Matthew 15: 1-28
Good morning. Our long gospel reading is from Matthew 15 has three closely related sections--but for context I want to back up for a moment to remember even a bit more, that at the beginning of the 14th chapter Matthew described the death of John the Baptist, his arrest, imprisonment, and beheading at the behest of Herodias, the controversial wife of King Herod, scandalously the former wife of Herod’s brother, and Herodias’s famous daughter Salome, who danced so seductively at her step-father’s banquet. The news of John’s death exploded like a bombshell across the world of Jerusalem and Judea. John was a headline character in the social and religious and political world of Roman Palestine and beyond, with a large, passionately loyal following.
One of the immediate consequences of John’s execution was that John’s followers began to turn to Jesus in great numbers. Larger crowds began to gather around him, filled with the same kinds of anti-establishment, revolutionary expectations that had been stirred up by John, and as that was happening Jesus suddenly appeared as a bright flashing light on the radar of the authorities. John had been a huge problem for them as he led this revivalist, “Back to the Bible” movement among the common people and attacked the Jewish leaders for their secularizing and accommodationist practices. And now they have this Jesus to deal with. No longer just a marginal, unschooled but charismatic rabbi from the hinterlands. Someone who with all these new followers seems to pose at least potentially a new threat.
So that’s context as we roll into chapter 15 (see page xx of your leaflet), and the first part of our reading. Jesus has been preaching to these growing crowds and demonstrating spiritual power with healings and other miraculous works. The wave is building. And now a party of religious officials, Scribes and Pharisees, priests and rabbis, representing the Jewish religious and we might say political establishment, travel with urgency from Jerusalem to the Galilee. Their strategy is to confront Jesus in public about his reputation as someone who disregards traditional religious practice. They hope to discredit him in front of these devout John the Baptist followers, to show that he’s not someone observant Jews should be tempted to follow. But Jesus pushes right back, very much in John the Baptist fashion, quickly turning the tables, accusing them in turn of being not so much experts in the sacred Law, as their titles and offices would suggest, but as experts instead we might say in loopholes in the Law. Calling them out in front of the crowd and shaming them just as they had tried to shame him, accusing them with the clear implication that they personally have abused their offices, their sacred responsibilities, and have enriched themselves and gained power and prestige while maintaining only a façade of piety. Jesus calls these officials “Hypocrites,” –a hot word, and that will certainly set the crowd buzzing and be perfect for the headline in the tomorrow’s newspaper-- and he turns the Bible right back on them as he says in verse 7, “well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.’” If things were moving toward a crisis before, now even more. And this word from Isaiah becomes the template for understanding what comes next.
At that point, in verse 10 of chapter 15, Matthew shifts to a new paragraph, the second section of today’s reading. The Jerusalem officials hurry back to the city to plan their next move. They had wanted to nip this Jesus thing in the bud, but their confrontation has had exactly the opposite result. As they scuttle away Jesus addresses the crowd with this pointed line: “It’s not what goes into the mouth of a man that defiles a man, but what comes out.” Jesus isn’t arguing against faithful observance of the Law, in this case the Biblical dietary laws that his critics have just accused him of flagrantly disobeying, but his saying is certainly intended to contrast the outward observance of the kind of formal public show of obedience associated with these Scribes and Pharisees, with the wholesome and pure and truly sincere character of a holy life. True and meaningful obedience, authentic faithfulness to God, isn’t simply a matter of outward rule-keeping, but is instead what comes from within, from your heart, with all your heart, use the word Jesus quoted from Isaiah. Obedience to God’s Law is the language of love spoken by God’s chosen and redeemed people, as they learn to grow in grace, in a spirit of humility, and with a sincere desire to live life in a godly way. It’s not about scoring “holiness points” in some kind of political contest. “These so-called religious leaders and all their public posturing--they may make a big deal of declining even a taste of a meal if it hasn’t been prepared in a kosher kitchen--but when it comes to, say, and I love this list-- “evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander” – well, you can read about the latest episode in the Jerusalem Inquirer any day of the week. Look at how they rationalized Herod’s marriage to Herodias. Look at how they remained silent when John was arrested. They follow God’s Law when it suits their purposes, but when it doesn’t they’re nowhere to be found. They stand up front and lead the prayers with loud voices in church on Sunday morning, but when Monday comes the costumes come off, and we see for ourselves who they really are. Quite a moment. John the Baptist and his followers would have been shouting “drain the swamp,” and here Jesus doesn’t seem to be too far behind . . . . Just to get a hint of the gathering storm.
