not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.

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1 Matthew 15: 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. 1

2 Going to the Dogs I have a morning routine. I don t set the alarm except for Sundays, when I have to be at church early. All the other days I can usually manage to wake up on my own around 6:00 or 6:30. My dog Phoebe wakes up along with me. In fact, she sleeps right next to me. So the moment I show any sign of waking, Phoebe instantly springs to life. That s because she knows that as soon as I wake up she will get to eat breakfast. Every morning, before I do anything else, I go to the kitchen and get her breakfast ready. Once Phoebe has eaten, I pour myself a cup of coffee and head to the couch with my ipad to catch up on all the news that happened in America while I was sleeping. After I finish the coffee, I go to the refrigerator and make myself a bowl of yogurt. No store-bought yogurt for us, we make our own. Phoebe usually joins me on the couch and waits for me while I eat. She s blind, so she can t see me, but her hearing is still sharp. She knows by the sound of my spoon scraping the bowl that I m just about finished with the yogurt. She sits up at attention waiting for what she knows will come next. I place the bowl in front of her and let her lick whatever s left. We go through a similar ritual with dinner. Phoebe silently waits under the table while Sandy and I eat [SLIDE]. Sometimes she ll even rest her chin on our feet to remind us that she s there. She just wants a bite of whatever we re eating. She s not picky. She ll eat almost anything. Yogurt, cereal, fruits, vegetables, bread, cheese, and of course meat. The only foods that she s ever refused are shrimp and squid. Apparently, she s not a fan of seafood unless it s fish. The other day, along with the usual yogurt, I had a banana with breakfast. It was a little overripe. The tip was brown and mushy but still edible. I thought of discarding 2

3 it. But there Phoebe was, sitting next to me on the couch, just waiting for a bite of that banana. I tore off the end and gave it to her. Overripe or not, it was all the same to her. A few bites of an overripe banana or a few licks from the remains of a bowl of yogurt, Phoebe is more than happy to take whatever food I offer her. I couldn t help but think of my dog when I read today s passage from Matthew 15, a passage in which Jesus responds to a Canaanite woman s request for mercy by likening her people to dogs. But this woman is so desperate, so hungry for mercy, that like a dog under the table, she is willing to content herself with even the scraps of mercy that Jesus has to offer. This passage challenges us. It challenges our understanding of Jesus as ever-kind and compassionate. Let s be honest. If this were anyone other than Jesus, we would find what he says to the woman deeply offensive [SLIDE]: It is not fair to take the children s food and throw it to the dogs (Mt. 15:26). Did he really just say that? We re not the only ones to take offense. The Pharisees are also offended by Jesus, but not by what he says to the Canaanite woman. They don t like what Jesus has to say about how they value their traditions more than they value mercy. And the disciples let him know that the Pharisees are upset [SLIDE]: Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said? (Mt. 15:12). Jesus doesn t seem to care. Let them alone, he says. They are blind guides of the blind (Mt. 15:14). The disciples themselves are also offended. They don t like the fact that this crazy Canaanite woman keeps shouting at them and won t go away. They complain to Jesus [SLIDE], Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us (Mt. 15:23). Maybe they re also offended that he tolerates her rather than immediately sending her away. In this passage, Jesus is an equal-opportunity offender. He upsets nearly everyone, except for the Canaanite woman. But we ll get to her in a moment. 3

4 It s been a few weeks since we read from Matthew, so let s get ourselves grounded again. This is a long passage, but it would help us understand it better to go back a few more verses. Then we can see why Jesus says what he does to the crowd. In the beginning of chapter 15 [SLIDE], the Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples don t wash their hands before eating. For the record, the Pharisees weren t so much concerned with germs (of which they had no knowledge) but ritual purity. In keeping with a long-held tradition within Judaism, the world was divided into two categories: clean and unclean. Coming into contact with something unclean (e.g., certain animals, bodily fluids) made you unclean. Thus hand washing became a common ritual before meals, not only for the Pharisees but also for the average Jew. In response to the Pharisees question, Jesus turns to the crowd and teaches them that impurity is not a matter of what we touch with our hands or put into our mouths. Those are external things. Rather, it s what comes from within us that makes us impure the evil intentions of our heart, the arrogant, judgmental eyes with which we size up another person s worth, the sharp words of our mouths that slash and cut. Ritual purity is not something that concerns us. We believe that we ve been purified from the stain of sin by the blood of Jesus. Yet in this teaching about purity there is a parallel to our world. We may not concern ourselves with ritual hand washing (but your mother was right, you should wash your hands before meals), but like the Pharisees, we still rate our purity and that of others by external measurements, like church attendance and how much is put in the offering basket. If we attend church regularly enough, if we give to the church sufficiently enough, then we believe that we ve met the standard of purity. And those who don t, we tend to judge. This is how the disciples look upon the Canaanite woman who chases after Jesus, who shouts at him to get his attention [SLIDE]. Canaanite is an interesting word 4

