Sermon Preached at Grace Episcopal Church and St. Mary's Memorial Church - 11 Pentecost, Proper 15A, 08/20/17
Text: Matthew 15:10-28
Note: I most often preach without a manuscript. I typed this up on Sunday afternoon, after several requests. It's close to what I actually preached, but I'm relying on memory. Also, this explains why I can comment on the congregation's audible response at one point in the sermon.
This morning, we heard a portion of the 15th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. In this portion, Matthew describes two scenes to us. However, there are actually three distinct scenes in Matthew 15. In order to make sense of what we just heard, we also need to know what was in the part we didn’t hear.
This morning, I will walk us through all of Matthew 15, and help us to understand what’s happening in this section of Matthew’s Gospel. And then, we’ll talk about how what we find there can help us to understand how to be faithful in these challenging times.
The first scene in Matthew 15 finds Jesus being criticized by the Pharisees because his disciples are following the proper protocols for washing hands and vessels before eating. This is not a critique about germs or proper hygiene. This isn't about using hand sanitizer. Rather this is a critique about how one follows a religious ritual. First century Jewish people followed a number of procedures for washing before eating. Jesus’ followers could be a little lax in those ritual observations and these religious leaders were unhappy. They confronted Jesus about it.
In the second scene, Jesus responds by saying: it’s not what goes into our mouths that defiles, it’s what comes out of our mouths. Jesus goes on to name a number of things that can come out of our mouths - things like evil intentions, slander, false witness, and adultery. What these things all have in common is that they are things that come from our hearts, and out of our mouths. They cause great damage to the souls of other human beings. Don’t worry about what goes in, says Jesus. Worry about what comes out. And gosh, haven’t we seen that in the last weeks? We’ve seen lots of damaging things coming out of people’s mouths, causing harm to the souls of others.
Matthew 15 closes with a third scene. And it’s a hard one. When I was proclaiming it just now, I actually heard some of you catch your breath when you realized what you were hearing. In this third scene, Jesus calls a Canaanite woman a horrible name. It’s one we might use to name a female dog - a word that rhymes with “itch.” It’s horrible. Take a moment to just sit with that before we move on.
Now, we need a little background. Jesus traveled to the region of Tyre and Sidon, north of the geographic boundaries of ancient Israel. One commentator I read described Tyre and Sidon as a “toxic waste zone.” It wasn’t a safe place to go for Jewish people. And, the woman who needs Jesus’ help with her ill daughter was a Canaanite. Those of us who have been studying Joshua and Judges in our Wednesday Bible study know that there’s been a long history of bad blood between Jews and Canaanites. Those Canaanites were the ones the Jews had to boot out of the promised land to settle in the nation of Israel.
Jesus is in dangerous Canaanite territory, he meets a woman who needs help, and he calls her a racial slur. Wow. Just wow.
As you might imagine, scholars have spent a lot of time trying to make sense of this part of the story. For the most part, scholars fall into one of two broad camps as they describe what might be happening in this part of the Matthew 15. I’m going to share both viewpoints with you.
The first view says that Jesus uses this encounter with the Canaanite woman as an object lesson. He’s just told his disciples that it’s what comes out of your mouth that can defile. And then - BOOM - he defiles someone with what comes out of his mouth almost to prove the point. BUT, he is coming to a new understanding of his mission to bring about the Kingdom of God - and wants his disciples to have that new vision, as well. So he has to meet them where they are.
What do I mean? Today, Jesus says that he’s only here for the “lost sheep of Israel.” But, by the end of this Gospel, Jesus will be teaching that his disciples need to “Go into the world and make disciples of all nations…” [Matthew 28:19, emphasis mine]. And, in the book of Revelation, the vision John receives of heaven is one where “there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…” [Revelation 7:9].
So, in order to move his disciples to that understanding (after all, they were all complaining that this Canaanite woman dared to ask something of Jesus), he needed to help them to see her humanity and help them to understand the spreading of the Gospel beyond Judaism.
The other view is more controversial. That view understands Jesus as a product of his own place and time. Like any first century Jew, from the time he was “knee-high to a grasshopper” (as my grandmother would have said) he was taught to disdain Gentiles. He was taught that they were no better than dogs. When this Gentile woman called to him for help, his first inclination was to ignore her and when that didn’t work, to belittle her.
But, nevertheless, she persisted. She refused to allow Jesus and his disciples to silence her and she kept pleading on behalf of her child.
I don’t know what it is about prejudice. Maybe at some point it served an evolutionary purpose, but it does seem to be something that we all struggle with as human beings. I struggle with it. And, it helps me enormously to see Jesus struggling with prejudice too. If even Jesus struggles with seeing the humanity of this Canaanite woman, well, maybe that helps to explain what’s happening in our world right at the moment.
These days, when racist thugs, and Neo-Nazis, and the KKK are out in the streets, and don’t even feel the need to mask their shameful behavior with hoods, we’ve got some work to do. And it is particularly important that those of us whose skin is white reach out to others and work to stop this travesty.
One of the ladies from St. Mary’s told me this morning that she’s been feeling very anxious this week. She said, “I can’t believe it’s 2017. I haven’t felt like this since the 1950s.” Our Jewish brothers and sisters are also afraid. Those hate-mongers in Charlottesville were openly anti-semitic, using language that the Nazis used in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s.
It is imperative that those of us with white skin get a handle on our own prejudices and act for the change we wish to see.
And, if I’ve got a model for this reaching out, it’s Peter. Peter moved from being one of those that called for Jesus to silence this Canaanite woman, to being a missionary. We hear that story in Acts 10. Peter was called to the home of a Roman centurion. This centurion wasn’t just any Gentile. No. He was a soldier in the occupying Army. Can you imagine Peter’s surprise when he arrived at Cornelius’ home and discovered that the Holy Spirit was already there? He baptized Cornelius and all his household on the spot. And then, he took some real heat from the other leaders in the early Christian community. This story is so significant that it’s repeated more than once in Acts.
Those first followers of Jesus needed to learn to move beyond their prejudices in order to extend the love of Christ to all people, from every tribe and language and people and nation. May we learn from their examples and do the same.