Matthew 15:10–28 (NRSV)
Things That Defile
10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” 12 Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” 13 He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14 Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” 15 But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” 16 Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19 For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
The Canaanite Woman’s Faith
21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 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.” 23 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.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Today’s generation often feels pulled between two dominate cultural points of view. One that focus’ on respect and responsibility and the other on action and experience. For many these two dominate cultural personalities seem to be at odds. But really it is all a manner of perspective.
We can often get caught up on issues and interpretation and miss the truth behind the situation. This is common when there is a significant shift in the culture. Usually these shifts are due to great technical advancements or great disasters. Either the cultural advances or it digresses and the people that are caught in the middle of this shift are left to interpret the situation they find themselves in. Is our culture in the worst decline in centuries or are we advancing into the greatest era of Christian history?
Let us just contemplate that for a moment. How you answer that question will probably greatly affect how you look into the future and what approach to ministry we will have. But as we contemplate that question let us remember that this is the very sort of question these people in the first century were facing. Judea during this time frame was being colonized by people of Latin and Greek heritage, and for centuries there have been consistent minority of the people known as the Cannonites. With this constant influx of non-Jewish people the Hebrew population had questions. Can we incorporate these people into our culture or should we continue to separate ourselves from the outside world. We understand their struggle, we have faced struggles such as these for centuries. Sometimes we think that the issues we face are new issues but as scripture reminds us there is nothing new under the sun.
Jesus and his disciples were in an area of Judea that was in a cultural dispute. This area had the highest concentration of Greek colonists clustered around the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. This is the area that Jesus spent his childhood, where he work alongside the family in their business of trade. Jesus lived and grew up in an area filled with cultural tension. In areas like this the communities have groups with different ideas, there are extremes on both ends of the spectrum and then many in the middle. Jesus is caught in the center of these cultural controversies and those around him are trying to force him to make a stand. Then someone does something that causes the entire group to go into an uproar. They eat without washing their hands.
For most of us this is seen as kind of gross but it not something to go crazy over, but this seemingly insignificant act was one that grayed the lines of separation between the various cultural factions. These rituals of cleanliness were passed down for generations, often they were not even questioned but simply participated in. These ritualistic actions were attached to a cultural identity that many took pride in. For a disciple of Jesus to eat without washing not only showed something to those around him, but it screamed something. Profane.
As we read this passage we can be brought right into the center of the very same cultural debate, if we are not careful. Choosing a side without really knowing what is going on. We are quick to judge the Pharisees saying that they are being legalistic, but when we do so we automatically are lumped into the other extreme. This happens because we often do not understand what is being said. We read the word profane or defiles and immediately we think of sinfulness, mainly because that is the common understanding. This word though is not necessarily a bad word, it simply means common. The word was used to describe the things common to a community. For instance if a city park was to be described in ancient Greek the word used would be the same that is translated as profane or defiled, because the park common to the community or is owned and used by all within the community. This term gained its negative reputation when the Greek culture was expanded out into the east because then it began to be used for the things that were common among the people not like us. With that being said, there are certain aspect of faith that are not common outside of a tradition, these things separate or sanctify a group from another for a special and specific reason. The profane and the sanctified, the common and the separate, it is like a scene from the evening news.
Those around Jesus are caught up in this debate, the debate over watering down the identity of the faith and being set apart as righteous. But what is Jesus’ answer? “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.” Stop there and just consider that answer for a moment. “[I]t is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”
What did Jesus just say? Did he turn his back on the faith that has defined the Hebrew people from Abraham and side completely with the Gentiles, did He say that the Greek culture prevalent all around him was not offensive to God? Did he side with either group of extremist or moderates? What he did was say that you are all asking the wrong questions and getting the incorrect answers, and the incorrect answers are distracting you from what is truly important in the kingdom of Heaven.
It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles. The disciples immediately began to scramble, entering into damage control mode. They were comparing notes and getting their heads together on how they were going to explain this statement when the angry from all sides started coming out in mass to protest. They approached Jesus and said to him, “you realize you just offended them…so can you explain this so we can help.”
