10 Jesus called the crowd near and said to them, “Listen and understand. 11 It’s not what goes into the mouth that contaminates a person in God’s sight. It’s what comes out of the mouth that contaminates the person.”
12 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended by what you just said?”
13 Jesus replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father didn’t plant will be pulled up. 14 Leave the Pharisees alone. They are blind people who are guides to blind people. But if a blind person leads another blind person, they will both fall into a ditch.”
15 Then Peter spoke up, “Explain this riddle to us.”
16 Jesus said, “Don’t you understand yet? 17 Don’t you know that everything that goes into the mouth enters the stomach and goes out into the sewer? 18 But what goes out of the mouth comes from the heart. And that’s what contaminates a person in God’s sight. 19 Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adultery, sexual sins, thefts, false testimonies, and insults. 20 These contaminate a person in God’s sight. But eating without washing hands doesn’t contaminate in God’s sight.”
21 From there, Jesus went to the regions of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from those territories came out and shouted, “Show me mercy, Son of David. My daughter is suffering terribly from demon possession.” 23 But he didn’t respond to her at all.
His disciples came and urged him, “Send her away; she keeps shouting out after us.”
24 Jesus replied, “I’ve been sent only to the lost sheep, the people of Israel.”
25 But she knelt before him and said, “Lord, help me.”
26 He replied, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.”
27 She said, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table.”
28 Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith. It will be just as you wish.” And right then her daughter was healed.
I’m going to be honest with you, brothers and sisters, this has not been the best of weeks. I think we can all agree to that. With the chaos going on overseas and here in the US, as well as just the sheer flood of grief and sadness in our community, this just is not the best of weeks. If the week wasn’t so close to being over, I’d like to press reboot on this last week, just start over from scratch and hope there’s not nearly as much suffering this time. I know that’s impossible, but a guy can dream, can’t he?
However, with all of this going on, it’s hard to not to notice how when tensions get high, all kinds of things seem to happen right on top of each other, mucking things up and making things worse. Words, harsh and hurtful, get hurled around like big messy banana cream pies, only not nearly as funny. (wouldn’t it be great if we could all just settle our disagreements with a harmless food fight?) Violence begets resentment, anger, and even more violence. Jealousy, dishonesty, selfishness, all of it spins around in a great big mixing bowl, splatters all over the place and turns into a Jackson Pollack painting of sin. Such is the world at this particular time.
I’m not sure all of you know about this, but I like using the Revised Common Lectionary when I choose my scriptures for preaching. For those who don’t know, it’s basically a scriptural calendar that acts as a codified guide for scripture in the Christian year. Churches all over the country use the Lectionary, and I know that in the Episcopal Church that it’s required that you use it. Lots of people don’t care for it, which is okay, because I can understand feeling confined by it. However, I like taking the opposite approach; I think of it is freeing in a way, but also because it makes me feel connected to something bigger. I feel like, in the Lectionary, I am in conversation with all these other churches, and that there is a time in every season for something in the bible to speak to us. I had been planning on using this scripture for a while now, but with the events of this week, it just seems so much more necessary to talk about what this scripture has to say. It’s almost as if there was some kind of divine guidance in it all… HMMMM.
In any case, while I like this scripture, I’m not going to gloss over the fact that it’s a difficult one to read. It confronts us with some radical ideas that Jesus was teaching to the disciples, and to us. The method is twofold: first, by direct, blunt teaching, and the second being demonstration. Neither of which the disciples understand, by the way. Then again, I’m pretty sure most of the time we don’t understand it either.
This passage starts in the middle of a much longer discussion that Jesus is having with the Pharisees, those oh-so-easy targets of the New Testament. The Pharisees, in the New Testament, are sort of a short-hand way that the gospel writers use to describe institutional religious folk. These are people whose stock-and-trade was arguing about what the Torah said and meant, and how it should be implemented in life. What needs to be said is that these people were not inherently bad or evil; people rarely are. These were dedicated people who loved God and did quite a bit of good in their communities, but tended to be misguided in their attempts to fulfil the Torah.
The discussion was ostensibly about the purity laws, specifically about eating ritually clean and unclean foods. The Pharisees were upset because they had witnessed the disciples eating without washing their hands. First off, we see a disconnect. Question: did indoor plumbing exist in the 1st century? No. Therefore, was it necessarily an easy thing to do to get water from the well JUST to wash your hands, when water is a scarce enough resource as it is? Not really. So we see not only a class divide—Pharisees with enough resources to have readily available washing water vs. poor people who would be lucky just to have drinking water—but also a mental divide. What’s more important, obeying the rules, or eating what you have when water is scarce? It’s a lot easier to follow the rules when you don’t have to worry about where your next meal or drink of water is coming from. As Professor William Lawrence once taught me, “Hunger trumps all ethics.”
