Things That Defile
Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, ‘Listen and 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 offence 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.’
The Canaanite Woman’s Faith
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.
Grace to you and peace, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
I’m going to ask you a question. How many people have spent any amount of time around children? I know it’s a Lutheran church, but it’s okay to raise your hands. If you’ve spent time around children, you’ve probably seen children hurt themselves, right? Children aren’t exactly naturally graceful. They’re running and don’t see the little bump in the grass, the forehead-height table, or the other children who also are not aware of their surroundings or naturally graceful. Or maybe you’ve seen a child hurt in other ways. Maybe it’s because someone won’t share, or they don’t want to share with someone else. Or someone said an unkind word or has scared them. It’s hard to know how to respond sometimes, even as adults, to these situations. Sometimes, tears are the first response. Sometimes anger. Other times, the first instinct is to sit there, stunned at the audacity or tragedy before us. One thing I’ve noticed about children, however, that adults don’t always do, is that one of their strongest instincts, that overrides all the others, is to find a safe place in their parents’ arms. Even if I am the reason my children are upset, because I won’t give them what they want or inadvertently caused them pain, they often still hold out their arms to me and want to find that safe spot where everything can be okay.
As adults, we don’t often have that luxury. Adults are told to move along, right? Suck it up, get over it, pick yourself up and move along. And not following those rules is to risk being called childish, infantile, immature, or spoiled. Of course, there are exceptions for big events, such as a death, addiction, or grave illness, where, for a time, people will support us, lift us up, and try to help. I think we can all name times in our lives when someone has come beside us during an especially difficult time. But most of the time, most of the time, it’s not such a dramatic circumstance that leaves us feeling heartbroken and lost, looking for a safe place. Most of the time, we are left to fend for ourselves.
Which brings us to our reading in Matthew. Jesus is traveling outside the traditional bounds of Israel, which is where much of his ministry takes place to this point. Where this exchange happens is important, because, in essence, it’s not Jesus’ home turf. It’s an exchange between two races, Israelite and Canaanite, that don’t get along. It’s quite an odd feeling because, frankly, it’s quite offensive. Yes. I am saying that this passage in Matthew is initially extremely offensive to me. Really, though, Jesus has always been an offensive figure in history. He offended the Pharisees and scribes with great efficiency and swagger. He offended his disciples when he told them he was going to die. He offended people when he chose to eat with tax collectors, associate with sinners, tell stories about Samaritans, and speak kindly to women and children. Even today, bringing Jesus up in conversation can be extremely offensive. It’s almost guaranteed to create awkward silence and conjure up a laundry list of stereotypes. However, in all these times, Jesus is on our side, willing to offer peace, love, mercy, and comfort to sinners who have no other hope. Like Pastor Jeni spoke of last week, Jesus calms the storms and offers his hands to us as we feel the waves crashing around us. We sing songs about God’s love for all people. Jesus didn’t even turn away the children or the woman as she washed his feet with her hair. We are presented with a picture of Jesus as one of justice for the oppressed, mercy for the broken, compassion for the grieving, and help for the helpless.
The Canaanite woman, though, was not greeted so warmly. She comes to him with a request, that her daughter who is sick and tormented by a demon would be healed. She is willing to do anything to make her daughter well, even if it means offending the kosher laws of the Jews. And wouldn’t so many of us do the same thing? Parents and grandparents, wouldn’t you do anything you could in your power to help your child in a life-threatening situation or illness? It seems every weekend, there is a benefit happening for someone who is hurting from a disease or accident. Concerts, bake sales, 5k races, and tip jars all present ways for people to care for each other. In our culture, begging is usually frowned upon, except when it’s for someone else. If this happened today, nobody that I know would fault this woman for seeking out Jesus to heal her daughter. The fact that she knows who he is, without the use of print media, social media, or news reports is pretty astounding. It would seem she has been looking for him for a while! She has probably talked with several people about where he is, what’s he’s doing, what he looks like, and how he has treated others in the past. She is confident that her search will end with a miracle and healing of her daughter, who has gone through so much.
And how does Jesus respond? Jesus first ignores her, then states that she is not the right race for him to help her. He came as the Messiah, which was a Jewish position of authority. He had bigger things in store than helping this woman. And if that isn’t bad enough, he further insults her by calling her a “kunaria” (in the Greek), which means “house dog”. And dog meant something different at that time. Now, we keep dogs, name them, dress them up (if that’s what you’re into), and basically treat them as a child. Last week, we had a special service to bless them! Sometimes, we even use “dog” to describe our friends (although people do look at me a little funny if I let a “Yo dog!” slip). Dogs in the region of Palestine were scavengers, mongrels, pests, and entirely unclean. A devout Jew couldn’t even touch one without going through a purification process. Dogs weren’t named, they were despised. They weren’t given privileges, they were given beatings. They weren’t welcomed, they were feared. “House dogs” were tolerated in some places, but did not have nearly the status that a pet today does. Occasionally puppies would be cared for by children, but once they were grown, they were chased away. And he’s not talking just about the Canaanites from 2000 years ago. He’s talking about Gentiles, anybody not of the Jewish faith and ancestors. In essence, he’s talking about us.
