What Concerns God

by | Aug 16, 2020 | Sermons

What Concerns God

Our passage from Matthew’s gospel covers a few topics and at first glance does not appear to related. However, when we dig a little deeper we find that there is a connection and it tells us something rather profound, yet beautifully simple, about God. 

Scripture: Psalm 67 and Matthew 15: 10-28

Matthew gives us a wonderful story in his gospel this week. Jesus has been teaching and some Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem arrive and ask why the disciples “don’t wash their hands before they eat?” (Matt 15: 3-4). This leads to a bit of a back and forth before our passage today begins at verse 10. There Jesus talks about mouths and what defiles a person. It’s all very strange, before Jesus suddenly gets up and travels to Tyre and Sidon.

Now these are two places that Matthews original audience would have known were spiritual wastelands. So why is Jesus travelling here and why is this strange encounter with a Canaanite woman included in the gospel? Was Jesus really wrong about his ministry, did he truly not understand what his mission was and did a woman really teach him something?

Now, in our day and age being taught something by an individual of a different gender or ethnicity isn’t shocking, it’s common place. However, at the time that the gospels were written, society was patriarchal, and this would have been taboo. There is considerable scholarly debate on this passage about whether Jesus learned something new that day. Whether Jesus was born fully formed and full of knowledge or whether he learned to read at his mother’s side. Taking another view on this debate Mitzi Smith writes, “Too often we cannot or refuse to empathize with people whose experience is different from our own. If the oppression, injustice, or pain is not happening in our house and neighborhood or does not impact our race, gender, class, or sexuality, then we dismiss it as unwelcomed, unjustified noise. Jesus’ response to the apostles’ urging to send the Canaanite woman away seems to affirm their desire to dismiss her: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24, NRSV). The fact that her people’s blood runs through his veins and that his people’s blood runs through her veins does not move Jesus! If our common humanity, our relatedness, does not move us, what will? (Mitzi Smith)

Smith raises the question not only of did Jesus learn something about his mission, but did his understanding of how wide and far God’s love was to extend change? One thing we need to remember is this is not the first time Jesus has met with a woman and had a dynamic and transformative conversation.

It may be that Matthew is trying to teach us more than we realize through this passage and that we need to link up the two elements of the passage to see what is happening here.

I believe the two stories we have today are connected, consider the following:

  • In verse 10 Jesus says, “What a person eats doesn’t defile them” (a focus on eating)
    • Then in verse 11 Jesus says, “What comes out of a mouth defiles” (what we say)
      • Then in verses 18-20 Jesus indicates that, ‘What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, our evil and hurtful intentions, these defile but not eating with unwashed hands.’
    • In verse 22 the Canaanite woman arrives and she shouts at Jesus asking for healing. The woman asks for healing. Jesus replies, “I’ve only been sent to the lost sheep of Israel.” (speak)
  • The woman says, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall” v 27 (eat)

We have a movement of eating, speaking, clarification on how words from the heart can defile, speaking and we finish by eating. The teaching of Jesus on what defiles is directly related to the Canaanite Woman’s faith. What comes out of her mouth is clean and pure, she professes faith, she is willing to eat at God’s table.

This isn’t a passage about washing hands, words spoken or scraps of food picked up. This is a passage about understanding where our spiritual food comes from and it is found at God’s table. The Canaanite woman knew this and she demonstrated it. She persisted. She persisted.

This passage isn’t a question of her belief, but of her will.

What we see demonstrated in this passage from the words of the Jesus to the Pharisees all through the dialogue with the Canaanite woman is that it is about how we live out God’s will. The Canaanite woman would rather eat scraps than feast at a table where God’s righteousness isn’t present.

Part of my daily devotionals right now include readings from the Center for Action and Contemplation. The current theme is on ‘The Cosmic Order.’ This is defined as the movement from Order to Disorder to Reordering. In terms of our Christian faith we might view this as the Life, Death and Resurrection of Christ. The first week has been devoted to the subject of Order and a passage from one of the devotionals seemed helpful in understanding today’s passage. It reads:

“I wish more of us understood and accepted the “laws of the universe,” which include disruption, dynamism and evolution, instead of clinging so tightly to the “law and order” of church and country. Jesus himself indicated that “heavenly” and “human” laws are not on equal footing. He refused to enforce or even bother with what he considered secondary issues like ritual laws, purity codes, and membership requirements. He regarded them as human commandments, which far too often took the place of love (see Matthew 15:3, 6?9).” (CAC Devotional).

The verses referenced are the setup to our Lectionary passage today where the Pharisees question the disciples about hand washing. Jesus makes it clear, it isn’t these small boring, pedantic rules that matter. These are human issues, God is much more concerned about what is in your heart and how you demonstrate this. Matthew in his gospel, demonstrates this by showing Jesus to be in the wrong about God’s love. An outsider is used to demonstrate the breadth and width of the kingdom of God.

Commentator Frederick Dale Bruner allows that Jesus maybe really did learn something through this Canaanite woman, but what is vital to see is that Jesus’ heart did not change from stingy to loving. Jesus was always loving. It was more a matter of priorities that got shuffled around. Matthew wants us to see that even though we may think we know exactly what (and who) needs to come first in our ministries, the main thing is to remain open to the people God sends our way. We, too, may think that when it comes to “first things first,” taking care of in-house folks has a higher profile than reaching out to the community. But if we, like the Lord Jesus, are going to be open to God’s Spirit, then we need to be willing to change everything if that’s what it takes to be loving toward everyone we meet. (Scott Hoezee)

Let me put it to you like this. During Covid-19 we are encouraged to wear face masks and to wash our hands. We are encouraged to wash our hands diligently. Our Health Units encourage it, government officials speak of it and the news media reports on it. Washing our hands is good and hygienic.

The question is why are we washing our hands? Is it so that we can avoid getting Covid-19?

Or, do we wash our hands for the above reason, but also because we love for and care for the people around us, our families, friends and the community that we are apart. Based on our reading today, God cares about the second of these two reasons. It doesn’t mean the first isn’t important, but the motivation behind the action matters. Not just in hand washing, but in everything that we do.

The Canaanite woman would rather eat scraps than sit at a table where perfect etiquette was required but there was no love. Traditions that are devoid of love are of no interest to God and should be of no interest to us. This passage challenges us to find the heart of love, the heart of God in everything that we do. Amen.

St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church

St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church

St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.

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