10 Jesus called the crowd near and said to them, “Listen and understand. 11 It’s not what goes into the mouth that contaminates a person in God’s sight. It’s what comes out of the mouth that contaminates the person.”
12 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended by what you just said?”
13 Jesus replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father didn’t plant will be pulled up. 14 Leave the Pharisees alone. They are blind people who are guides to blind people. But if a blind person leads another blind person, they will both fall into a ditch.”
15 Then Peter spoke up, “Explain this riddle to us.”
16 Jesus said, “Don’t you understand yet? 17 Don’t you know that everything that goes into the mouth enters the stomach and goes out into the sewer? 18 But what goes out of the mouth comes from the heart. And that’s what contaminates a person in God’s sight. 19 Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adultery, sexual sins, thefts, false testimonies, and insults. 20 These contaminate a person in God’s sight. But eating without washing hands doesn’t contaminate in God’s sight.”
21 From there, Jesus went to the regions of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from those territories came out and shouted, “Show me mercy, Son of David. My daughter is suffering terribly from demon possession.” 23 But he didn’t respond to her at all.
His disciples came and urged him, “Send her away; she keeps shouting out after us.”
24 Jesus replied, “I’ve been sent only to the lost sheep, the people of Israel.”
25 But she knelt before him and said, “Lord, help me.”
26 He replied, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.”
27 She said, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table.”
28 Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith. It will be just as you wish.” And right then her daughter was healed. (CEB)
The latter portion of this text raises questions about prejudice and whether or not one race or people can be superior to others. It raises questions that were lived out on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend. When anyone thinks of themselves as superior to another, the results are appalling and inexcusable.
The difficulty of this text is that it has Jesus call a woman a dog because she is from a different cultural and religious background. It’s one of those moments where we read Jesus’ words and cringe. Let’s unpack the scene a little bit. Jews of Jesus’ day and earlier viewed themselves as superior to the peoples around them. It was, apparently, common for Jews to refer to Canaanites and Samaritans as dogs. Many Jews believed these people were unworthy of a decent thought. Why? Because Jewish tradition said Jews were the chosen people of God. They had displaced the Canaanites in the land under the leadership of Joshua and the Judges, and the Samaritans were essentially half-breeds from the former northern Kingdom of Israel who had intermarried with people of other backgrounds when their tradition forbade it.
Really, at the key to understanding this matter is mercy. Who is worthy to receive mercy? Who is worthy of ours and who is worthy of receiving God’s? And how is one worthy or unworthy?
The heart of the argument is the role of tradition in Jewish life. In fact, the first 15 verses of Matthew 15 show us a disagreement between Jesus and the Pharisees about tradition. Tradition can mean anything from the order of Sunday worship, to some dusty relic in a closet, to the potato salad recipe at the pitch-in dinner.
I mean, Potato salad without mustard is blasphemy. By golly if it doesn’t have mustard in it, someone might just get a beat down. God ordained that potato salad shall have mustard because that’s the way my 5th great-grandmother from Dublin made it when she invented potato salad!
That’s the level of nonsense to which these arguments about tradition can descend when people start in on them. We know we’re supposed to love each other because that’s what God told us to do. But we end up loving tradition (meaning our way and our stuff) more than each other. And we wrap that love of tradition in the guise of holiness. Jesus argued the Pharisees were doing that. In the first fifteen verses, Jesus argues that the Pharisees ignored the commandments of God by adhering to human tradition. The commandment to honor your father and mother meant that you took care of your parents in their old age. The Pharisees got around that because tradition said they could tell their parents that, whatever they were going to give to their parents for their care, they’ll give to God instead. So, they ended up not honoring their father and mother, and thought they were doing something holier than the very thing God commanded them to do. They disobeyed God to fulfill their human tradition and wrapped that tradition in the guise of holiness.
Tradition in and of itself isn’t bad. It can be a good thing. It can ground us solidly in our faith and life. Our order of worship comes from tradition. Praying the Lord’s Prayer comes from tradition. Singing hymns comes from tradition.
But tradition can also work to achieve the opposite of solid grounding, especially if we use tradition to fence people out. When we honor tradition more than people, we’ve squeezed the life out of tradition. We’ve hardened it into irrelevance. Tradition cannot be inflexible. It cannot be held up as more important than people. Our tradition is not the object of our worship. When it is, we’ve turned tradition into an idol. A pastor from Texas once told me that the first thing their congregation does when they put in new carpet is to eat on it. They have a meal in that room knowing someone was going to spill gravy. But they do it so people won’t make an idol of the carpeting. (Sorry, Trustees, if I’m making you cringe a little). People are always more important than our sacred cows.
In our text, Jesus takes up the tradition of ritual cleanliness as an issue. The Pharisees argued that if you eat with unwashed hands, you’re defiling your food and, therefore, yourself for eating it. Their tradition said that you were actually offending God by eating with unwashed hands. Now, most mothers I know will probably start preaching this to their kids before lunch today. (For the hundredth time, wash your hands or God will be mad at you!). But we aren’t going to offend God by not washing our hands before we eat. (Sorry moms. Let me fix that). Kids, honoring your father and mother also means doing what you’re told. So wash your hands when mom tells you to.
