Lectionary Reflection—20 August 2017
[Jesus called the crowd near and said to them, “Listen and understand. 11It’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.”
12Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended by what you just said?”
13Jesus replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father didn’t plant will be pulled up. 14Leave the Pharisees alone. They’re blind people who are guides to blind people. But if a blind person leads another blind person, they’ll both fall into a ditch.”
15Then Peter spoke up, “Explain this riddle to us.”
16Jesus said, “Don’t you understand yet? 17Don’t you know that everything that goes into the mouth enters the stomach and goes eventually out into the sewer? 18But what goes out of the mouth comes from the heart. And that’s what contaminates a person in God’s sight. 19Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adultery, sexual sins, thefts, false testimonies, and insults. 20These contaminate a person in God’s sight. But eating without washing hands doesn’t contaminate in God’s sight.”]
21From there, Jesus went to the regions of Tyre and Sidon. 22A Canaanite woman from those territories came out and shouted, “Show me mercy, Son of David. My daughter is suffering terribly from demon possession.” 23But he didn’t respond to her at all.
His disciples came and urged him, “Send her away; she keeps shouting out after us.”
24Jesus replied, “I’ve been sent only to the lost sheep, the people of Israel.”
25But she knelt before him and said, “Lord, help me.”
26He replied, “It’s not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.”
27She said, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table.”
28Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith. It will be just as you wish.” And right then her daughter was healed.
In our lesson today, we’ve been given a choice to either extend the reading from Matthew to include verse 10-20 or only focus on verses 21-28. If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you know I like to keep things in context. So, naturally, I kept verses 10-20.
But verses 1-9 are equally important. Chapter 15 starts off with the Pharisees questioning Jesus about his disciples. Apparently, they’d broken some religious law about cleanliness since they didn’t wash their hands before they ate. Jesus, as is his way, deflects their questions and, instead of answering the Pharisees, questions them about breaking God’s law for the sake of their religious traditions.
We then come to verse 10 where he tells the people that it’s not what they put into their mouths but it’s what comes out of their mouths that make them unclean. This explains why the disciples said the Pharisees were offended. It’s because Jesus was right. The Religious Institution of his day had become a religion based on “tradition”—i.e., human laws—so that the Religious Elite could gauge who was spiritual by observing the people’s obedience to their tradition.
But think about this for a moment. How many of our traditions make up our religious experiences? How much of that tradition hinders us from the bigger picture of reconciliation?
I remember being at a Wednesday evening service one time. This particular service was more laid back than Sunday morning. With only a handful of people in attendance, a lot of the different parts of the service were conducted by the laity. At the close of the service, a young girl asked if she could help and was tasked with putting out the altar candles. Well, apparently she extinguished the candles in the wrong order because a deacon came and told her the proper order. He went on and on about it trying to explain it to her. At one point, however, the priest exclaimed, “God doesn’t care!” And that was that.1
In verses 13 and 14, I think we can really sense Jesus’ irritation with the Religious Elite of his day. They’d become so caught up in their own traditions that they were blind to the things of God. Because of that, they were leading others astray, too.
Jesus then explains what the meant by his “riddle.” I find it interesting that Peter thinks Jesus’ statement is a riddle. Think about this for a moment. Their Religious Tradition had because so far removed from the things of God that the tradition had taken up residence at the center of their religion. In other words, Peter thought Jesus’ statement was a riddle when it wasn’t at all. But he had grown up within first century Judaism and didn’t realize what Jesus meant. It was so far removed from the tradition that, surely, it must be a riddle.
Jesus’ point, he tells them, is that what’s in the heart of a person is what motivates her actions. People can say one thing but do another and that doing shows us what’s truly in their hearts.
But, if that’s the case, what about the next verses? If what’s in the heart motivates one’s actions, what does that say about Jesus refusing to help the woman begging for his help?
Ah! Now there’s a dill of a pickle!
And this is why context is so important. If we had left out the first part of the chapter, we would miss the irony of the story.
Jesus tells the disciples that the Pharisees are just blind guides because they’re blindly following their tradition. They’ve replaced the reconciliation work of God with religious tradition and the people are suffering for it.
All of this, my friends, is important groundwork for what follows.
When a nameless Canaanite woman confronts Jesus, begging for his help, what does he do? He sticks with his religious tradition! “I’ve been sent only to the lost sheep,” he tells her, “the people of Israel.” That was the mission of a prophet. That was his tradition. That’s what every other prophet had done before him.
Once more, the disciples missed it. In the flow of the story (and we have to think Matthew put it this way for just this purpose) this encounter with the nameless Canaanite woman takes places directly after Jesus just scolded the Pharisees on their blind hypocrisy. And yet, when confronted with his own religious tradition (that of a prophet), Jesus blindly follows the tradition!
However, and this is the twist in the tail (or is that “tale”?)—when the woman shows Jesus his hypocrisy, he has a change of heart. He realizes he was wrong. I’m going to say that again…
Jesus was wrong.
I know that some people really have a problem with this story. They’ve tried to explain away the above conclusion to say ridiculous things like, “Jesus was testing the faith of the woman.” Or, “Jesus was expanding the vision of the disciples.” Or some other type of nonsense. No. The way the story is placed in its context, the conclusion is that Jesus was blindly following the tradition of the prophet and God used the nameless Canaanite woman to show him his own hypocrisy.
I can imagine the scene. It’s been a long, dry, hot day. They’ve been walking for hours. And, suddenly, out of the periphery, this “woman” comes rushing into the group.
“Jesus,” she calls. “Help me!”
But he and the others just ignore her.
Nevertheless, she persisted.
“Jesus!”, she says louder. “Please! Help me!”
The traveling band continues to ignore her.
Nevertheless, she persisted.
Over and over again she calls out to Jesus for help. Finally, after what seems like hours, the disciples, embarrassed by the situation, come to Jesus.
“You gotta do something,” they say.
So, finally, at the urging of his followers, Jesus responds to the woman. I can see the whole caravan stop and turn as Jesus addresses her. “I’m a prophet,” he tells her. “I’ve only come to the people of Israel.”
Nevertheless, she persisted.
The woman throws herself at Jesus’ feet. “Please,” she begs as tears stream down her cheeks, “help me.”
I can feel the hush fall over the crowd. What’s Jesus going to do? Looking down on here, a little more quietly he says, “It’s not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.”
Looking up at him, her face wet from her tears, she replies, “That’s true, Lord. But even us ‘dogs’ eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table.”
And Jesus’ heart breaks. Tears start to fill his eyes. His own blindness falls away and he sees her for who she truly is—not a nameless outcast, but a human being in need of rescue. Jesus kneels down beside her. “Woman,” he says, brushing the tears from her face, “you have great faith. Your faith has shown me my own blindness and has changed my heart.” Lifting her to her feet he says, “It will be just as you wish.”
And right then her daughter was healed.
Because the faith of this woman changed the heart of Jesus. That’s great faith indeed.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC
1. The only reason we have candles is because of tradition, anyway. I mean, they were needed so the officiants could see the pages of the books. But, with the advent of electricity, they’re no longer needed.