Read the passage at the bottom of this post: Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28, The Message or Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28, The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
Click here, Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28, for an easy to print or email Adobe PDF version of this note.
Sermon by the Rev. Dr. George Hermanson, "."
The story of the Canaanite woman in Verses 21-28 really needs the discussion about what makes a person "clean" / "undefiled" in Verses 10-20 in order to help us focus on the significance of what comes out of the mouth of Jesus and this non-Jewish (and therefore "unclean") woman.
The discussion in Verses 10 to 20 should not be read as an unconditional attack on, or dismissal of Jewish customs and traditions. Rather it is an attempt - once again - by Jesus to teach his uncomprehending, dull-witted, disciples to get to the heart of the matter:
To see through external, social conventions to the inner reality of what God desires for us as individuals and as communities.
Sounds easy. But there's a catch. "Social conventions" are time-tested codes of behaviour for living rightly.
That is, they are answers to the questions: "What must I DO to show my reverence for God; my honour for my family; and my social standing in my community?" Behaving in these ways will make us "clean" and "pure" and "undefiled."
Social conventions develop over centuries, and by definition, are NEVER explicitly discussed or agreed upon. A crucial aspect of "convention" is that it is unspoken, and taken for granted. Indeed, so taken for granted that we are by and large completely unaware of how much these codes are embedded in our most deeply held sense of what is true, right, and just.
Social conventions are the standards by which we judge the correctness of someone's behaviour. And therefore, also their motives. Someone whose outward behaviour is bad must also have inner motives that are bad.
However, the problem with social conventions is that they are also, by definition, conservative, closed, static, and unimaginative; and not progressive, open, dynamic, or creative. And therefore, while they maintain the distilled wisdom from past experience, they will also inevitably collide with the on-going creativity of God. Or as Isaiah puts it, social conventions are human wisdom and not God's wisdom.
In Jesus' day, washing ones hands before eating was NOT for hygienic reasons (they had no knowledge of bacteria). Hand washing was part of the ritual preparation that outwardly expressed inner reverence and respect for the Creator of the Universe who provided the food about to be eaten.
So when the Pharisees publicly challenge Jesus and question why his disciples are not washing their hands before eating (Verses 1-2), they are really saying, "You and your disciples cannot be holy men because you are not behaving in holy ways."
As usual, Jesus' response does not directly address their challenge. Instead of talking about hand-washing, he changes the topic to what goes into and comes out of our mouths. His response is about how what is in our hearts leads to what comes out of our mouths. And, without saying so directly, he implies that what has just come out of the mouths of the Pharisees has shown their inward evil thoughts.
If we hold onto this teaching that what comes out of our mouths is what truly makes us clean - what truly shows our reverence for God - then we can hear the story of the Canaanite woman in a new light.
Immediately following the teaching about ritual cleanliness, Jesus takes his followers into foreign - unclean - territory, near the cities of Tyre and Sidon. And in this unclean place a most unconventional thing happens. A foreign (gasp!) woman (horrors!) comes alone (unthinkable!) and speaks (outrageous!) to the disciples and won't obey (scandalous!) their instruction to stop following them (shocking!).
But this incident is a beautiful illustration of the teaching Jesus has just made. Outwardly, this woman has nothing about her that is "clean." But she has two things in her heart that make her right with God:
- her unwavering, nagging, persistent care for her daughter; and,
- her unwavering, nagging, persistent trust that Jesus can cure her daughter.
And these two things cause Jesus to undergo a change of heart himself.
Taken together, Verses 10-20 and 21-28, provide a wonderful illustration of the struggles we face as communities of faith. For we too have developed unspoken conventions for proper behaviour; and we too must be constantly be open to the unconventional and foreign that give us new insight into the wisdom of God.
Historical background information in this post is drawn primarily from Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, see link below, pages 83-84.
* Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Bruce Malina, et. al., Social Science Commentary on ... The Synoptic Gospels; The Gospel of John; The Book of Acts; The Letters of Paul; The Book of Revelation; and others.
Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28 (NRSV)
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."
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.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28 (The Message)
10 He then called the crowd together and said, "Listen, and take this to heart. 11 It's not what you swallow that pollutes your life, but what you vomit up."
12 Later his disciples came and told him, "Did you know how upset the Pharisees were when they heard what you said?"
13 Jesus shrugged it off. "Every tree that wasn't planted by my Father in heaven will be pulled up by its roots. 14 Forget them. They are blind men leading blind men. When a blind man leads a blind man, they both end up in the ditch."
15 Peter said, "I don't get it. Put it in plain language."
16 Jesus replied, "You too? Are you being willfully stupid? 17 Don't you know that anything that is swallowed works its way through the intestines and is finally defecated? 18 But what comes out of the mouth gets its start in the heart. 19 It's from the heart that we vomit up evil arguments, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, lies, and cussing. 20 That's what pollutes. Eating or not eating certain foods, washing or not washing your hands—that's neither here nor there."
21 From there Jesus took a trip to Tyre and Sidon. 22 They had hardly arrived when a Canaanite woman came down from the hills and pleaded, "Mercy, Master, Son of David! My daughter is cruelly afflicted by an evil spirit."
23 Jesus ignored her. The disciples came and complained, "Now she's bothering us. Would you please take care of her? She's driving us crazy."
24 Jesus refused, telling them, "I've got my hands full dealing with the lost sheep of Israel."
25 Then the woman came back to Jesus, went to her knees, and begged. "Master, help me."
26 He said, "It's not right to take bread out of children's mouths and throw it to dogs."
27 She was quick: "You're right, Master, but beggar dogs do get scraps from the master's table."
28 Jesus gave in. "Oh, woman, your faith is something else. What you want is what you get!" Right then her daughter became well.
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