“…Great is your faith!”—Matthew 15.28[i]
In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen!
In reference to today’s Gospel lesson, a classmate of mine from seminary had this to say in a Facebook status update: “I have a theory that people are so uncomfortable with this upcoming Sunday’s Gospel because…it makes us look at our own brokenness.” Another way of putting it would be this: today’s Gospel lesson brings us to the reality of our own sin and how it distorts our relationship with God and with others. Why we are uncomfortable in recognizing our brokenness and with the reality that we, ourselves, do sin has to do with the fact that it makes us realize that we are not perfect and that we can be and are oftentimes wrong. But in order for sin to not have dominative power over us involves the conscious decision to acknowledge our need for redemption, for the need of something in our lives that is infallible, that can free us from sin’s power and control. Rather it being an infallible something, it is actually an infallible someone. That infallible someone is Jesus, the promised Messiah, the Son of the living God.
Jesus is the only Person that can redeem us, because, by being God in human form, only He can make us God’s adopted children, thereby heirs of God’s kingdom. To acknowledge our need for redemption by Jesus begs this question: What does it mean to live a life of faith? The question pertaining to the living of a life of faith is the question that composes the background for today’s appointed Gospel. In the parenthetical half of today’s Gospel, Jesus, having just engaged in a discussion with some Pharisees over the “tradition of the elders” and its relationship to the Law in the nine verses preceding, speaks to a gathered crowd about things that defile a person. Jesus specifically says, “…It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”[ii] As Jesus goes on to explain in verse 17, the things that we put in our mouths—the things that we eat—are all subject to a basic, natural bodily function. This bodily function is essential for the living of a healthy life, thus does not pose any perilous risk to our spiritual life. Jesus was making this point in reference to the discussion He just had with the Pharisees, who were concerned about ceremonial defilement, the belief that there were a great number of “unclean” things that one might encounter in the ordinary course of life that might easily be touched with the hands, which then made the hands become unclean, which, in turn, made the food that they ate unclean, thereby defiling them.[iii] This belief emanated from what was referred to as the “oral law,” laws that were passed down from generation to generation by Jewish legalists to serve as an oral compendium to the written Law. By his response in the first half of verse 11, bringing to light the fact that anything anyone eats is subject to the same process of digestion, Jesus makes the point that the Pharisees’ tradition, which they intended to help God’s people keep the Law, lead to the potential risk of them breaking the Law. With the disciples conveying to Jesus the Pharisee’s offense as to what He had said, what we have seen Jesus do is force the Pharisees into recognizing their own brokenness and of the fact that they were wrong on the issue of defilement. But instead of acknowledging the fact that they were wrong, they became angry with Jesus and did not accept the things that He had said.
In verse 18, Jesus provides a further explanation of what He said in the second half of verse 11: “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.” In speaking of the heart, what Jesus is referring to is the innermost aspect of the human person, those things that dictate a person’s mentality, emotions, and will. From this, in order to know those things that defile and those things that do not boils down to this: knowing those things that are of God and those things that are not. To know the things that are of God, we should fast forward to what Jesus says to the Pharisaic lawyer in Matthew 22: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the Prophets.”[iv] Saint John the Evangelist puts it more succinctly in his first epistle: “…Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters, also.”[v] To love God with our whole heart is to recognize that the love that God has for us is the same love that He has for others. This recognition, therefore, calls for us who profess love for God to love our fellow human beings, for God is love and He loves them and us together. To do this is to be free from defilement, but to have things proceed from our hearts that are not of God—evils thoughts, murders, adultery, sexual sins, thefts, false testimonies, and insults—contaminate a person in God’s sight.”[vi] What lies in the heart is the determining factor to what does and what does not lead to defilement.
