Radical in a Big Way
Grace & Fairview United Methodist Churches
August 14, 2011
Matthew 15: 10-28 (NIV)
Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. 11What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” 12Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” 13He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. 14Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” 15Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.” 16“Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. 17“Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. 19For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”
21Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” 23Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” 25The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. 26He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” 27“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” 28Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
When preparing sermons, sometimes I chose a passage because it is one of my favorites. Other times, I chose a passage because it is a commonly used or quoted passage, and I feel like it’s good for all of us to delve into those readings more deeply. Sometimes I chose a Scripture reading because it speaks to current events or issues. There are times when I chose a passage because it offers a challenge or a reminder about what it means to be a Christian and to follow Christ in our lives. And sometimes when preparing sermons, I chose a reading because it doesn’t seem to make any sense, I have no idea what it means, and I feel like researching the passage for a sermon will help me, help us all, come to a better understanding of what the passage is about. As you can probably guess, that was the case today. But through my study, I came to see that as confusing as this reading is, it is one of the most significant moments in Jesus’ ministry. So let’s take a look at it.
This passage is really baffling, isn’t it? I mean, Jesus’ commentary on what defiles is pretty straight-forward, but his behavior toward the Canannite woman is just…strange! To begin with, the woman cries out to Jesus, and he ignores her! Just a few days ago, Jesus was trying to get some peace and quiet, and when the crowds started crying out to him, he just put that all aside and went to heal the people. Now, he’s going about his work, but when this woman cries out to Jesus, Matthew tells us, “Jesus did not answer a word.” Clearly, he intentionally disregarded this woman. But obviously, that didn’t deter the woman at all, and before we know it, she has thrown herself before him, still asking for his help. “This will get him,” we think. But Jesus’ response was still cold, as he basically likened the woman to a dog. Yes, you heard that right, a dog.
Why would Jesus do this? This is God in-the-flesh! This is the man who puts loving God and loving others above all else. This is the one who came to seek and to save the lost. He teaches us to offer all of ourselves and all of our resources in service to God and to our neighbor! So why did Jesus not do that for this woman? Why did he initially ignore her and call her a dog when she clearly had a legitimate need?
I think Jesus was trying to make a point, and to understand that point, we need to take a look at what Jesus said to the Pharisees just before this encounter with the Canaanite woman. The Pharisees had come to Jesus with a question. They wanted to know why Jesus and his disciples didn’t follow the ritual purity laws, specifically, why they didn’t wash their hands when they ate their food. Now, don’t get me wrong, washing your hands before you eat is an important practice. We know that, and Jesus knew it too. The Pharisees seemed to think, though, that Jesus and his followers weren’t following the ritual. So Jesus takes the question as an opportunity to school the Pharisees a bit on what it really means to be clean or unclean. Here, Jesus is really addressing the question, how can the human heart be made pure?
“What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.'” God wants us to be pure, but purity does not come from things like hand-washing as the Pharisees believe. This is just surface-level. Being right with God has nothing to do with trying to follow a bunch of external laws. But it has everything to do with what is inside us. And Jesus himself is the only remedy for the wickedness and uncleanness that infects us all. As the remedy, Jesus needs to be applied to the disease, deep down inside each of our human personalities, so that we can be changed from the inside out!
So just having finished speaking to His disciples about what makes a person “clean” or “unclean” Jesus moves forward and gives them a picture lesson, using a real person—the Canaanite woman! And what better place to come in contact with a so-called unclean person than to leave Jewish territory and enter Gentile territory. Gentiles were any people who were not Jewish. We, for example, are Gentiles from birth. The Jews of Jesus’ day would have deemed us “unclean,” with no chance of being redeemed or saved. As a matter of fact, it would have been a dangerous thing to head into Gentile territory. For example, if a Jew were to even eat Gentile food that would cause that Jew to become “unclean.” That’s why the disciples always carried their own food with them if they happened to go through Gentile territory.
Suppose, for example, the people in Red Bank were God’s Chosen Race. And we poor folks up here in Soddy Daisy (Hixson) were nothing but a bunch of “hell-bent heathen Gentiles.” The people in Red Bank would not want to have anything to do with us whatsoever. They certainly wouldn’t eat at our restaurants. They would teach their children not to play with our children. They would not even speak to us, and if we happened to find ourselves walking down the same path, road or sidewalk as a person from Red Bank, that person would cross the road, quickly! If we were beat up, robbed and left in a ditch to die, unlike the good Samaritan, they would walk past on the other side. If we came to them pleading for help or healing they would call us “dogs”—a very derogatory name in Jesus’ day—and tell us to leave them alone.
But if Jesus were to come to Soddy Daisy (Hixson), well that would be a completely different story! And that, in a way, is what is happening in our Gospel Lesson for this morning. The Canaanite woman is the first woman that Jesus ministered to outside of the nation of Israel. She and the centurion, who asked Jesus to heal his servant, are the first Gentiles that Jesus ministered to. This is a radical move for Jesus! This humble woman’s story is significant because Jesus’ ministry to the entire world begins with her!
It’s so awesome that this woman is not only a Gentile, but that she is also a Caananite. For the Caananites were the arch enemies of Israel. They are the people who were to be driven out of the Promised Land by the Israelites. They fought against God’s covenant people. And in the Old Testament the people of Israel often got into trouble worshipping the gods of the Canaanites. Yet, this woman seems to have a pretty good grasp on who Jesus is. She calls him “Lord, Son of David.” She asks him for mercy and to heal her daughter. And when Jesus gives her the “politically correct” answer of “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,” she knows that the God of the Universe loves all people. And from her experience, from her faith in the One True God, the Gentiles begin turning to Christ in droves!
It’s often thought that the Christian faith didn’t spread to the Gentiles until after Pentecost with Peter and Paul. And certainly God used Peter and Paul to do this, but it started with Christ himself! Jesus healed the woman’s daughter. But like all people who are healed and saved by Christ, the woman and her daughter did not keep this good news to themselves. For we read in verse 29 on that Jesus went from there “up on a mountainside and sat down.” And what happens in this dark, pagan, Gentile land? “Great crowds came to [Jesus], bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them.” And then we are told that these supposed dogs; these folks who the religious leaders thought were so dirty, awful, undeserving, and beyond redemption; well, they “praised the God of Israel.”
Then, as Jesus had done for 5,000 Israelites, excluding women and children who weren’t counted just a chapter before—Jesus did for 4,000 Gentiles, besides women and children. He had compassion on them and fed them! And he stayed with them for three days. And this is indeed, the most radical thing which has ever happened in human history up to this point! It is also one of the clearest moments in the Gospels, perhaps with the exception of the Samaritan Woman at the Well, where we are told God does not play favorites and we are not to play favorites either!
With God, there are no outcastes; there are no throwaways! Every human is equally loved and important. And that is how we, as Christ’s messengers on this earth, are to view people as well. Who are the “so-called” dogs in our culture, in our community, in our area today? Who is the outcaste? Who is treated as if they do not matter? This is a question we have to answer, and then we have to do something about it!
Jesus ministry was to the poor, the outcaste, the marginalized, the discriminated against, the women and children, and widows and orphans. And Jesus’ ministry is our ministry as well. Jesus has come to Soddy Daisy (Hixson). Jesus is standing in the midst of the METH labs. Jesus is in the trailers where families with children are suffering and barely making it. Jesus is in the homes surrounding this building where people are lonely, sick, lost, and depressed. Jesus is among those lost in the darkness of sin and hatred. And as followers of Jesus, we are to be there too. May this be our mission, and our prayer, that we may go where Jesus goes and do what Jesus does. Amen.