So we get the idea of this contrast of ideas, the establishment authorities with an emphasis on external conformity and rule-keeping, and Jesus on the other hand calling out the hypocrisy of this kind of formalism and lifting up a vision of a more authentic foundation for faithful life, an obedience that begins in the heart. And the table is set for the third section of the reading today in verses 21-28 for this very familiar story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman. A case study on what that true, heart-centered obedience looks like.
Jesus and his disciples leave the Galilee and head out into the Gentile territory of the north. They cross the modern border into Lebanon and pass by this out of the way village, and of all people, a foreigner, a Gentile woman, immediately rushes out to greet him. That she is called a Canaanite is especially noteworthy—it really sticks out--the only time in the New Testament that the term is used. Not just any old generic kind of gentile. The Canaanites--the ancient people, worshippers of Ba’al the sky god and Astarte the goddess of fertility, in fact from the very beginning the entrenched enemies of Israel’s God, those Canaanites displaced by the Israelites back in the days of Joshua and the Conquest in a long war that evolved not just over years but generations, as God’s Chosen People came into possession of the Promised Land. Just to say, in the greater story of Holy Scripture, this lady is as much of an outsider as you can get.
This Canaanite woman has apparently heard something about this Jewish teacher and holy man and his remarkable powers to heal and to cast out demons--and so when she discovers that he’s passing through town she is herself we might say suddenly “possessed” with an unexpected urgency. She leaves her home and rushes out to Jesus in the street with her appeal, an appeal from the heart, we would say, to echo the Isaiah language Jesus quoted earlier--that he would bring spiritual healing to her daughter, who has been possessed by an evil spirit and is being tormented to the point of death. As his disciples look on, Jesus builds on what we might call a “teachable moment.” Again, a case study, and what a contrast with those Scribes and Pharisees we just read about, who would hardly think of her as a human being. He draws out with emphasis just how outside the world of those Scribes and Pharisees the woman is. Not an observer of the Law, not a part of Israel’s chosen race. She’s not “kosher.” The complete opposite. The daughter of an ancient enemy. She can make no claim of any right even to speak to him, or certainly to receive the gift that she is asking for. Jesus even tests her on the point: what makes you think you can speak with me? What have you done that gives you that right?
In this moment of her greatest need, without an ounce of pride or sense of entitlement, this Canaanite woman, without hesitation or reservation, places herself entirely in the hands of Jesus. She doesn’t tell Jesus that he should do what she asks because she has kept all the rules in the past or that she will in the future. She doesn’t bargain with him. She doesn’t renounce her heritage or promise to go through the formal rituals of conversion to Judaism, to go to synagogue every Saturday or to pay offerings to the Jerusalem Temple or to volunteer at the homeless shelter or to avoid shellfish, pork, and cheeseburgers from now on. Those are the strategies of the Scribes and Pharisees. She just kneels at his feet. Lord, help me. She lets go of the trapeze in full awareness that there is no net below. Only Jesus. She depends in this moment entirely on his mercy, on his generosity, on Jesus only. He is her one hope. And it is in that hope, in her faith, and not somehow in her reputation or her ancestry or her past life experience or her public worship or her good works, that the blessing and mercy and healing that Jesus has for her becomes a reality. How does she know that? How does she know to trust him? How do any of us ever know that? The Law of God written not simply in the pages of a book, but as the Holy Spirit has written in her heart. And then the dramatic words of power: “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Those establishment officials, who you might say from a religious point of view had everything going for them, went back to Jerusalem turned in on themselves with that strange mix of arrogance and self-centered insecurity that would lead them before long directly to Holy Week--and to commit the greatest crime and offense against God and against humanity that the world has ever known.
The Canaanite woman—we never hear her name, but we know beyond the shadow of a doubt that that name has been written for all eternity in the Book of Life. And we know that every time she hears her daughter’s laughter as she plays with her friends out on the front porch—every time she passes that spot in the road just outside the village, where she met Jesus, she will remember him. And there will be worship as true as any worship in the Temple in Jerusalem or in any soaring cathedral.
Will she on any morning for the rest of her life wake up and see the first light and know anything but gratitude and love? Her heart will be in it, without any hesitation. All her life will be thanksgiving, all her life from now on, in the knowledge of the Lord. Which is all he truly wants from any of us. (That’s the personal application of this morning’s reading. The word for us, all these centuries later.) She’s the role model Jesus is pointing to. She’s the key to the gospel message. Her faith. True, authentic, from the heart. She, who at the critical moment of her life had no cards to play, had nothing to say for herself. She, who was so far as any outward measure could determine as far beyond the frame of the sacred Covenant as you could get, a stranger to God’s people--she turned to Jesus and knelt at his feet and held on for dear life, knowing him as the one who had first known and called her, trusting in that moment only in him-- and for her there was and would be forever, because of that, life and grace and joy and blessing.