Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “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.” Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “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.”
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Scripture teaches us repeatedly about the power of words. It begins at the beginning, in Genesis. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. The God said, ‘Let there be light.’” God’s word birthed the whole world. John refers to Jesus as the living Word. The beginning of his gospel echoes the creation story. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” Words reflect an inner intention. They are powerful.
Lawyers, poets, and therapists understand the power of words. Children do, too, when they are injured by things that are said to them. Adults teach them the old mantra, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But children are wise, and they know a hurtful intent when they feel it.
This is what Jesus was trying to teach the crowd gathered around him that day. Words have power. It isn’t what a person puts into their mouth that defiles. It’s what comes out of their mouth. For that proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. Words and actions show when our hearts are defiled. We’ve heard many words this week that have defiled. White nationalists in Charlottesville protested using anti-Semitic and Nazi chants. Evil intentions resulted in violence and murder. These are what defile. Are we without understanding? Words are powerful.
I get why Jesus would have withdrawn after trying to teach this to people who didn’t, or wouldn’t, understand. I imagine he was pleased to leave that place and get away. Maybe he was emotionally tired as headed into the Gentile district of Tyre and Sidon. It was there that he met a remarkable woman, whose heart and words changed him. She was a descendent of Canaanites – the ancient enemies of the Israel. Matthew doesn’t give her a name, but some early Christian writings call her Justa. She begins the conversation by recognizing Jesus’s kingship, referring to him by his Jewish title, Son of David. She asks him to heal her daughter, who’s possessed by a demon. She must have heard rumors about Jesus the healer and exorcist.
Jesus, rather surprisingly, responds to her request with silence. He ignores her. It seems Jesus was having a bad day. As she continues to call out to him and his disciples, they finally beg Jesus to deal with her, not by giving her what she needs, but by sending her away. We are left to wonder, why didn’t Jesus do what she asked? He had healed foreigners before. When he finally does respond to her, we get our answer. He says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” It isn’t clear if he said this directly to her, or to his disciples. But his message is clear. Jesus sees his ministry as limited to the Jewish people. He is the fulfillment of Hebrew scripture, and this doesn’t have anything to do with the Canaanites. Can Jesus, after all, really be expected to heal anyone who needs it? Where are you going to draw the line? You have to draw it somewhere. Jesus declares that the line is drawn around God’s covenant people, the Jews.
Somehow, in her need, determination, and love for her daughter, Justa understands the kingdom of heaven differently. She isn’t afraid to argue with Jesus, because she has faith that he can help her. This time, rather than calling out from a distance, Justa runs to Jesus and drops down on her knees in front of him. She uses words that echo the Jewish psalms of lament, and cries, “Lord, help me!”
This mother has done everything she could up to this point. She addressed Jesus as both Lord, and Son of David. She stated her need – her daughter is severely possessed by a demon. She begged for mercy, saying “Lord, help me!” And still, Jesus hasn’t relented. And so we get to the most difficult part of today’s gospel. Jesus, whom we love, has a very human moment. He says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Oooch. That stings.
Many Bible commentaries spend a lot of time on these words. The authors are invariably trying to find ways to explain Jesus’s words that will soften what he said. But he said it. The children he refers to are the children of Israel. The Canaanites, the Gentiles, are dogs. I wonder what was going through Jesus’s heart in that moment. Was he tired? Frustrated? Dispirited? Maybe he was worried about the future of his own ministry and his own people.
The gospel doesn’t tell us. But it does tell us about Justa. She humbles herself, and agrees with Jesus. But she does challenge part of his conclusion. She says, “Yes, Lord. Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Justa had faith in God’s abundance and mercy, even when Jesus was at his lowest. Words are powerful, and reflect what’s in the heart. In Justa’s heart, the kingdom of God is abundance. God is worthy of faith and trust. There’s enough bread for the children, as well as the dogs. She invites herself to the master’s table to share in God’s abounding grace and provision.
In that moment, with her words, Justa caused a transformation in Jesus, perhaps even a re-centering of his relationship with God. His heart is softened by her persistent faith. Justa is the only person in the gospels who has ever bested Jesus in a theological argument. Her words helped Jesus understand his vocation and call in a new way. Through her faith and persistence, Justa the Canaanite woman, the outsider, helped Jesus see that God’s mission in the world doesn’t stop with the children of Israel. The answer to the question, “Where are you going to draw the line?” becomes, “There is no line.” God’s grace and mercy are abundant, and available to all people who ask in faith. Jesus didn’t only come for the Children of Israel. He came for all of us.
Jesus heaps praise on Justa, and calls her a woman of great faith. He immediately tends to her daughter. From a distance, without holding her hand, lifting her from her sick bed, or directly confronting the demon that possessed her, Jesus spoke words of healing for Justa’s daughter, and cast the evil out of her life.
Jesus was changed by Justa’s words, which showed the faith in her heart. What we choose to do with our own words is also powerful, and shows what’s in our own hearts. What do our words and actions say about our faith and our relationship to God? Do we choose to stand silent when outsiders are faced with evil in their lives? Do we respond to the needs of others by choosing words that demean, so that we can dismiss them? Do our words heal?
There will be a lot of words spoken in the next few weeks, about Barcelona, Charlottesville, and the Civil War monuments in and around Richmond. I am sure we will all have our human moments, like Jesus did, where we feel our own limitations or frustrations. But we may also have opportunities to listen carefully to people whose views differ from our own. Maybe will be transformed. Perhaps we may even see our own call and mission in the world in a new way.
Religion is often seen as something that separates people… something that divides. But I don’t believe it needs to be that way. The life of faith is one of grace, abundance, mercy, and love. We know how to work together for the glory of God’s kingdom, even though we have our differences. As Americans, we have freedom of speech, because, thank God, America doesn’t have a king. But Christians do. May he live in our hearts, and be shown through our words.
Kristin Wickersham - August 20, 2017
Pentecost 11 Sermon, 2017
From Series: "Sermon"
Sermon delivered at the worship service for St. James's Episcopal Church in Richmond, VA