5 choice on Matthew s part. The word doesn t fit the historical context. In fact, this is the only time in the entire New Testament that the word Canaanite appears. It s what s called an anachronism (the prefix ana meaning not and chron referring to time ; thus an anachronism is something that belongs to a different time period than where it exists). Canaanite does not belong in the New Testament. It s Old Testament language. There it appears dozens of times. It s not a word with positive associations for the Israelites. Canaanites were the people who possessed the land that would become Israel, which was originally known as Canaan [SLIDE]. The original audience of Matthew s Gospel were Jews and Jewish converts to Christianity. Therefore by referring to the woman who shouts at Jesus as Canaanite, Matthew is reminding his readers that this woman is a despised outsider. This same story of the Canaanite woman appears in the Gospel of Mark as well, but there the woman is referred to as Syro-Phoenician. That s because Mark was writing to a Gentile audience; Canaanite would not have carried any meaning for Mark s audience of Gentiles. Whether Canaanite or Syro-Phoenician, the woman is not of Israel. But what s interesting to note is that Jesus and the disciples are no longer in Israel [SLIDE]. They have crossed into Gentile territory. They are in the district of Tyre and Sidon, in modern-day Lebanon. This makes them the outsiders, not the woman. Yet despite the fact that Jesus and the Canaanite woman are of two different worlds, she approaches him. In fact, she shouts at him [SLIDE], Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David! (Mt. 15:22). Who does this woman think she is shouting at Jesus like that? Women of that time and place don t make a spectacle of themselves by shouting in public, especially at men who are not their husbands or family members. 5

6 How does Jesus respond to the woman s shouting? I was tempted to write that Jesus ignores her. In fact, I actually did write that and then deleted it, because I m not sure that it s true. I think it would be true of many of us if some stranger accosted us in public with shouts and theatrics. Our instinct of self-preservation would compel us to ignore a potentially dangerous person. But Matthew doesn t say that Jesus ignores her, only that he doesn t answer her. I imagine Jesus looking at her and allowing the situation to unfold, seeing it as an opportunity to teach his disciples another lesson about God s radical mercy. The disciples, on the other hand, are likely shocked, and certainly annoyed, by her behavior. Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us (Mt. 15:23). You can hear the disdain in their words. Ugh! This woman is so annoying! She won t stop shouting. Get rid of her, teacher! Send her away! But Jesus doesn t send her away. What s more, he ignores his disciples and engages the woman. The conversation that follows is shocking. It s power to shock is even stronger if we hear only the dialogue without any of Matthew s narrative [SLIDE]. WOMAN: Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon. JESUS: I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel [SLIDE]. WOMAN: Lord, help me. JESUS: It is not fair to take the children s food and throw it to the dogs [SLIDE]. WOMAN: Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters table. 6

7 JESUS: Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish. The way people interpret this exchange can be wildly different. Some hear in his words a Jesus who is rude and dismissive, a man of his time and place who shares his people s prejudice against Canaanites. They see a Jesus who is humbled by the Canaanite woman s humility and who learns from her that his mission extends to all, not just to the Israelites. Others bend over backwards and twist themselves in knots to defend Jesus harsh language. They argue that he doesn t directly call her a dog. He uses a metaphor. Plus, the Greek word refers to a small house dog. It s practically a puppy! What s more, he doesn t insult her; he tests her faith before granting her wish. I m going to call BS on both of these interpretations. BS is a technical theological term that means But Seriously? But seriously, here s what I think Jesus is up to. To see it, we need to zoom out from this story and take in the full scope of the Gospel. Of the four Gospels, Matthew is the one that is most concerned with Jesus Jewishness [SLIDE]. We can see this right away in verse 1 of chapter 1: An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham (Mt. 1:1). Straight away we are told that Jesus is the Messiah, a term for the anointed savior of the Jewish people. To authenticate his qualifications as the Jewish Messiah, Matthew begins his Gospel with a long genealogy that traces Jesus lineage through 28 generations, all the way from Abraham. The genealogy begins, Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers (Mt. 1:2). On and on it goes from one father to the next. Yet, a funny thing happens on the way from Abraham to Jesus [SLIDE]. There are a few names in this genealogy that not only aren t fathers or men even, they re also not Israelites. 7

