Step to the Edge

by | Aug 20, 2023 | Sermons

Step to the Edge

Scripture: Matthew 15: 10-28

The Pharisees are concerned with issues of ritual purity and cleanliness. Don’t eat with dirty hands as it will defile you. Jesus is concerned with the words that come out of our mouths, as these words come from our hearts and if they are rotten they will defile you. You can understand where both sides are coming from.

I don’t know a parent who hasn’t told their kid to go wash their hands. And while ritual purity has religious significance we can understand and perhaps even appreciate the reasons for it.

I also don’t know a parent, when upon hearing something inappropriate coming out of their child’s mouth hasn’t made an issue of it.

Jesus isn’t arguing against the need for ritual purity in having clean hands, however he is arguing strongly in favour of being pure in thought and in words. Of being aware that words, language, has meaning and can cause harm. And it is this defilement that is of principle concern to God.

And then Matthew tells us, that Jesus, having travelled to a new place, refers to a Canaanite woman as a dog. We struggle with this passage and we should. Jesus has just told us something about how we behave and has behaved the opposite way, perhaps revealing his humanity. As modern readers we struggle with the behaviour of Jesus and we develop ideas as to why he behaved this way.

But what are the questions we are asking of Matthew and his community? Why do these two stories go together? What is the underlying message?

In his commentary on this passage Richard Ward asks the following of this passage, specifically about the part where Jesus is less than nice, he writes, “This scene is admittedly a hard one to preach. One may want to get Jesus off the hook and preserve the generic “good guy” Jesus that drifts through tradition, even though this tradition is breaking open right before our eyes. This is who Matthew saw Jesus as being. He has been sent to the house of Israel to be the authoritative interpreter of tradition. The question is this: is Jesus, as the child of and bearer of traditional thought forms, capable of receiving “new wine” as the “new Moses” in his encounter with the “other”?” (Richard Ward –

As I’ve mentioned in previous weeks, Matthew is the most Hebrew of the gospels. When reading through Matthew you can trace a narrative that mirrors that of Moses. This is the interpretation that Matthew is bringing to his community about Jesus. Can Jesus now eat his own words about defilement and see something new?

This is where these two passages meet and why Matthew has put them together. He is demonstrating something to us about Jesus, about growth, and the possibility that others understand our faith better than we do.

The tension occurs in the story as the woman, who is an outsider to Jesus and the disciples, addresses Jesus as Lord and Son of David. However, this isn’t enough to sway Jesus. It’s when she utters the line about crumbs from the table that Jesus sees her faith. She is hungry and willing to eat from the floor, food that is unclean, in order to learn about God. Do you see what Matthew is doing here?

  • The Pharisees state that eating with unclean hands defiles.
  • Jesus says defilement occurs with what we say.
  • Jesus then says something which defiles him.
  • The Canaanite woman eats from the floor.

Only then does Jesus proclaim that her faith is great. His eyes are opened because of her graciousness and perseverance to know God.

This is a passage that starts out on the margins in every sense, however as we progress through it we find ourselves closer to the centre. Again, Matthew sets us up. I don’t know how good your biblical geography is or when the last time you opened your bible up and looked at the maps, but the district of Tyre and Sidon is on the outskirts, it’s close the wilderness. Jewish or Hebrew influence isn’t strong, and you have a mixture of cultures. We might say that Jesus is now in foreign territory.

I suspect that this was a situation that Matthew’s congregation was beginning to experience. People from the outside were coming in and traditions were starting to be challenged. And Matthew recalls a passage about how Jesus was similarly challenged and recognized faith in someone who didn’t look exactly like him. There is something to be said for standing on the margins of any event. Whether it’s the high school dance, a social group, or society.

In her book Holy Envy, Barbara Brown Taylor describes something called ‘the edge of the inside’. It’s a concept she borrows from Richard Rohr, an individual I often go to for wisdom. She writes, “When you live on the edge of anything with respect and honour … you are in a very auspicious and advantageous position. You are free of its central seductions, but also free to hear its core message in very new and creative ways.” (Taylor, Barabara Brown, Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others, 2019, p. 217).

I believe that this is what we are being encouraged to do through our gospel lesson this morning. To step back from the centre, find ourselves on the edge and then look back in. And here is something scary, while you are at the edge peer over the wall to the place you are afraid to go. Then ask yourself the question: “are you on the outer edge of the inside or the inner edge of the outside?” (ibid. p. 223).

This passage asks us to give our own traditions and assumption a good shake. Why do we keep our traditions, is it for our own sake and identity? Who or what do they serve? Do we maintain them because we’ve never known something different? Are we willing to cast our traditions and assumptions aside or modify them for the sake of the stranger or the other?

What do we risk when we let go of traditions and assumptions?

What do we risk when we hold on to them tightly?

Matthew shows us a Jesus who redefines tradition and law. Then Matthew takes it a step further and provides us with a Jesus who recognizes the faith of a stranger. Sees this woman’s faith as strong, valid, and worthy of praise. It is the woman’s faith, not an act of healing by Jesus, which makes her daughter well. But Jesus can only see this when he casts aside his own traditions and assumptions, something that the encounter with this woman forces him to do. Jesus can only see clearly when he leaves the centre and travels to the edge. Only then can he look back and have clarity. Only then can we see the core of our message in new ways, there is risk involved. However, there is also risk with staying at the centre.

What are the risks of staying at the centre? The memory of what was. Institutional power, the lure of Christendom, nostalgia over full Sunday School classrooms, full sanctuaries, recognizable worship, and familiar refrains. Complacency is the risk.

From the edges the Canaanite woman pleads her case to Jesus. Through the scraps she has been fed she has seen a vision of God’s kingdom and in her demonstration of faith she shares that vision with Jesus. She breaks down the boundaries of her day, gender and ethnicity, religious tradition and prejudice.

What is the risk of moving to the edge and casting your glance about? An awareness of new possibility in God. 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.

St. Andrew’s supports the gathering of community agencies, providing space for the Affordable Housing Committee. Rev. Ellis’ voice is key in advocating for improvements in awareness, empathy and action on key determinants such as housing, income and food security. 

Kristina Nairn

Public Health Nurse, HKPR Health Unit

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