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.
Ancient Israel was not exactly the picture of unity. From the very beginning of their history they divided themselves into tribes. Each member of the family would trace their roots to one of Jacob’s sons. When they traveled though the desert they camped in accordance to their tribes. When they settled the promised land, they settled according to their tribes. And when it came to religion it is not too hard to believe that tribalism was a factor. The tribes only went so far in their minds. They were all children of Israel.
When they faced the inhabitants of the promised land, they faced it not as singular tribes but united together. When they settled in the land we are told that God was their king, and each person lived as they pleased. Eventually this freedom lead to some tensions, and while the tribal infighting occurred invaders entered Phoenicians, Philistines and others. They struggled on their own until eventually one Judge would rise above the others and unite the tribes. As children, we learned about these Judges people like Gideon and Samson. They overcame astronomical odds to be victorious. If we read closely we would even find that some of these Judges were women. As history progressed the tribes demanded a king to rule over them, so the prophet Samuel anointed Saul to rule over all the tribes. But God gave them a warning about this system, and eventually these warnings became realities which led to the division of the kingdom and the eventual decline and exile of both Israel and Judah.
They saw themselves as the children of Israel, God’s chosen people. The people not connected to one of the tribes was an alien, a foreigner, a gentile. The people of God developed such deep feelings against these outsiders. Some of these feeling was based in reality, because the people of Nineveh were very violent and nasty people who wished to devour the nations. Others were just outsiders. When it came to the first century these feelings were festering for generations and some were self-inflicted. The Romans were invited into the land to assist in military protection. There were divisions even within: Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, Essenes, Samaritans, and others. These group were all part of the original twelve tribes, yet they all had various ideas as to how best to live their lives and faith. And these divisions ran very deep. For instance, the Samaritans were seen corrupt mixed breeds the vilest of all people because they did not keep their linage pure, and they had the nerve to worship and celebrate the festivals in a place outside of Jerusalem.
All these divisions: Gentile and Jew, Samaritan and Judean, Pharisee and Sadducee lead to something God never intended. Israel was to be the light to the nations, not the nation. The faith of Abraham’s children was to bring hope to all people yet it became a banner of hereditary pride. They had the law but they were required to live under mankind’s interpretation of the law. Which brings us to today’s passage.
After Jesus had walked across the sea and helped his friend back into the boat after a near death experience, Jesus began to teach again on the Judean side of the sea. Just prior to today’s passage Jesus is challenged by some religious leaders about the ritualistic washing before a meal and Jesus basically tells them that their interpretation was nowhere near the intent. And he closes this argument by saying, “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.”
I want us to really reflect on that statement for a moment. It is not what goes into the mouth but what comes out. As we think about that remember the history of our spiritual forefathers, because it is from Israel where our faith’s roots are planted. Their history, in part, is ours. Their struggle is ours, their joys are ours because it is through them our salvation emerged.
Jesus went over the sea and began to teach, the greatest theologians of their day, the most influential teachers, and legal advisors were present listening to the words that Jesus spoke and he said it is not what goes in the mouth that defiles but what comes out of it. The disciples were very concerned. Wait a second Jesus you can’t just go up to these guys and say this sort of thing. Don’t you know that you have offended them? Jesus had just offended the greatest teachers of the land, because he challenged their authority and their teachings.
I will tell you that for people that have spent their lifetime in the pursuit of knowledge it is painful to have your ideas challenged. Especially when the one challenging is of a lower educational class. It hurts, because it strikes right at their heart. Jesus said those words because he knew it would ruffle the feathers. He said those words because those very same religious leaders had assisted in the execution of his cousin and ministry partner. If they did not actively participate they stood aside and let things happen. They had all their interpretations of law yet not one of them challenged the lifestyle or actions of the leader over them, only John. And John lost his head for it. They had the position and the platform to speak, they had the means and the opportunity to speak yet they remained silent.
The disciples were confused as to why Jesus would actively offend these powerful men. So, they asked him. And Jesus responded with a very scientific statement. Food enters the mouth goes into the stomach and is then deposited into the sewer. You cannot be clearer than that. Jesus is concerned with the intent of the law not the interpretation. Why was it important to wash? It was not because of duty but to wash was to point to the matters of the heart. God is holy and I am unclean. God is the giver and sustainer of life, and I honor him by humbling myself before I eat. It is a symbol of a greater reality, not a checkmark to register your personal holiness.