Why were the laws given? What is the reasoning behind the law that was given to Moses and passed down through the generations? Is it the law that is important to God or is there something behind the law that is really what is important but could not be fully explained to people without knowledge of things like cells, and viruses? If we do not ask the right questions, if we do not seek the right answers we can easily be led around in directions that could be very contrary to the spirit behind the law. These are the things that Jesus is wanting them to consider. He says in his explanation, what enters the mouth enters the stomach and goes to the sewer. This probably does not need an explanation, but in essence Jesus is saying that this issue is not one that really matters, anything that may cause harm will be digested and flushed out in the proper courses of time. But what is really important is living the truth behind the law out in our daily life.
The law was given to be a guide to teach us how to live healthy and just lives as a community. They encourage healthy eating and hygiene habits to keep our families and friends from getting sick when we share our lives with each other. Does it really matter if our hands are clean if we are not going to share our food with others? The law was given to teach us how to treat others with justice instead of vengeance, to prevent unnecessary harm to those in our community. The law was given to form a group of people that would become the ideal for the entire world. Yet through the ages the spirt behind the laws given to Moses took on different forms and shapes, to the point that the intent of the law was so clouded by interpretation that we totally miss the point.
Jesus then goes on to say what is really important is what comes out, or our actions, because this is where the truth resides. It is what we say and do when people are not watching that is more important. This is the very reason that George Fox and the early Friends turned away from the Church of England to form the Society of Friends. This is why they removed all the common rituals from our worship and distilled it down to the simplest forms possible. Because evil people can hide behind religion. People can claim righteousness while people are looking and watching but when it comes to life they can be as deadly as a snake.
Jesus then proceeds into the Gentile dominated parts of the area, where he meets a profane or defiled woman. A woman that has not been set apart in the eyes of the religious but is common. A common Gentile woman, with no heritage that mattered and cut out from the kingdom. Yet she cries out to Jesus, “Have mercy!” Jesus continues to walk, which is almost odd. Directly after he criticizes the religious for being blind to the truth, he walks on past a Gentile woman that is in need, the disciples want to silence her because she is persistent, and eventually Jesus stops. Consider the conversation and the scene:
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.” Matthew 15:24–27 (NRSV)
She is a woman in need, her daughter is being tormented by a demon and Jesus says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus almost…well he actually sounds mean in this conversation. Here she is falling on her face before him and He is calling her a dog. Dogs at this time were not common pets but were often wild and dangerous, the righteous would often call the Gentiles dogs because they were not disciplined and were often seen as wild and dangerous. But this woman was genuine in her faith and responded with great wisdom and discernment. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She may not be part of the community of the faithful but she still has faith. She knows that due to her heritage she will never be accepted as part of the community, yet her heart is not profane. Out of her mouth pours the spirit behind all the law.
Israel was not chosen because they were great, they were chosen because they were common. They were not set apart because they were better, but because they were profane. They were chosen because they had nothing in themselves that would be perceived as greatness outside of the fact that they had faith that their God would and could provide for their needs. They were called not to be set aside, but to be the light of the nations. To be the light of the nations you must step out into the darkness carrying that light with you.
Our culture is on the crest of a new era. Our culture is advancing rapidly in areas of technology but this does not change our mission. Those that are with God are still called to bring light. We are still called to feed the hungry, care for those that cannot take care of themselves and to share the Gospel of the Kingdom of God being near. I asked earlier to consider a question, Is our culture in the worst decline in centuries or are we advancing into the greatest era of Christian history? Again our answer to this question will greatly effect our ministry. If we claim that our culture is in the worst decline in centuries we will isolate ourselves from the outside, deem everything around us as being profaine and we will justify actions that go against the advancement of the Kingdom of God. If we claim that we are advancing into the greatest era of Christian history we will engage the culture around us and speak to those people that are often considered profane. But really that question can be simplified into something else, “do we believe that God can and will provide for what he calls us to do?” If we believe let us step out entrusting our future into his hands and like this Cannonite woman let us have faith that even the crumbs that fall from the table can be used to change the world around us.