8 Names like Rahab, the Canaanite woman who aided the spies of Israel before the conquest of Jericho. Names like Ruth, the Moabite woman who left her own people to stay with her Hebrew mother-in-law Naomi. Names like Bathsheba (the wife of Uriah), the mother of Solomon. Matthew, this Gospel that is so concerned in reminding us that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, also tells us that Jesus is descended from not one, not two, but three foreign women. Therefore, I think we can safely say that Jesus does not learn from the Canaanite woman that his mission extends beyond the house of David to the Gentiles: it s literally in his DNA [SLIDE]. Then in chapter 2, shortly after Jesus is born in Bethlehem, wise men from the east, foreigners, travel far from their home countries to pay this Jewish infant homage. Later in chapter 8 Jesus encounters a centurion, a Roman solider, who asks Jesus to come to his home and heal his servant who is ill. Jesus agrees to go, but the soldier stops him, saying that merely a word from Jesus would be enough to heal his servant. Jesus is amazed, and says to all his followers, Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith (Mt. 8:10). Even before Jesus enters Tyre and Sidon and encounters the Canaanite woman, he knows that beyond the boundaries of Israel there are people who believe in him, people who understand that God s mercy knows no boundary. And in this Canaanite woman, he meets another. He meets a woman to whom he can say [SLIDE], Great is your faith. Contrast that with what he said to Peter in chapter 14 when Peter walked toward Jesus on the Sea of Galilee but then sank under waves of doubt: You of little faith, why did you doubt? (Mt. 14:31). The woman s faith is great not only because of who she is, an outsider, but because of what she asks for. She s not asking for a seat at the table. She is willing to take the 8

9 scraps of mercy that fall from the table. She s not asking for her fair share. She wants only what others have discarded. She s willing to speak of herself as a dog if it means that, like a dog, she and her daughter will be fed with the scraps of mercy that Jesus can offer [SLIDE]. Have mercy on me, Lord! the woman cries. The Greek may be familiar to you: Kyrie eleison. Lord, have mercy. The phrase is an ancient musical refrain of the Church. What s more, these are the words we pray each week in the Prayers of the People. We lay our requests before God and ask for God s mercy on our prayers. We pray as well that we may be people of mercy. We pray to be merciful because it doesn t come naturally to us. It didn t to the disciples. I m normally one to defend the disciples in all their weaknesses, all their doubts, all their failings. The New Testament reminds us again and again of their flawed humanity. But what they say in this passage makes me angry, much angrier than Jesus talk of dogs. After all, to extend Jesus metaphor, if the Gentiles are dogs, the Israelites are lost sheep. He likens both groups of people to animals. But the disciples fear that in addressing this Canaanite woman, Jesus is being diverted from his mission to Israel. They don t want his mission as Israel s Messiah to go to the dogs [SLIDE]. Going to the dogs is an idiom that means that something is getting worse in quality or character. That neighborhood used to be nice, but now it s plagued by crime and poverty. It s going to the dogs. The disciples don t want Jesus mission to go to the dogs. Send her away, they tell Jesus. Send her away. She s a nuisance. An annoyance. She s not one of us. Send her away. It s not only the disciples. The big news in America this week concerned the president saying that he would revoke DACA [SLIDE]. DACA stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA has been part of America s immigration 9

10 policy since It allows individuals who entered the country illegally as children, usually brought by their parents, to apply for renewable two-year work permits so that they can stay in the country the country that they ve lived in for most of their lives. If DACA is eliminated and not replaced, 800,000 people will be subject to deportation. These are people who are working, paying taxes, and raising families. But many people in America, too many, are shouting, Send them away! In Myanmar [SLIDE], a predominantly Buddhist country, 270,000 Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority who live in the country s northwest corner, have fled into Bangladesh. They have fled from the violence perpetrated on them by their Buddhist neighbors who are, in effect, shouting, Send them away. Here in Korea [SLIDE], there was news this week of a plan to open a special education school in one neighborhood. This displeased some of those living in the neighborhood as they were concerned that the presence of a special needs school would lower their property values. At a public meeting to discuss the issue, the mothers of the special needs children fell to their knees to beg for mercy, just like the Canaanite woman [SLIDE]. Yet the neighbors are afraid that their neighborhood will go to the dogs. And again the refrain goes up, Send them away! Kyrie eleison. Lord, have mercy! We cannot send away those whom God has sent to us. To send away those who ask for mercy is to deny our very calling as disciples of Jesus Christ. For God also sent to us his Son. God sent his Son into the world on a mission of mercy a mission of mercy for dogged sinners like us. 10

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