By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
August 16, 2020
Matthew 15:10–28 (ESV)
10 And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” 12 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” 13 He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. 14 Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” 15 But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” 16 And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” 21 And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out 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 And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread 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, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
History is filled with great beauty as well as gruesome horror. It does not matter what continent the history originates or with what people group or nation, there is always good and bad. I love my country. I think it is the greatest nation in human history, and I would not even dream of living in a different place than right here. Our nation in all its goodness has aspects that puts us to shame. We can look at the history of other nations and condemn then for their actions, but we also need to realize that we are not much better. Germany attempted to eradicate people groups, so have we. Russia had their gulags and we had our Japanese internment camps. Human history is gruesome, but history is also beautiful. The cathedrals of Europe are some of the most awe-inspiring buildings ever constructed, yet they were constructed in an era of history often seen as the dark ages. The works of William Shakespeare has inspired generations of actors and actresses, yet those plays were written during a time of religious and political upheaval. And the great works of Michelangelo and Leonardo De Vinci came just decades after the plague ravaged Europe.
People within history also have beauty and shame. While I was in school found myself in awe of a monk’s writings. Bernard of Clairvaux once wrote of the four degrees of love: 1. Loving yourself for your sake. 2. Loving God for your own blessing. 3. Loving God for God’s own sake. 4. Loving yourself for God’s sake. These concepts inspired me early in my ministry as well as his prayer techniques which I have often encouraged people to participate in called Lectio Divina. I love Bernard of Clairvaux, yet this monk of love worked Europe into a frenzy to participate in the Crusades. This man that spoke so beautifully about love and how to deepen our intimacy with God, desired that some people should be killed for a difference of belief.
History is filled with beauty and horror. It can be difficult respect history through the beauty and the horror. So often we react to history and we toss out the good while condemning the bad and we lose something beautiful. But if we do not recognize the aspects of history that are unsavory, we run the risk of repeating it, so we need to tread carefully.
I say these things because today’s passage we find Jesus in a position that could be seen poorly. If we do not look at a broader aspect of history, we could run the risk of taking the words of Jesus out of context resulting a misrepresentation of what was being said.
The ancient world was filled with various people groups that often interacted in various ways. Israel was not a large nation but because of their unique place along the trade routes between various empires, they had influence. God promised this land to them, but there is a problem with this promise because the land was not without inhabitants. After the tribes had been wondering in the desert for forty years Joshua lead them into this land, and they conquered it. The people that they conquered were the Canaanites. In today’s passage Jesus is speaking to a descendant of these people, so we have a vision of enmity that has built for centuries.
God made a promise to one group of people. This promise inspired them to take hold of land. And this promise gave them hope. Because they lived their lives holding on to this promise, the people of Israel developed an identity and gained influence that exceeds their size and population. I do believe that God gave them a blessing. I believe that the law that God gave this people provided the strength they needed to withstand and prevail over forces pushing in on them from the outside. There is proof in this because we are often told that the victors write history, yet Israel was conquered multiple times, yet we still know their history. God has preserved this group from multiple genocide attempts, and they still have influence.
They are people of promise and blessing. I love the people of Israel. But even Israel does not have a history without blemish. God blessed this nation not because they were great in themselves but because God is great. He told them that he would make them a great nation, so that they could be the light to the nations. They were blessed so that they could be a blessing. Yet somewhere along the line this got twisted. We can read about this within the books of the law and the prophets which we call the Old Testament. Their ideas became twisted to the point that they became isolated and nationalistic. They stopped being a blessing to others and they began closing themselves off from the outside world and purifying their own ranks. Samaria, which were the descendants of the norther kingdom of Israel, were cut off from the blessing of God because they opposed Judah. They were still children of the promise, yet they were not accepted, and for people of Judea to associate with Samaritans was taboo in the days of Jesus. This extends to other groups as well, especially those who were descendants of the Canaanites, who were the people displaced from the land of promise.
The nationalistic pride of the people of Judah can be seen in today’s passage. They have a history and they have hope. They have a promised Messiah that will come to restore them to their place of honor, and they long for that day. Their understanding of this coming Messiah is often skewed by their own nationalistic desires, and their interpretation of scripture concerning is reflected in the exchange in today’s passage.
Jesus is not in Israel in today’s passage, he is in the land North of Israel in the region of Tyre and Sidon. These cities are in the nation we know today as Lebanon. A nation that has been in the news recently because of their civil unrest and the massive explosion that occurred in one of their ports. Jesus is in this region, outside of Israel and is interacting with people considered Gentiles.
In this region a woman comes to Jesus, this woman has a daughter that is oppressed by a demon and she is seeking deliverance from Jesus. This woman is a Gentile, she is a Canaanite one of the oldest enemies of Israel, she does not even live in Israel, yet she comes to Jesus.
Jesus does not even listen to her at first, yet she continues to cry out to him to the point that the disciples beg him to send her away. And at this point the historical context becomes important. Jesus responds to this woman by saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” The woman kneels before Jesus and begs, “Lord, help me.”
