That time the pastor dropped the “b-bomb”: On cursing in the pulpit

This past Sunday, I made a bold decision: I used a curse word from the pulpit for a specific purpose. To be sure, I wrestled with the questions for days, vacillating back and forth, even considering replacing the word that properly means “a female dog,” but most often is used as a derogatory term for a woman, with another, kinder term. To curse or not to curse. That was the question. On the advice of my wife and my mother, I decided to keep the stronger language in my sermon, which you can read below.

As I stepped into the pulpit, the moment of truth had arrived: I scanned the faces present, took a deep breath, and began to deliver the homily as written. The “b-bomb,” as I have come to call it, arrives early in the sermon, as you will read in a few moments. Sure enough, the reaction was swift and vocal: half of the congregation laughed, the other half gasped. I quickly began to explain my purpose for using the word–the text is Matthew 15:21-28 (–and within minutes I realized that everyone was listening. 

Really listening.

At first I concluded that it was the curse word alone, and that by the time I got to the end, people would be back to shuffling their programs and looking up the next hymn. But that didn’t happen. Indeed, when I received the congregation after service, people had a lot to say about my sermon, and not just the use of the controversial word. Congregants understood the connections that I was making and appreciated my dealing with a rather difficult text in such an honest way.

Sometimes we as pastors need to be willing to take a risk, because Jesus often did in his own ministry. Too often, the harsh language of the Bible–the shocking comparisons; the rough terminology; the disconcerting ways in which God is described–has been softened by preachers and exegetes. We should not curse merely to shock, but if we can use contemporary language that has a direct or explainable parallel to language contained in the Scripture–and in so using, increase comprehension–we should not shy away from using it.

This also left me wondering if I should start dropping swears into my sermons every week…

Read the sermon here:

        I heard tell of two girls who were moving into a dorm room. Both of them had their mothers in tow. One was from Boston; the other, Atlanta. The southern girl, in her chipper and distinctive accent said, “Hi, darlin’! My name is Mary Louise, and I’m from Atlanta. Where y’all from?” The mother of the Boston girl looked down her patrician nose and said, “We’re from a place where we know not to end a sentence in a preposition.” The mother of the southern belle smiled and said, “My apologies for my daughter’s uncouth behavior. So, where y’all from, bitch?!”

        Now before you begin a mass exodus because the pastor just dropped the “b-bomb,” bear with me; there is a reason for my crudeness. Did anyone catch the interaction between Jesus and the Canaanite woman? He essentially calls her a dog! Now, this often is softened by preachers and biblical scholars, who note that the Greek uses the diminutive, essentially making the word mean “little dog” or “puppy.” And who doesn’t want to be called a cute, adorable puppy, right? But such a rendering is rather anachronistic. The fact is, Jews in the first century did not own dogs as pets. Gentiles did; and the word was used as an epithet against Gentiles, a way of calling them unclean and less-than-human. So, yes. I dropped the “b-bomb,” but in a way, so did Jesus.

          How do we make sense of this exchange? Jesus engaging in name-calling does not line up with the justice-orientated, grace-filled, man-of-God I’ve come to know and love. Was Jesus having a bad day? Was he in need of a snack and a nap? Or, as so often is the case in the Scriptures, is there something else going on here?

          The pericope first appears in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 7. Matthew changes a few details: the Syrophonecian woman becomes a Canaanite woman; Jesus’ declaration in Mark that “the children be fed first” becomes in Matthew, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Indeed, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus commands his disciples that they should never enter into Gentile territory or come into contact with the Samaritans (Matt 10:6). This is a huge theological concern for Matthew: Jesus was sent for the Jewish people. Any opportunity for salvation offered to the Gentiles can come only after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.