The greater reality lives in the very core of humanity, the heart. The heart is where our true selves live. This is why the ancient psalmists and wisdom writers tell us to guard our hearts, not because our heart is evil, but because our heart is the truest you there is. It is the most vulnerable and if you damage the heart you damage the entire person. Jesus and in turn the church deal with matters of the heart. This is why the discord and lack of unity within the church is so harmful, this is why so many people have left the church is because often the church, like the Pharisees of old, have looked around the greater reality and focused on the symbols or symptoms of heart dis-ease. We injure the heart.
Jesus says, “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart.” He then lists off various evils that can come out of the mouth, evils that reside in the hearts of those that speak them. The evilness of a heart is a result of damage and sin. It is in the heart where sin or goodness takes root. “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.”
Jesus leaves these religious leaders to stew over these words for a while and he proceeds with his disciples to Tyre where he met a Canaanite woman whose daughter was tormented by an evil spirit. Remember the history of Israel, this woman was a descendant of the very people that Israel drove out of the promised land. She was seen and had been see as the enemy for most of Israel’s history. She was a child of everything that God spoke against in the teachings of their lawgiver. Yet here she is asking Jesus, a Jewish teacher, for help. Many wonder as to why this story is included in the gospels. Because it is one story that seems to cast Jesus in a bad light. Jesus ignores the women at first, and seems to only listen when she becomes too annoying. And he tells her, “listen I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He rejects her, and she knelt at his feet and asks him to help her again.
Jesus then insults her saying, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” If this was the only interaction you had with Jesus you would probably be upset if not appalled. But I want us to look at it in the same light as we did the previous interaction with the religious leaders because it is along the same thought.
Jesus comes across as insulting because languages do not always translate well. There are two words for dogs that are used in scripture, one means a wild dog, a stray that is unwanted and at times dangerous. The other could be translated as puppy, or little dog. This second word is the one that is often used in to describe a household pets. And it is this second word that Jesus used. He is not calling her a stray wild dog, which is the term often used in description to Gentiles by the religious of that day. Which would be equivalent to just about any derogatory slur people would use today. Jesus uses a kinder word, pet. It is not fair to give the children’s food to the pet. The disciples are there with him and they hear the words being spoken. They are thinking wow, Jesus is a nice guy he calls her pet instead of calling her the wild dog she is. Which is what Jesus wants them to think. He wants them to notice in themselves that they have evil intent in their hearts. That they have prejudice and malice, slander, and lies dwelling right in their own hearts. The woman persists and gives probably the greatest comeback of scripture, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Jesus then praises her as a woman of great faith and heals her daughter on the spot to the astonishment of the disciples. This praise is also set to teach the disciples an important truth. He said that Peter had little faith while he sunk into the sea after walking toward his Lord, and this woman in the face of ridicule had great faith. The mysteries of the universe are encapsulated in a mustard seed. Life is more important than anything else.
Today we can gain much from really looking at this passage and letting it saturate our hearts. We might be the most righteous people of the entire nation, yet carry in our hearts the vilest of evil. We might be the most religious of the nations yet we can fail to see the humanity of those around us. What appears to be Jesus ridiculing a woman of a different race or nationality is really Jesus teaching the disciples that the kingdom extends well beyond Israel, the kingdom is all nations. And there is no room for anyone who practices racism and prejudice. Racism, prejudice, and the sin that is associated with them have a similar root a root not just in hate but in fear. Those that practice these things are afraid that someone else will take what little they have, and they fail to see that what really happens is the kingdom expands to accept them. Fear leads to hate, and hate leads to violence and violence always leads to suffering. Fear is the opposite of faith and this is why Jesus says this woman has great faith. She looked beyond the fear, she looked beyond the rejection she anticipated and she looked to the hope. She did not let the fear control her, where Peter did. She moved forward where Peter sunk. Her daughter was healed where Peter suffered. God was still present in both instances but one received glory and the other rebuke.
For a week, our nation has been plagued by fear and hate. But God is greater than our fear. The world says we will not be replaced, and Jesus says every plant not planted by my father will be uprooted. When we live by fear our fears will be seen, what happens when we live by faith? We may still see what we fear, but we can still see God there and our fears dwindle in His perfect love. The love and grace given while we were still enemies of God, yet even then Christ died for us. Took onto himself all our evil and sin, and proclaimed from the cross, forgive them for they do not know what they do. Often, we do not know, but we should strive for greater knowledge, and apply that knowledge to our lives as we purify not just our hands but our hearts.
As we enter this time of open worship, let us consider the words of Jesus, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” What is coming out of our mouths? Is it fear or faith? Is it despair or hope? Is it hate or is it the love of Christ?