Click here, Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28, for an easy to print or email Adobe PDF version.
Sermon by the Rev. Dr. George Hermanson, "To be added."
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.