Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28
[Then Jesus called the crowd to him and said to them, “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.” Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 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 left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 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.” 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.” 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.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
We humans seem to be much better at building fences than at crafting communal tables. It’s not a new problem. Our scripture lessons this week from Isaiah, Romans, and Matthew address the idea of reframing our human notions of inclusion to see the issue from a divine perspective. Needless to say, God’s idea of inclusion is much broader than many of our own.
This gospel passage takes us into uncomfortable territory. We travel from a land of Pharisees and parables to one of Canaanites and demon possession. The words of Jesus to the Pharisees are harsh, the words of the woman to Jesus seem dimissive at first. It does not sound like the comforting gospel hope we crave in the midst of this chaotic year.
It begins simply enough with the usual characters—Jesus, a crowd, Pharisees, disciples. Jesus tells the crowd that their words have meaning and significance enough to defile them. It is what they say, and not what they eat, that makes them unclean. This brings about the anger we expect from the religious leaders, and then, of course, the parable, the confusion, and the explanation. Everything is shaping up for this to be a standard gospel tale.
Then, Jesus goes to Tyre and Sidon. To a land of outsiders with whom they share nothing but the status as people conquered by Rome. A land of people declared unclean.
The next thing we hear is the voice of a mother crying out for the sake of her child. We heard these cries in the lectionary cycle three years ago. And a year ago it was the Sunday after a man drove his car into a crowd of people protesting a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. As I read through reflections, sermons, and news articles written that week, I was stunned and grieved by their familiarity to today. The woman cried out with the church that Sunday and she keeps shouting after us today.
Unclean words continue to flow from our mouths. The days are filling to the brim with words of evil intention, murder, and slander. We wash our hands more now that perhaps ever before, and yet we remain unclean. In this story, the woman keeps shouting after us she keeps crying out, and with the disciples we turn to Jesus and say, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” There are so many people shouting at us, we are inundated with injustice.
When Jesus finally speaks, the words do not sound like Jesus. The gospel readings from these last weeks have been filled with Jesus opening his hands and inviting in. At the feeding of the crowd, Jesus did not permit the disciples to send the people away and on the stormy sea, Jesus, at Peter’s wishes, called Peter to him. These words Jesus spoke to the Canaanite mother are dismissive. They sound like the speech which comes from the heart of humanity.
After being told that Jesus was not there for her, or her child, or her people, the woman kneels before him. In asking again for help, she rises to a challenge to her faith, persevering toward salvation. Jesus looks down at this woman and repeats to her words that continue to proceed from defiled hearts and mouths, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
In that moment, this woman had a choice.
- She could grieve the way things were but accept her place in it.
- She could continue kneeling in the dirt as Jesus walked away, her daughter still tormented, her life unchanged. If she had remained silent, she could have accepted that who she was remained below the sight of God.
Yet, these dismissive words were from defiled people, from humanity. These are not the words from the heart of the merciful Lord, Son of David.
So, she put her face toward the insult. With faith in who God has been revealed to be through Jesus, the faith that called her to him that day, she says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” There is enough. My daughter will not be tormented to death. I will not leave defeated. I am not below the sight of God.
I hear a smile when Jesus speaks, “Woman, great is your faith.” I see confusion once again on the face of the disciples as she joins her daughter, healed from the demon. Her shouting ended that day, but it still echoes. Her cry for mercy. Her cry for help. Her cry of defiance.
She keeps shouting after us. She shouts in the voices of the oppressed and conquered, in the boiling cries for justice and mercy. Each day brings us a new sound of this voice. So many people are shouting in defiance and faith, decrying the defiled state of the world. Sometimes, I want to ask for these voices to be sent away. They are too loud, there are too many, they are too painful. Then, I remember all those times when my own voice cried in defiance. I remember days distant and near when I followed a call of faith to be told, “Not you.” I remember looking up in defiance and saying, “Yes” as I stood up in the dirt where the women who went before me had knelt. I see a smile and confusion, and my voice joins the echo.
We tend to not like this passage, we Christians and other Jesus fans. We would like to pretend the passage doesn’t exist, or just skim our eyes over the page, or mutter something about how some dastardly person must have snuck it in there.
But most of us can’t do that, not forever. We are compulsive readers of these relatively few stories. We have to wrestle with the words so we can clearly understand the Word.
I’ve heard a lot of explanations from these faithful wrestlers of the Word.
- Some people say Jesus was testing this woman and that he exulted at her snappiest of comebacks.
- Some even say he was joking with her, calling her a dog with a wink.
- Some say there was no irony involved and she straight up taught him a lesson about not being so mean to Gentiles.
Me? I’ve done my share of wrestling, and I know I’m far from done. But here’s the meaning that leaps out of the text and into my heart today. For me, it’s a story about Jesus’s unique nature: 100% human, 100% divine, both at the same time. And it can be a story of comfort and hope for those of us who are just plain 100% human.
In our world today there is seemingly no end to the people who need to be healed. Seems reasonable. There’s enough healing that needs to go on in my ownneighborhood to keep Jesus busy for weeks.
So at the beginning of this story, it’s the human side of Jesus we see. He’s probably exhausted from a long day of healing. Maybe he’s trying to set limits on his ministry so he can come back to do it another day.
Right now he inhabits a single human body, and he has to sleep like anyone else. He doesn’t have the time or the energy to do everything.
Who can’t identify with this – the aching feeling that our dreams for every twenty-four hours are bigger than what we can actually get done? What large-hearted, well-intentioned person has not felt momentarily paralyzed in the face of so much more suffering than one person’s heart and intentions can handle?
But Jesus is more than human, and the Gentile woman confirms it, loudly, claiming the table scraps of grace God has surely set aside for her. She says, in essence, One person can’t heal the world – but God can. And God will.
God and man flicker gloriously in the same person. Jesus savors her answer, the cry that expresses her strong faith. She knows without a doubt that the Father can feed the whole family.
Jesus smiles and says to her, You’re right. It’s done. Go home. He doesn’t have to leave the house where he’s staying, go out in the open and get mobbed by more people, lose sleep. The healing can happen despite his possible exhaustion, despite his human limits. God can make a way.
And God will make a way for us too. We are not perfect and limitless, but God can perfect us and fill us with holiness, giving us more than we can ask or imagine. There are no superheroes saving the world singlehandedly, but if we’re humble enough to accept God’s directions, we can find our part to play in the grand plan. We can’t do everything, but in and through God’s holy people, God can do anything.
I love this beautiful, hard story, showcasing the struggles of Jesus who was man and the soaring glory of Jesus who is God.
So this challenging text may challenge our ideas of inclusion, but remember that even Jesus gets his ideas of inclusion adjusted, and we can find other places in scripture where God changes the divine mind—but always with the result that a longer table is built. God is not in the business of building higher walls that separate and divide. God wants to gather us in, give room for everybody, a place at life’s table and a chance to live in God’s abundance forever.
One might think we’d learn. Jesus did. Maybe we’re just a little slower on the uptake. More likely we just need a discipleship refresher course to remember why we are called to be “little Christs” in this world. As Jesus did in his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, we can reframe our ideas and grow into the fullness of discipleship and life in Christ. We can become more generous table builders so that there is no need for higher walls; in fact, let’s just go ahead an break down walls and barriers whenever we can and use the raw materials to build a better table, a more just world, and a community of faith where all are welcome.