(for the Tenth Sunday After Pentecost, August 17, 2014)
Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, ‘Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.’ Then the disciples approached and said to him, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees took offence when they heard what you said?’ He answered, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.’ But Peter said to him, ‘Explain this parable to us.’ Then he said, ‘Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.’
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 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.’ 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.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15:10-28, NRSV).
It is a confronting reality: that which defiles comes from within. How much safer and comfortable a philosophy that settles for exterior compliance to lists of religious dos and don’ts. One could avoid the human heart altogether!
Jesus teaching is hard to hear. To source the world’s problems exclusively beyond oneself keeps them in systems and others. The finger can then be pointed, sin-sources clearly identified. Where necessary they can even be eliminated.
If only this uncleanness, this defilement, were so simple.
Matters of the heart, however, are infinitely more complicated. As Jesus said ‘…out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.’
But are we really just wells of woe?
Perhaps not. Yes, these horrors come from deep within. Deeper, perhaps, than we can ever imagine.
But so do nobler calls…
The phrase ‘district of Tyre and Sidon’ and the designation ‘Canaanite’ place the next account firmly in gentile territory. Even here Jesus has a reputation as a exorcist. This long-suffering mother asks only for ‘mercy’. Repeatedly. The disciples urge Jesus to use a firm hand. Why put up with her? Why ignore rather than dismiss?
The designation ‘dogs’ – especially after describing Israel as ‘sheep’ – could easily offend this pleading mother. She has, however, a greater cause than defending pride: her daughter is ‘tormented by a demon’. Evil from outside?
She replies wonderfully well to Jesus rudeness: ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’
And Jesus sees that which he finds irresistible: faith. He is turned by it. He sees and commends her. He heals. I can’t help wondering if he glimpses something of a good – and breaking – heart. A heart for another.
Yes, we are complex wells indeed! We bring forth more than just evil. There are still moments when we echo the goodness of the God whose image we bear.
It leaves me with a burning – perhaps irreverent – question: Could it be that Jesus learned from this memorable encounter?
Matthew asks us to hold these two stories together. Perhaps we could conclude that the human heart is more evil that we can possibly admit and still we are more loved by God than we can possibly imagine.
Faith is simply coming before Jesus holding to both realities.