          The Canaanite woman is a potent symbol of otherness. That she approaches Jesus, a Jewish holy man, might indicate that she is a single mother, either through licentiousness or widowhood. In Jewish culture, a man should be engaging in trying to find healing for his progeny. Yet here she is: bold, brash, audacious, and, to our surprise, faithful. Notice her first words to Jesus: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” This salutation develops among the early church—and therefore seems to be evidence that the event, as recorded, did not happen—but it is also most Jewish. Why would a Gentile woman be concerned with Jesus’ connection to King David? Further, she comes to Jesus with a distinct problem—“[M]y daughter is tormented by a demon.” She clearly has faith that Jesus can provide a healing. Recall that, in last week’s passage, Peter, upon having Jesus declare himself the great “I AM,” a clear signal that he is God, Peter says “Lord, if it is you command me to come to you on the water” (Matthew 14:28). Peter demands proof; Peter sets up a test. But not the Canaanite woman; not this symbol of the unclean, dangerous “other.” She simply believes that Jesus can heal her daughter.

          The inherent racism of Jesus’ dog comment cannot be ignored. After he has tried to send her away, the woman kneels down and says, “Lord, help me.” Jesus responds, making it a justice issue: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” This seems a direct contradiction of Jesus’ work in the Feeding of the Five Thousand, in which he ensured that all persons were fed. We can assume that everyone gathered was Jewish, but this would just be an assumption; we cannot know for certain. Here, though, Jesus clearly indicates that priority is given to the children of Israel. In some ways, this makes perfect sense. Jesus was a devout Jew and was understood by his followers to be the Jewish Messiah. However, Mark disagrees with Matthew, in that Jesus ministers to Gentiles in Mark’s gospel, and redemption is available to all persons who have faith.

          This, dearly beloved, is the crux of the issue: the nature of faith. In the 1st and 2nd centuries of the common era, followers of Jesus disagreed on what was required to be a member of the ekklesia, the assembly of people “called out” by God. For some, it required becoming Jewish: eating kosher, keeping all 613 commandments, and, for men, undergoing circumcision. Other church leaders, like Paul, argued that this was not necessary: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus” Paul writes in Galatians 3:28. Yet, in Romans 1:16 Paul writes that God’s salvation came to the Jew first and then to the Greek. Reasonable people can disagree as to whether Paul was stating that God came first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles, or if he was making a statement about Jesus’ earthly ministry; what is clear, though, is that from an early point, there was division as to whom Jesus ministered during his life.

          But what does this have to do with us? What are we to take from this difficult story? It is interesting to point out that this exchange with the Canaanite woman is a reversal of Jesus’ usual arguments. Typically, Jesus is presented with some question or is accused of violating the law by a Sadducee or Pharisee, and Jesus then trips them up with a superior understanding of Scripture. Not here. In fact, it is the woman who seems to “win” the argument by saying, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Has Jesus met his rhetorical match?

          Probably not. His response seems to indicate that the woman understands something that even the disciples fail to see: faith is the great leveler. It doesn’t matter if you are a disciple; if you fail to live into the fullness of faith, fear will overtake you. Peter walked on the water for a moment, but sank into the depths when he began to doubt. The Canaanite woman, despite being called a dog, despite being told that she is less-than, believes that God’s healing and grace is still available. She doesn’t care in what order she receives it, she simply cares that she is given access. To our 21st century minds, this may seem wholly inadequate; it may seem a justification for continued racism and sexism. Perhaps it is, but perhaps it is also a profound statement about how God works outside of our expectations. The final words Jesus gives does not concern her status as a Gentile or as a woman, they are directed at her faith. “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” The daughter is healed, and the woman disappears from the narrative.

          Perhaps the message here is that no matter the understandings that humans set forth—this group is to be preferred over this one; these people are not deserving of salvation but there others are—God does not work that way. God responds to faith, and our greatest hope is to remain faithful even when others call us names and seek to denigrate us. To be sure, it is most difficult to see Jesus as the one name-calling and denigrating, but he gives freely of the grace bestowed by God in the face of fearless faith. And that, my friends, is a message we all need from time to time.

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