Scripture: Matthew 15:10-28
Finish this sentence: “sticks and stones may break my bones…(but words will never hurt me).” It’s such a false statement. Words can hurt! It’s a sentence many of us learned on the playground in elementary school - as a way of fending off whatever ridiculousness is being thrown around.
That phrase and today’s Scripture remind me of how we need to be careful with our words - that they match the intentions of our heart. It’s how we communicate what is inside of us to the rest of the world.
Today’s verses remind me of that and they challenge me - big time. They challenge me and should challenge all of us in how we interpret Jesus’ words and actions.
We seemingly have two very different selections...and, yet, they overlap because they’re talking about the life of Jesus.
Starting with the first half of verses 10-20, we have Jesus instructing his disciples on how what comes out of our mouths - our words - show what is in our hearts. It is what is in our hearts that makes us “clean or unclean.” Remember that this was a culture steeped in Jewish law - that law included many rituals on what made a person “clean” and, thus, worthy and ready of worshipping God. The people Jesus was talking to were the people who followed strict instructions - laws concerning food, circumcision, prayers, etc.
Jesus blew them out of the water by saying “listen, it isn’t these laws now that will make you clean or unclean. It is what is in your heart that matters.”
We know this basic rule, right? That our actions and words on the outside tell others what is in our inside. Some of us, simply due to personality types, are much more selective with our words than others and try very hard to match the words with what’s on the inside. For other personality types, for those who tend to just blurt out whatever comes to mind, it can often get them in trouble - and I’m sure you either know that pain personally or someone in your life who it relates to.
But, essentially, we should know that it is what is in our hearts that matters much more than the rituals we adhere to. For example, at Lynnhaven Colony, we practice infant baptism - giving thanks to God for children added to families and pledging support for them as they grow in their faith. However, if you were not baptized as an infant, we aren’t going to hold that absence of a ritual against you. If you wanted, we would do an adult baptism (just without the carrying of the newly baptized up and down the aisle afterward).
It is easy to distance ourselves from the Jewish people because we don’t have a set of written “purity laws” you must follow in order to worship with us. However, before we excuse ourselves too much, we must admit that we have our unwritten social “purity” laws. If not mindful of ourselves, we can fall into thinking that people must adhere to certain socially-accepted behaviors in order to be welcomed into the faith community.
For example, if not careful, church communities can imply that people have to dress a certain way for Sunday mornings. Not here, friends. It is fine that some of you come in 3-piece suits and some arrive in shorts. What matters is that you come with a heart to worship our loving God. Especially in quarantimes, as we gather in the courtyard, I would discourage a 3-piece suit as it is warm out here!
It only matters what is in the heart.
I love knowing that what matters is our heart’s intention and what comes forth from us, not what we eat or what ritual we follow...and then looking at the story of the Canaanite woman. If you look at her words and actions toward Jesus, you can see what is in her heart. She shouts at Jesus, anticipating his mercy and healing powers, and in those shouts you hear her heart.
She has an intense love for her daughter, she has humility, she has assertiveness (not aggression - but definite assertiveness and persistence), she has wisdom, and she has a knowledge of who Jesus is and a desire to praise him. What a beautiful heart.
Mitzi J. Smith, a writer for workingpreacher.org, states, “Never underestimate the power of a persistent woman and the God in whom she believes.” What this Canaanite woman had in her heart, coupled with her faith and God’s healing power, resulted in the healing of her daughter.
This isn’t an exact formula ... our faith in God plus simply naming what we want does not equal we will immediately receive it. God is not a bubble gum machine (put two prayers in, get one miracle out). Let’s not travel too far down the slippery slope of naming out loud all of our worldly desires and expecting God to fulfill our wish list.
However, there is much to be said about being persistent in the faith we have within us. There is much power in partnering with God to whole-heartedly believe that good and wonderful things can and will happen in this world. The Canaanite woman is an example of this.
Her words showed what was in her heart and it was beautiful.
So, we know that our words are what make us “clean.” And we know that the Canaanite woman’s words showed what was in her heart. Now, the tricky part. Let’s look at what comes out of Jesus’ mouth, particularly in the second half of our reading.
The often accepted reading of this verse is that Jesus was using a rhetorical statement to test the woman’s faith. When dealing with this difficult passage in the past, I have heard preachers and read articles which make an assumption that Jesus would never discriminate against a person from a non-Jewish background - because, of course, Jesus is God and perfect and should be all-knowing.
Keep in mind that the Canaanite woman is a Gentile - she is a non-Jewish woman. In that culture, that was two strikes against her - not Jewish and not male. For Jesus to even talk to her is a big deal in that culture. The often accepted reading of this verse praises Jesus for simply talking to her and then using her to teach a lesson. It definitely puts Jesus in the position of being “right.”
But what if Jesus was sincere in his initial reaction towards the woman?
What if Jesus essentially said to her “I was sent to the children of Israel, the Jews - and you are not a Jew, and therefore you are not worthy of the ministry I have to offer. You are like a dog begging at the dinner table to eat the food intended for the children. Move along?”
What if Jesus wasn’t using a rhetorical statement? What if Jesus actually intended to dismiss the woman at first? What if the words that came out of his mouth truly showed what was in his heart? What would that mean for our faith in Jesus - could that mean that Jesus’ human side was showing through at this moment? Could that mean that Jesus, like the rest of us, had to learn how to employ the compassion that was in his heart and learn from this woman?
It’s easier to assume Jesus always intended to help the woman, but was simply testing her. That exempts Jesus from trying to dismiss a non-Jewish woman. That exempts Jesus from showing extreme cultural bias.
However, there is beauty in interpreting this Scripture with Jesus actually intending to dismiss the non-Jewish woman. It is that we see Jesus change his response; we see Jesus set an example of growing and maturing. We see Jesus recognizing that he had a learned cultural bias and we see him learning to move beyond that racism.
Note that after the woman stood her ground to Jesus, that he then spoke gently to the woman, changed his attitude in response, and healed her daughter. His view of the woman changed from a beggar on the sidelines at mealtime to a person.
As Christ-followers, we proclaim to follow his example of justice and mercy and love….Can we also proclaim to follow his example in reflecting on our own biases and growing? Can we humbly admit that, while we have good hearts and good intentions, we sometimes miss the mark with our words and can learn to do better?
Hebrews 4:15 states “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” Jesus understands that sometimes we are dealt a certain hand of cards - we are taught biases - racism, sexism, ableism - growing up depending on where we lived - AND we can learn to move beyond those ideas if they are not inclusive of God’s love towards everyone.
In Jesus’ heart, he had compassion and mercy and, of course, a desire to do God’s will. This story shows us that he had to learn how to best employ what was in his heart in order to do God’s will. In doing so, Jesus healed the woman’s daughter of what was plaguing her.
May our hearts have as much love in them so that it spills forth in our words, in our actions, in our growth, in our maturity. Amen.