Twice before this dispute with the Pharisees over a matter of tradition, Jesus had quoted Hosea 6:6, which says, “I desire faithful love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God instead of entirely burned offerings” (CEB). That word translated as “faithful love” is חֶסֶד (hesed) in Hebrew. It can also mean obligation, kindness, and mercy. Jesus, twice, tells us what God wants of us, “I want mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13; 12:7 CEB). Over and over Jesus preaches that it isn’t the tradition that matters to God. It’s how we treat other people that matters to God. It’s our relationships that matter to God. That’s why Jesus calls the Pharisees blind guides. They don’t see that people are more important than human tradition. They don’t make the connection that following their tradition actually leads to disobedience to God’s direct commandments to honor their parents and love their neighbors.
What defiles isn’t what goes into our mouths, but the words that come out of it. I love Jesus’s image. It’s incredibly kid-friendly. What goes into our mouths—whether we washed our hands or not—goes into our stomach and we poop it out. It all goes into the sewer. But what comes out of our mouths comes from our heart. The evil of our hearts is what defiles us before God. Those are the things that contaminate us. If our heart is full of evil thoughts and intentions, murder, adultery, sexual sins, thefts, false testimonies, and insults, those are the things that are going to come out of our mouth. Our mouth reveals our contamination just like fruit tells us what kind of a tree we’re looking at.
Some parts of tradition, at least the way the tradition was interpreted by some, also said that certain people were outside the scope of God’s care. Tradition suggested certain people didn’t deserve God’s mercy. So, when Jesus goes to the region of Tyre and Sidon, a land inhabited by Canaanites, he’s met by one of these very people and the arguments he has just made are put to the test. When we read what Jesus says to the Canaanite woman, who only wants her daughter to be healed, we cringe. She begs Jesus for the very mercy he’s been preaching and, at first, he ignores her. Then he tells her he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. Then, he calls her and her people dogs.
None of this sounds very Jesus-like. It sounds like he’s living out of the very tradition that he was preaching against just a few verses before. What comes out of a person’s mouth is what defiles them because those words proceed from the heart. It sounds like Jesus is demonstrating an incredible amount of prejudice against this woman who’s coming to him asking for mercy for herself and her daughter. She’s not an Israelite. She’s not a Jew. Yet she knows something of Jesus and his reputation as a healer. She even addresses him as “Son of David,” which has Messianic implications. She knows Jesus has come from God, and she seeks God’s mercy.
Some scholars think this is a moment when Jesus is caught with his compassion down. But what I think is happening here is a demonstration of the argument Jesus has just had: that God desires mercy not sacrifice, compassion not tradition. Of course we can’t know for sure, but I would like to think Jesus knew all along that he would heal this woman’s daughter. But first, he lists the excuses tradition would give any Jew for not showing mercy to an outsider. Tradition says the Messiah is a Jewish thing, not for other people. Tradition says the people of Israel are God’s chosen and elect, not other people. It was an idea that had become a doctrine of favoritism and exclusion in the hands of the very religious leaders who criticized Jesus. It was a doctrine that allowed people to hold contempt for non-Jews and even for Jews who were born into poverty, or born with physical maladies and ill-health.
The woman’s response is perfect. She doesn’t object to God having mercy on the chosen of Israel. On the contrary, she makes God’s mercy for Israel the very grounds of her request for mercy. “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table” (Matt. 15:27 CEB). She understands the very thing about God that Jesus has been teaching, that God is merciful. The way God acts as God toward the human race is through mercy.
When Moses asked to see God’s glorious presence, God said, “I’ll make all my goodness pass in front of you, and I’ll proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD.’ I will be kind to whomever I wish to be kind, and I will have compassion to whomever I wish to be compassionate.” (Exodus 33:19 CEB). God’s mercy extends to everyone. We Christians should know that very well because, by and large, we are not biological children of Abraham. We are God’s children by adoption because God had mercy on us. God’s mercy overflows even to people like us: the dogs of the house whom some interpreters of Jewish tradition would have excluded. That’s us, you know. We’re the dogs. (Which is one of countless reasons why white supremacists ought not think so highly of themselves).
The only claim we have, no matter who we are, is the overflowing mercy of God. When I read the last verse of this text, I can only hear amused delight in Jesus’ tone when he said, “Woman, you have great faith. It will be just as you wish” (Matthew 15:28 CEB).
One more thing to note here is that the word mercy in this text is a verb in Greek, not a noun. Mercy is something we do. It’s the compassion we show, the love we give, the kindness we offer, the charity we provide to and for others. God’s mercy is for everyone. There is no us against them. There is no limit to the mercy of God. Since we have received God’s mercy, what can we offer to others but mercy?
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!