by Pastor Doug Stratton — August 16, 2020

Matthew 15: 10-28

Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”

Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?”

He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”

Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.”

“Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”

Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”

Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

CCI: As Jesus grew in this encounter, God is seeking to grow each of us when we encounter people in need.

Intro: How would you like to get into a verbal sparring match with God?

It is not unheard of:
Abraham argued with God over the destruction of Sodom (he lost)
Jacob argued with God in hopes of receiving a blessing (he won)
Gideon argued with God over his fitness to serve (he lost)

Moses argued with God over the destruction of the Hebrew People (he won)
Job argued with God over his suffering (it was almost a stalemate)
David argued with God over taking a census (he lost)
Habakuk argued with God and was driven to prayer.
Jonah argued with God over the destruction of Nineveh (he lost)
Elijah argued with God over his own death (fortunately he lost)
There is a long history of arguing with God in the scriptures. The amazing
thing is, at times the human wins and God never reacts with anger!

In the gospel story this morning, we find an argument with God. This was not a prophet, or a king, or leader. It was a Gentile, a woman, a widow, three labels that set her at the very end of the line. This woman argued with Jesus and she won. Not only did she win, but it would appear that she taught Jesus the reality of exactly what Jesus had been teaching.

Let’s look at the story in its context. Jesus was confronted by the really religious people about the behavior of his disciples. Now we have to remember something, when people committed to follow a Rabbi, their behavior reflected back on the rabbi. Apparently the disciples were behaving badly – they were not washing their hands before they ate. Now every child is taught to wash their hands, and during Covid, we need to wash our hands for 20 seconds and not touch our face. In fact, here is a little song my brother wrote for his music classes at school. (Keep Each Other Safe) but this was different. Religious people knew how to keep themselves clean in every situation. The idea that they needed to wash their hands was not about hygiene, rather it was about being ceremonially clean. You see, the Law of Moses was very concerned about ceremony. There were hundreds of ways a person could become unclean, but one of the worst things you could do is to eat food that was unclean, and food would become unclean if you had touched something that was unclean, or came from an unclean source, or was prepared in an unclean manner.

It was all very complicated, and so only the religious people could really try to remain clean. And that leads us back to the disciples, people who had committed themselves to be godly as they walked with a Rabbi. But Jesus’ disciples did not wash their hands the right way.

Jesus, though, did not become concerned about his disciples, in fact, he said, “You are all a bunch of hypocrites, you claim to be concerned with your relationship with God, but you defile everything you touch. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”

As Jesus explained this to his disciples, he reminded them that it is the heart that matters. What comes out of your mouth reveals what is in your heart. What you do reveals your values. The way you talk about people sheds light on the depth of your love.

Today we are becoming more concerned about washing hands the right way. But we also believe that what we take into ourselves, what we eat or drink, or where we were born, or how we dress, or the music we listen to, the people we love, or the version of the Bible we read, or the church we attend will either stand in the way of, or improve our worship and our relationship with God.

Instead, Jesus made it clear that it was what comes out of your mouth, what you do and how you love that matters. The food, the clothing, the drink, the music, goes in and passes through, but what we say, what we do and how we love comes from our heart. Jesus laid this out for his disciples. He was clear. And then he took a vacation. After this confrontation with the religious folks, we are told that Jesus traveled to Lebanon to the region of Tyre and Sidon, cities to the north of Galilee. It was a Gentile region that had a history of often being an enemy of Israel.

And now Jesus is visiting this region. Apparently he is trying to get away from the conflict with the Pharisees. In fact, after he left Tyre, he went to a Greek vacation resort, Caesarea Philippi. So let’s get the picture. Jesus is escaping with his friends for a break to a region where he hoped he would not be recognized. He took off for a Gentile district. And just about as soon as he arrived in this Gentile district, he is confronted with a Gentile widow. This woman was persistent. She followed the disciples, she hounded them like a stalker. And her request was always the same: “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”

Have you ever really needed a vacation? The kind of need that grows from exhaustion? The kind of vacation that you hope will bring renewal and refreshment? And then imagine, you get to your resort, and as soon as you get there, an old neighbor spots you and begins following you wherever you go asking for a favor. I must confess, I would try to avoid her, and while that may sound terrible, that is exactly what Jesus and his disciples did.

Finally, Jesus turned to her and warned her when he said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” He explained his silence. But she continued, “Lord, please, help me!” And Jesus explained, “I must not give the children’s food to dogs.” And she continued and said, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

She was arguing with Jesus. Every time he said, “No!” She said, “Please!” She persisted.

She persisted. Several years ago, during a senate debate, you may remember, Senator Elizabeth Warren was sanctioned for not following the rules. When the sanction was placed on her, Senator McConnell explained, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

As I look at the widow from Tyre, I think she would have liked Sen. Warren. She had spunk, she insisted that her cause was just and she would not be silenced.

And her persistence paid off. Finally, Jesus turned, and with genuine respect and even awe in his voice said, “You have great faith!” And he healed her daughter.

What happened? What changed Jesus’ mind? Some have suggested that Jesus was simply testing her to see how long she would persist. Maybe that is what happened, but as I read this story with the teaching on clean and unclean, I think something else was going on.

While Jesus had declared that clean and unclean was about the heart, yet, when he met this woman the first time, he, in essence, called her unclean. When he said, “I cannot give the children’s food to the dogs,” he was not simply trying to put her off, he was declaring that she was unclean!

Dogs were not pets, they were scavengers, pack animals who preyed on the weak. They were not cute puppies, they were the picture of what it meant to be unclean. In fact, not once in scripture are dogs spoken of positively. And as she argued with Jesus, this gentile widow opened Jesus eyes to the truth he had been teaching days before. She demonstrated such faith that Jesus reached out, against his own rule and healed her daughter. As amazing as it seems, the faith and persistence of this widow acted like Miracle Grow in Jesus’ heart. Jesus applied his own teaching at the insistence of this woman. And Jesus was moved, and her daughter was healed, and Jesus demonstrated that being clean was a matter of the heart, not food, not birth, not even offering sacrifices.

Jesus grew through this encounter with a stranger. And if Jesus can grow we can as well. I believe that when God brings people in need into our lives, people we might often dismiss, God is looking using those very people to cause us to grow. These people are God’s miracle grow. God may grow our faith by challenging us to take risks into the unknown. God may grow our relationships by introducing us to unexpected people of faith. God may grow our patience by permitting us to interact with people with special needs. God may even grow our love by showing us Jesus in the hungry and the thirsty and the lonely.

In Isaiah 56 which Julia read for us earlier, Isaiah declares that the stranger and the eunuch, people who were different racially and sexually, people who were outcast by Mosaic law, were now welcome into the family. Even these who were legally outcast, have something to teach us.

How does it happen? It happens when we are willing to engage God in argument. It happens when we listen to the people around us who are in need.

If Jesus could learn to apply his own teaching through a gentile widow in need, who is God bringing into our lives to teach us?

~ Pastor Doug