Jesus’ words about the heart and of the positive or negative implications that proceed from it serve, in my opinion, as the crucial link between the parenthetical verses of today’s Gospel and those that are freestanding. In the second half of today’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples are in the district of Tyre and Sidon, where they come upon a Canaanite woman, a Gentile, who pleads with Jesus, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”[vii] But what is next described is the most puzzling feature of the story: “…He did not answer her at all.”[viii] It goes on further to say that the disciples, feeling embarrassed by the shouting Gentile, say to Jesus, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us,” with Jesus’ response being, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”[ix] For me, the dialogue between the disciples and Jesus helps me deal with the uneasiness I feel regarding Jesus’ original action toward the Canaanite woman, for it signifies to me that there was some purpose for such a response. The response that Jesus gives to the disciples suggests that in their requesting Him to send the woman away, they did not want Him to do so without her daughter being healed. In saying that He was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, Jesus was making note of the fact that for that current moment in time, His mission was to Israel. I find myself also able to deal with my uneasiness from the assurance that Jesus gives in Matthew 24: “And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all nations…”[x] Yes, Gentiles have been grafted onto God’s cultivated olive tree,[xi] but it was at that current moment in time in which Jesus’ mission was to the house of Israel.
But the Canaanite woman did not give up; she was persistent, trusting that Jesus would help her. Jesus’ response to her can be taken as being harsh, but conveys an important truth. His words are an admonition that the children’s food is for the children, not for the dogs, and being that she is their mother, she is charged with the responsibility to see that the needs of her children are meet first before those of house pets. The Canaanite woman does not disagree with Jesus, but responds, in turn, that “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table,”[xii] bringing forth the notion that although there is a “hierarchy of place” in regards to the children and the dogs, with the children taking the priority place over the dogs, the dogs still have a place. The response of the Canaanite woman shows that she was perfectly aware that she was not a part of Israel, therefore not a part of what was then the current scope of Jesus’ mission, but was trusting that there would be “crumbs” of which she could partake. For Jesus, the woman’s response is a testament of deep faith, for which He recognizes by healing her daughter.
Here is where we see the link between the Gospel’s parenthetical and freestanding verses. From what Jesus says to the Canaanite woman in verse 26, we come to know a little bit about her background, in that prior to the account of verses 21-28, she was not seeing to the proper care of her children, giving to the pets the food the her children needed to survive. It was at this point in her life in which the things that lay in her heart and what came out as a result of them defiled her before God. But the Canaanite woman’s response in verse 27 shows that, within her, there was love for her children and that with her daughter being possessed by a demon, that love moved her to a place of remorse for her previous actions, making her recognize that she needed to make a change, and drove her to the feet of Jesus, hoping that He would have mercy enough on her to help her. With this Gentile woman coming to Jesus and seeking His help, she entered into a transition from a person whose heart was defiled before God to one whose heart began the process toward inner perfection. Jesus caused the Canaanite woman to recognize her own brokenness and the fact that she was wrong in regards to her previous inadequate care for her children. But unlike the Pharisees from the parenthetical half of today’s Gospel, by way of her response to Jesus, the Canaanite woman acknowledged that she was wrong and that she was in need of Jesus’ help. The faith she displayed to Jesus was the beginning of her heart, her very self, being made well.
Just like the Canaanite woman, it is important that we, too, recognize our own brokenness, that we are not perfect, and that we are in need of Jesus’ help. In today’s Epistle lesson, Saint Paul assures us that God has not rejected His people, nor has He turned His back on His promise of redemption. In the chapter previous to today’s Epistle, Saint Paul says this: “…The same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”[xiii] What we see by way of the Canaanite woman is an assurance that when we acknowledge our brokenness, acknowledge our sin, saying to Jesus, “Lord, help me,” He will hear us and have mercy on us. The Canaanite woman helps assure us that when we try to do the things that we are called to do—to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and our neighbor as our self[xiv]—but fail, if we are sincerely penitent and seek amendment of life in Jesus, the mercy of God will be with us. This gives me the ability to trust in Jesus, for I recognize that I am broken and a sinner, accept the fact that I am not perfect, and, trusting Jesus to be the infallible Love of God, call out to Him for redemption, for I am in need of His help. Amen.
[i] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.
[ii] Matthew 15.11
[iii] Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), 390-391.
[iv] Matthew 22.37-39
[v] I John 4.21
[vi] Matthew 15.20 (Common English Bible)
[vii] Matthew 15.22
[viii] Matthew 15.23
[ix] Matthew 15.23-24
[x] Matthew 24.14
[xi] Romans 11.24
[xii] Matthew 15.27
[xiii] Romans 10.12b-13; cf. Joel 2.32
[xiv] Luke 10.27