So they criticize Jesus for this, saying he’s claiming to be a teacher of the but simultaneously breaking the law. And Jesus just rips into them. He loses it. He nails them with their own hypocrisy and shady practices of condoning offerings originally meant to aid family members in bad health (Matthew 10:3-9). Following that, he goes into this discourse which I read to you in verse 10, about it really not mattering what you put into your mouth compared to what comes out of your mouth. While that seems fairly common knowledge to us, for people who are very rules-oriented, this is blasphemy of the highest order.
Let me take a step back and say this, though: it’s not necessarily a bad thing to be rules-oriented. Rules make the world a less chaotic place. They keep things together. Rules are made for a reason, and Jesus is not throwing out the rules altogether. He’s just saying that there’s bigger fish to fry than rules about hand-washing. This makes a lot of sense, given that Jesus’s biggest concern and the primary commandment he focuses on is this: Love God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Handwashing, in the grand scale of things, is of relatively small importance next to “evil thoughts, murders, adultery, sexual sins, thefts, false testimonies, and insults.” Going back to my earlier analogy, if this world is a splattered mess of Jackson Pollack proportions, then going after handwashing is like cleaning up the mess with a pencil eraser. Jesus’s response is that we need a bigger sponge.
Moving on, Jesus leaves all that mess behind and goes to Tyre and Sidon, in which we find the second part of this difficult lesson enacted by a person simply known as The Canaanite Woman (In Mark, she’s the Syro-Phoenecian woman.) Note something strange: Canaan, at this point, DOES NOT EXIST. Canaan is an antiquated term in this instance, like if we called people from Iran “Persians.” It’s the same place, just an outdated term. Why would Matthew do this? Simply to make a point. This woman is Not Jewish. She’s a Gentile. An Outsider. NOT ONE OF US. Someone we call names, expel, discount, and reject. For anyone in the first century reading this, this would have been a big neon sign saying “This is going to be a lesson in how we treat non-Jews.”
She comes up to Jesus with a plea that we have all heard of Jesus, what people do to Jesus all over the place: “Help. Help me. My daughter is possessed. She’s sick.” But what does Jesus do? He ignores her. He pretends to not even listen. What? This doesn’t sound like Jesus. Jesus never ignores people. That’s weird. She continues asking him for help, following him, probably crying, begging for mercy. The disciples, who obviously failed the lesson he just taught them in Jerusalem, ask Jesus to take care of this nuisance. Remarkably, Jesus’ words seem to agree with them. Again, what? This un-Jesuslike behavior should alarm and alert us all.
She keeps begging. And begging. Help me. I need help. Finally, Jesus speaks directly to her and said the harshest words I’ve ever heard Jesus say: “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.”
OUCH. When did Jesus become such a jerk? Where was all that stuff from Jerusalem? Where did it go? Why is he doing this. Let’s keep going. The woman, undaunted, reflects the attack, bouncing it back to Jesus with this remarkable turn of phrase: “But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table.”
And there it is. That’s what Jesus was looking for. He was looking for persistence, patience, and absolute faith in the right thing. And so I imagine he smirks a bit, and responds, “Woman, you have great faith. It will be just as you wish.”
Jesus does a 180 right then and there, after acting like a complete jerk to her in front of the disciples. Why? Because he was trying to drive home the point he made a couple of days ago. Hurling names, spewing evil, acting without a good heart and focusing on minutia like the fact that she’s not Jewish doesn’t help anybody. It doesn’t heal anything. Nobody benefits from that kind of attitude. What comes out of your mouth, what you do in this world, is an extension of your heart. What you eat won’t make you impure; what you do and say matters a lot more. Not only that, Jesus is also willing to take a back seat and let this woman be the hero of the story, emphasizing the point he was trying to make to the disciples: non-Jews are not the enemy. They deserve love too.
Of all the lessons Jesus taught the disciples and of all the ones talk about a lot in the church, I really wish this one was more prominent. It’s so easy to instantly discount people that we don’t know, who aren’t like us. I know, it’s a hackneyed idea at this point, but Jesus’ teaching here is perhaps the most poignant example of getting this across. Stop focusing on the little details that get in the way. Keep the big picture in mind. Don’t let a minor offense get in the way of the greater good. Rules are important, yes, but some rules are more important than others. The most important rule is to love one another. That is a lesson I think we all need to hear again.