old laws no longer apply.

In making and interpreting laws, people should seek to discover what is in a person’s heart. Those who judge others may do so with evil intent, sometimes for their own profit. It is the evil intent in the heart that defiles, not the lack of clean hands at lunch.

… So, moving on to the story about the Canaanite woman. When we assume the worst about her, what do we get? We get a pushy foreign woman who has no business – in the eyes of the disciples, at least – trying to get Jesus to heal her daughter. She doesn’t believe in the same God. She is interrupting Jesus’ retreat in which he is hoping to get some rest and renewal by going to a different country.  

When we assume the worst about Jesus, what do we get?  We get a man who is cranky from overwork. We get a rabbi who believes he has been sent mostly to a certain group of people, not to everyone from every culture and religion. We get a teacher who is frustrated that so many refuse to believe him.

Then, what happens when we assume the best about the Canaanite woman? We get a woman who loves her daughter. We get a woman who believes Jesus can heal her daughter by simply offering the mother a word of mercy. We get a woman who is willing to stand her ground and argue with Jesus, the rock star of the preachers of the day. We get a woman who is willing to get on her knees before him and beg for mercy. We get a woman who is willing to be insulted, called names, anything, in order to get help for her beloved daughter.

What happens when we assume the best about Jesus with the Canaanite woman? We get a man who is willing to engage the woman in an argument, even though in that culture men and women are not supposed to talk to each other. We get a man who is so tired he forgets for a moment that he is the one breaking the laws that need to be broken for the sake of mercy. We get a man who, with just a word, heals the daughter. And we get a man who calls the mother “daughter” – an endearment he uses to let her know she is a child of God.  

So, when we believe the best about the people in this story, we get a woman who loves her daughter and will do anything to get help for her. And we get Jesus, who though he is tired, admires the woman’s persistence and her faith that he has the power to heal. So, he heals the daughter by granting the mother mercy.

… In congregations and in families, in communities and in nations, we often find ourselves caught in a trap of assuming the worst about people. In our community, the Home Owners Association is very strict. My husband calls them the Gendarmes. He assumes the worst about them, as they seek to protect the community from un-mowed lawns and burned out light bulbs and the wrong paint colors. But, if we believe the best about them, we see that they are also working to ensure there are no dead cars in the front yards, broken windows, and other things that lower the property value on our homes.

… There is a lot of violence in the world today, most recently in Virginia and Spain. I am reeling from the hatred that causes people to want so badly to hurt and kill other people. Neo-Nazis and racists and ISIS members want to win at all costs, and I pray for them to find a peaceful way to solve their problems. I can do so little.

I mostly assume the worst about them. Someone taught them to hate. Somehow, their hearts are filled with evil. It’s hard for me to believe the best about them. I can only trust in God, in Jesus, to find a way to peace.

I don’t have time to talk about each group of people that have been so violent lately. So, let’s focus on just one: the Muslims. Many people blame all Muslims for extremist views and actions. But the Koran is a book of peace, just as our Bible is. Yes there are violent passages in the Koran, and there are equally violent passages in the Bible. These texts are from another time, another context, another Divine purpose.

I recently read an article recently that helps me believe the best about Muslims. Perhaps it will help you, too. After the Manchester, England, bombing, the Imams of the city agreed that they would refuse to say the funeral prayers for the terrorists. They have decided it is time to tell the world -- and the terrorists -- that the terrorists are not acting in accord with Muslim tradition. Imam Qari Asim put it this way: “We believe that the terrorists should not be accepted in our community, in life or in death.”

So, when we are thinking about the people who intend to do us or others harm, we can recognize that there is evil in their hearts. Do we want to believe the best about them? Probably not. When we ear for our lives, it is smart to assume the worst.

But to my mind people from the Middle East look similar – Jews, Palestinians, Egyptians, Saudis, Syrians all have similar skin and hair color, and ethnic accents if they are immigrants. Can I see my Egyptian neighbor bringing in the groceries and know that he might be a terrorist? Absolutely not! So, I will believe the best about him and about his family.

… I pray this week that you will use this simple practice of believing the best about another person or group of persons in your daily lives.

Look around at the people gathered this morning and believe the best about them, even if you disagree with them.

Consider your family members and believe the best about them, even if you disagree with them.

Think about your neighbors and the people of Central Florida and believe the best about them, even if you disagree with them.

Think about our local, state, and national political leaders and believe the best about them, even if you disagree with them.

Would the world be a better place if we all subscribed to the practice of believing the best about others until they proved it was necessary to assume the worst? I think it is a place to start.

Please pray with me. Lord, as you argued with the Pharisees and the Canaanite woman, lead us to understand that it’s what is in the heart that matters, not the outward circumstances. Heal the hurts in our hearts, that cause us to judge others before we know who they are. Help us to start by believing the best about others, long before we decide to assume the worst. In your holy name. amen