Honestly, I don’t know what to make of this. I have struggled with this passage my whole life and, lucky me, I get this passage on just my 4th sermon here. I am not wise enough to know what to say. I don’t know Jesus’ intentions here. I don’t understand how he could initially turn away someone who wanted something as simple as a healthy child. He just fed 5000 people with a few loaves and fish. This must have been an easy one, right? Jesus, fully God and fully man, seems to be mostly human at this point, and I’m not sure how to take it.
But this woman was much wiser and tenacious than I am. She takes his insult and turns it around. She is fully aware of who she is in relation to God. She is unclean according to God’s law. She is not worthy of God’s favor. She is unable to earn God’s miracle and love. She is relying on grace, an unearned gift. Jesus calls her a dog, she calls herself a puppy. And, symbolic of the position she claims, that of being a puppy under the table, she takes a begging posture. She bows down at Jesus’ feet and is physically playing the part here. This posture says, “Yes. I am not worthy, but you’ve allowed me into your presence. Just throw me the scraps of what your children are finished with.” This posture of bowing is a posture of submission. This posture is a pose, in her case, of desperation. I envision her on her knees, head bent low, almost touching his sandals, and her hands grasping at his tunic. She has no power here aside from the power of genuine faith and persuasion. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the masters’ table,” she implores, begging Jesus to show her daughter mercy.
Now, Jesus is facing a fork in the road of his ministry. Up to this point, Jesus has only really interacted with Israelites. He seemed to be concentrating his efforts not on global, but regional salvation. People outside of the physical and biological bounds of Israel and Judah seemed to have no place in his ministry up to this point. Yet, he is moved by her faith, her insistence that he has come to be her Messiah, her King, too. She is not bound by kosher rules or by racial status. She is not trying to impress anyone with her knowledge of the prophets or traditional rituals. She is simply begging for mercy and aid. She is relying on the proclamation of Isaiah that all people are welcomed at God’s holy mountain. He grants her request and the healing happens instantly.
From this point on, the ministry of Jesus changes quite drastically. We can read in the rest of chapter 15 that he healed many people like this woman’s daughter while in that area. He even fed 4000 Gentiles, those unclean people, with just a few loaves and fish. Does that sound vaguely familiar to anyone? Suddenly, it seems, Jesus realizes that his presence on earth is not simply for the children of Israel, the Hebrew people. The focus of his ministry changes and expands from the children of Israel to the children of God. All people, now, are offered the safe place in the arms of Jesus.
I guess I can’t say why this exchange took place the way it did. I don’t know that I will ever understand why Jesus seemed to initially care so little for this Canaanite woman and her tormented daughter. But I am so grateful that this story is recorded because it shows Jesus tested by his own words, spoken just before this story, and the words from Isaiah, saying that all people, regardless of race, are welcomed by God. Jesus just finished telling people that what goes into a person is not as important as what comes out of a person. Isaiah proclaimed that all, both Jew and Gentile, are welcomed at God’s holy mountain. In this light, I’m so grateful that what came out of this woman was praise and trust. She bound herself, both physically and spiritually, to Jesus, knowing that nothing besides his saving work could heal her child. We are encouraged by the woman who cared less about her own pride and unclean hands than she did about God’s faithfulness to protect and heal those who call upon God’s name. We can learn and be inspired by this Canaanite who, like a child with hurt feelings and nowhere else to turn, continued to hold up her arms to be picked up and held.
How often do we react that way, though? How often do we feel hurt, abandoned, neglected, or punished by God and turn aside? And how often is our response to run to God like a child runs to its mother or father, waiting to be picked up and told that everything will be okay? I know that in my life there have been times when my response is not to bow down before the King, but to go into a corner and pout about how unfair life is. I am so unlike my children that way. I can see myself not calling upon God’s grace, but on my own merit, thinking I have earned or deserve better than what I have. And, when we don’t get what we want, it’s easy to think that life isn’t what it ought to be and if I’d only done this, or been born here, or tried that things would be better on their own. When the going gets tough, the tough get going, right? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, right? God helps those who help themselves, right?
Maybe a lesson we can take from this passage is this: That sometimes, instead of pulling ourselves up, we must bow down and let ourselves be picked up. Sometimes, the way to God is not by achievements but by admitting our shortcomings. Understanding is less important that trusting and poise and dignity is less important than genuine praise.
I’m not telling you that, like this woman, you’ll get everything you want if you follow God in this way. However, I’m telling you that God is loving. Jesus, this man who seemed to at first think this woman was not worth his time, eventually died and rose to save her, and you, and me, and all of humanity. We may not get everything we want, but we will receive what we need: Forgiveness, freedom, salvation, and the safe place, the arms and hands that hold us up with everything seems to fall down around us. And, hopefully, we learn to see that a head bowed down is better than chin held up. Amen.