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Sermon: "Offence or Faith?"


St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Genesis 45.1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11.1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:10-28

Today’s gospel sets forth an interesting contrast. In the first few verses of Matthew 15, the scribes and the Pharisees, the social elite of the Israelites, come to Jesus and ask: “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat?” (Matthew 15.1-2; NRSV). Jesus meets their question with a question: “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that whoever tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ then that person need not honor the father. So for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites!” (Matthew 15.3-6; NRSV). Ouch! That stung! But Jesus did not stop there; he added: “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines,” (Matthew 15.7-9; NRSV).

Jesus chose to use this situation as a teachable moment, for he called the crowd about him, and said, “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” (Matthew 15.10-11; NRSV).

The disciples then asked Jesus if he knew the scribes and Pharisees were offended with what he said? Yes, Jesus knew! I suspect this was the disciples’ way of indicating they would like to discuss this matter. Jesus responded by saying, “Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit” (Matthew 15.14; NRSV). Peter then asked Jesus to explain the parable for them. Jesus, I suspect with a sigh indicating a bit of frustration, replied: “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” (Matthew 15.16-20; NRSV).

Here we have the material for a great Calvin and Hobbes cartoon. It’s mealtime. Calvin comes in dirty as sin. The food is on the table. Just as Calvin is ready to dig in, his mother says, “Calvin, wash your hands!” Calvin replies, “To eat without unwashed hands does not defile!” I wish I had known that verse when I was a child!

The scribes and the Pharisees were offended! Now Matthew contrasts this story with the faith of a Canaanite woman! The Canaanites were the ancient enemies of the Israelites; these are the people Joshua was commanded to subdue and eliminate when the Israelites entered the Promised Land twelve centuries earlier.

In the first of Moses’ farewell speeches in Deuteronomy, we read, “When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you— and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy” (7.1-2; NRSV). The enmity between the Canaanites and the Israelites still existed – the Jews called the Canaanites “dogs” and I am sure the slur was returned.

When the disciples had traveled into Canaanite territory surrounding Tyre and Sidon, they were met by a Canaanite woman who persistently shouted, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” Her pleas fell on Jesus’ deaf ears – he ignored her. The disciples urged him to send her away, to dismiss her – “Get her out of here; she keeps shouting after us!” Jesus told the disciples, and I suspect the Canaanite woman also heard it, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Remember, when Jesus sent the disciples out in pairs, they were only to minister to the lost sheep of Israel.

The Canaanite woman, humbly knelt before Jesus, and said, “Lord, help me.” We might expect that Jesus would show mercy at this point, but no, he answered: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus just called this woman a dog! Did you catch that! Note how she responded: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” One commentator noted the words used by the Canaanite woman for “dogs” is the diminutive – thus, she would have said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the puppies eat the crumbs that fall from the masters’ table.”

What great riposte! No other response directed toward Jesus recorded in the gospels beats this one! Riposte was, and still is, treasured in Mideastern culture. Let’s face it – we all love a good comeback! One frequently hears, “Oh, I wish I had said that!”

Jesus was favorably impressed! He answered her comeback, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” (Matthew 15.21-28; NRSV). Matthew further tells us her daughter was healed instantly.

Matthew has contrasted begrudging scribes and Pharisees who took offense with a Canaanite woman who recognized Jesus for who he was and humbled herself before him.

We can learn a few things from this gospel reading.

First, although the Canaanites suffered a history at the hands of the Israelites in which they were shown no mercy, Jesus ultimately came to the place where he granted this Canaanite woman mercy. While divinely the Son of God, Jesus was humanly subject to cultural influence. Might the Canaanite woman have helped Jesus come to the realization that his ministry was all inclusive, that we are all God’s children despite our color, national heritage, or creed? When one grows in God’s love, one ultimately comes to this realization, yet there is a lifetime of work involved in overcoming our culturally inherited prejudices and racism.

Secondly, if we are to receive God’s mercy, we must be willing to humbly kneel before God, to recognize Christ as Lord and Savior. Our humility is a confession that we no longer place our self and our desires in God’s rightful place. God responds in love and mercy.

Third, persistence pays off! Suffice it to say, even if the disciples had attempted to dismiss the Canaanite woman, their attempts would have been futile. She recognized Jesus for who he was – the Son of David, her Lord – and she was determined to bring her petition before him.

Yet there is a danger which may be associated with persistence –one may come to think if I had only prayed harder, God would have responded. If we are not careful, we can allow ourselves to get sucked into false guilt. We can be persistent in our prayers, but we must remember that Jesus also taught us to pray “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” As St. Paul reminds us, now we only know in part.

In retrospect, we should thank God for not granting some of our earlier petitions. God knows better than we do what was in our best interest. When we acknowledge that in brokenness and humility, God blesses us.

Matthew’s gospel confronts us with a question and a choice – will we take offense, or will we exercise faith?


Worship, love, Christ
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