Sermon on Matthew 15:10-28, for Pentecost +11, August 20, 2017
understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just 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.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
I heard a story on the radio by a reporter who went back to her high school twenty-five years after graduation. They had planned a party, but it never finally got organized. Nevertheless, she went back to her hometown and interviewed some of her old classmates. She also interviewed a teacher, Mrs. Murphy. As it turns out, Mrs. Murphy was the only black teacher in that all-white school.
Mrs. Murphy told the story of the Avon lady that would come to her house to sell her cosmetics (in the days before Mary K, I think). The Avon lady would look around at her living room and comment that it was always clean.
Mrs. Murphy knew exactly what she was saying. In her white monoculture world, they had stereotypes of what black people were like. They were dirty.
As you know I have lived in different countries. It is consistent, in my experience, that when one group despises another, they always call them unclean.
This is not a new idea. Consider how it must have been for Jewish people to grow up in homes where every meal reinforced the idea that some animals were clean, and good for food, and others were unclean.
Keeping kosher, eating only clean food, became a sign of Jewish identity. Meals defined the Jewish community as distinct.
If you were Jewish, that perspective on clean and unclean food would have to color the way you looked at non-Jewish people. If they ate unclean animals, how could they not be unclean people? Gentiles were like mangy dogs who eat garbage and seem to be attracted to things that smell disgusting. So, Gentiles are disgusting. It was an insult, according to the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, to call people dogs.
Did Jesus have that prejudice? In this remarkable Gospel text, in which we have two separate stories, we see Jesus moving away from his tradition in some fundamental ways. In the processes, I believe we are given an insight into the very moment of development in Jesus.
We are reading Matthew’s gospel. Matthew does not have the line that Luke does that comments on Jesus, as a young person, growing in wisdom and stature, but obviously if you are born an infant, by the time you are an adult, you have grown in wisdom and stature. The baby Jesus did not recite the beatitudes that the adult Jesus taught. So, at some point, Jesus’ views and perspectives developed. In this text we get to see the actual moment of development.
But let us start with the whole question of unclean food. This is not an issue for us. Most people here eat pork and shrimp, both of which are on the unclean list. But, this story, and Jesus’ views on the subject, are incredibly important and relevant to us.
Why? Because the bible has a lot to say about clean and unclean food. Eating unclean food makes you unclean. Unclean animals are called detestable. And this is not Moses’ opinion, according the the bible, it is God’s opinion. (It’s all in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, if you are curious.)
Jesus’ Developed Perspective
But Jesus has thought it through, and concluded that it is simply not the case that you are made unclean by what goes into your body and out into the latrine. Instead, what makes a person unclean is what comes out of the heart, the inner person.
Jesus gets specific:
“For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.”
In Mark’s gospel, he adds the editorial comment, “Thus he declared all foods clean.” (Mark 7:19)
So, at some point, Jesus, who grew up with the typical Jewish view about clean and unclean food, developed a completely, radically different view. In spite of the words of God through Moses, Jesus grasped a deeper level. For Jesus, it was not just that God had spoken, in the past. God was still speaking. Jesus was listening.
Beyond Food, Beyond the Purity Quest
The point goes way beyond food. The point is that Jesus’ entire perspective is a rejection of the belief that what God wants most is religious purity. Remember, when we are reading about clean and unclean in the bible, we are not talking about germs, which they had no knowledge of. We are talking about ritual cleanness. These are called purity laws.
Ritual purity is what makes you not want to touch a corpse or a bloody body, because touching it makes you ritually impure. So you walk by the victim on the other side of the road, as the priest and the Levite do in the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Instead of purity as a quest, Jesus opts for the quest for justice and liberation. So, he touches lepers. He touches corpses. He liberates people from evil spirits. He pays attention to women and blesses children, liberating them from social constructs that diminish them as inferiors.
How Far Does This Go?
But what about Gentiles? What about the people who eat all those unclean animals? What about those people who are outside the family that descended from Abraham and are outside the promise and covenant?
This is where we see Jesus growing and changing. The next story is of Jesus and his followers going towards completely Gentile territory. Why? We are not told. But in the region of the Gentile cities of Tyre and Sidon, a woman finds Jesus.