Jesus was a Jewish man. He was a teacher among the Jewish people. He was born of the house of David, the Jewish king and is the anointed Jewish Messiah. This interaction shows us the nationalistic skew of the Jewish interpretation of scripture. The promise was that the messiah was to restore Israel, restore them to the place of promise and that promise was that Israel would be a light to the nations. What does that mean?
Jesus answered this woman’s plea with words that make me cringe, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” I want us to understand this properly. Jesus chose these words carefully and uses them in a way that should challenge us all. This verbal exchange is one that highlights the various divisions among people, between the Jewish people and the Gentiles or non-Jewish people. The ideology surrounding this statement is that there are some people that do not matter as much as others. Prejudice is something that is very real in human history, it is one of those gruesome horror I spoke about. To refer to a person as a dog, is to dehumanize them.
This woman is living a life of suffering. Her daughter needs help. We do not know the full story surrounding this family, but I believe that it is safe to say that she has tried everything she could think of to get help and nothing has worked. She hears that Jesus the Jewish healer has come to this region and she endures the disdain to seek assistance. This is why Jesus spoke these words. He is not condoning prejudice or racism in any way. He speaks these words to show us the hypocrisy of our own ideologies. She is kneeling before him in full acceptance that Jesus is the Messiah that the Jewish people were waiting for, and she knows that she has no hereditary connection to that blessing, yet she kneels before Jesus and calls him Lord pleading for his help.
Jesus says to her, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” It breaks my heart to hear those words. If I had heard those words during a moment of desperation, they would crush me. Yet this woman responds, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
I am not a perfect man. I have often failed to live up to my own expectations, let alone the expectations of others, or the ones I perceive God would have for me. In my personal failings, I have experienced the legalistic shaming of people I respected, and I have also experienced grace. One of the most hurtful experiences was when in some circles they would not utter my name because of a mistake. One mistake, and suddenly to speak my name was shameful. That experience caused a crisis of faith within my life. I unacceptable, I was less than perfect, I was rejected, I was a dog and why? I did not meet the expectations and no longer met the criteria of blessing.
I praise God that that response was not the totality of my experience in life, because when one rejected, another showed grace. It was the grace that inspired me to continue to seek God and not to wallow in shame. I knew that I had failed, I knew I sinned and fell short, but I had a church family that was willing to lift my eyes back to the cross of Christ.
This woman could have been turned away by the words of Jesus. The words of the disciples were to send her away, yet it was after the disciples of Jesus responded in such negative words that Jesus began to react. I think that that is important. Jesus did not answer her a word until the disciples begged him to send her away. The disciples rejected her. Jesus spoke the words out loud that the disciples were thinking. And I believe that Jesus was upset at his disciples that day. I believe that Jesus was angry that the disciples held in their hearts this sort of prejudice. He had just defended them from the pharisees that were upset that they did not wash their hands properly. He said to them during that exchange, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart comes evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”
Jesus was angered by his disciples because they wanted to send this woman away. They wanted to send her away because she was a Canaanite dog. She had no business speaking to their Messiah, yet here she was begging for favor. She knelt before Jesus and cried, “Lord, help me.” She was rejected by the disciples; she could see the disdain on their faces. And I am sure she felt a jolt at Jesus’s words, but she looked up at him and responded, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She responds in a way that recognizes that she is fully aware that she has no claim to any favor. Yet she acknowledges Jesus as Lord and master. And Jesus looks at her and responds, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.”
I am a sinner saved by the grace of God. I stand here today not because I am a sterling example of how to live a perfect life, but because I know the grace of God. Jesus listened to that woman the disciples rejected, he even voiced their thoughts, and he saw in her faith. She knelt before Jesus willing to turn her back on everything she had known and was willing to follow that Jewish Messiah even if it would mean living in a constant state of rejection, because she loved her daughter that much. And Jesus looked at her and said, “O woman great is your faith!”
All sin and fall short of the glory of God. There is not one person here that can stand before God in their own power and strength and say I am worthy. Each of us have failed. Each of us has at some point allowed evil thoughts to inhabit our hearts, and as a result we have allowed words to flow from our hearts that defile us. Jesus is calling us out. But he is also calling us toward him. He looks at us, and he sees men and women bearing His image and he loves us. And when we knell before him in our hour of need and cry out for his help, he sees us. And though the world and even the church may reject us, he says, “O, woman or man, great is your faith!”
Bernard of Clairvaux wrote about the four degrees of love. I have spoken about the degrees of belief and faith; they both work together. That woman’s daughter was healed because she entrusted every aspect of her life to Jesus. Our history is filled with beauty and horror, it is filled with encouragement and pain. I pray as we enter this moment of holy expectancy that we will knell before Christ and say, “Lord help me.” So that we can be a people contributing to the beauty and speaking encouragement.