Who is she? Mark’s gospel, which came first, calls her a Greek woman, of Syrophoenician origin. Matthew calls her a Canaanite. Why does that matter? Because there were not Canaanites in Matthew’s time. It would be like calling someone from Poland an Austro-Hungarian. It is anachronistic.
Matthew is intentionally recalling the stories of how the ancient Israelites came into the promised land, the land of Canaan, and dispossessed the native Canaanite population there, at the orders of God. (You can read these stories in the book of Joshua).
In other words, Canaanites are the “dirty people” who, the bible says, the land had to “vomit out”, because of their level of evil (Lev. 18:25). Jesus seems to share this view of Canaanites.
Yet, she persisted
The woman finds Jesus and implores him to help her, but at first, he totally ignores her. But she persisted in shouting for help for her daughter anyway. This irritates the disciples who tell Jesus to send her off. Finally Jesus gives her a reply, saying,
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
This is how he understands his mission, at least at this moment. He is supposed to preach the Kingdom of God to the descendants of Abraham. They are the sheep. Maybe lost, but still, they are sheep. So what animal are Gentiles? We will find out soon enough.
Anyway, this determined woman begs Jesus in the most humble way for help for her tormented daughter, so she gets another reply from Jesus, no better than the first. He says,
“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
So now, the descendants of Abraham have gone from being sheep to being children, and this Canaanite woman is a dirty dog.
Yes, it is an insult, and yes, it is a racial slur, and yes, Jesus said it. I have heard some people try to excuse this by imagining Jesus winking, like he is playing with her. The gospels record no wink. It is as bad as it sounds.
But even this rude racial slur does not dissuade her. She has come for healing and she believes Jesus can make it happen, so, “yet, she persisted.”
“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
In this moment, Jesus’ worldview changes. Suddenly instead of a faithless dirty dog, he sees a woman of incredible faith. He says, with obvious emotion,
“O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
This is the only time in the gospels Jesus tells anyone they have “great faith” and he says it to a woman, not a man, and to a Gentile woman, not a descendant of Abraham. He changed, right there in front of us, because of a woman’s persistence.
So, was Jesus sent then, “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”? By the end of the gospel of Matthew we hear Jesus telling his disciples to
“go in to all the world and proclaim the gospel, the good news.”
It is not just good news for Abraham’s children, it is a blessing for “all the families of the earth,” as the promise to Abraham put it. It is not for sheep only, it is for humans. and there are no more dogs here; only humans.
Change is Possible
We watch Jesus make this change so that we can see that change is possible. Even for people who grow up in mono-cultures, or who dream of a perfectly pure little mono-culture, where there are not unclean people, no Muslims or Jews or job-stealing immigrants, change is possible.
So we proclaim Jesus’ hard-won alternative vision. We proclaim a vision of a world where no person is called a dog, or by any other racial slur. We proclaim a world where God’s mercy and healing come like the rain which falls and the sun which shines on the fields of the just and the unjust, the pure and the impure, the “us’” and the “them’s” because they have all been made in the image of God. They, we, are all lost sheep. We are all children who deserve a place at the table and bread on their plates.
In a world of Charlottesville’s, of alt-right racism and white supremacy, we proclaim resistance. In a world of hate speech, we proclaim God’s love for all the world. In a world of racial slurs, we proclaim that no one is less than human to God, and therefore, no one is less than human to us.
Bearing Public Witness
What can we do, practically? (this is for locals) We can bear witness to this vision of a reconciled humanity by publicly joining together with black, white and Hispanic people. The Path to Peace organization which I am a part of has been meeting since January to organize a public event. Long before Charlottesville, we have met with leaders from at least 17 area black, white and Hispanic churches.
October 1st is World Communion Sunday. That afternoon we will gather at the Foley UMC church to sing, pray, read scripture, and celebrate the alternative vision of racial harmony that we get directly from Jesus.
There will be music from black, white and Hispanic churches. There will be short messages from each community. There will be religious leaders, law enforcement representatives and elected officials in attendance, all of us publicly proclaiming that we have been changed, just as Jesus was.
Our consciences have been awakened. “The dividing wall of hostility” in our hearts “has been torn down.” “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new humanity;” a humanity that recognizes and celebrates the humanity in every human.