Today’s gospel lesson is, once again, concerned with ritual purity. The issue of ritual purity at stake here, specifically, is what one is allowed to eat, when one is allowed, with what one is allowed to eat. Jesus’s disciples have just been busted by the Pharisees—those religious authorities who are so concerned with maintaining the letter of the Law that they totally disregard the intent of the Law—for not washing their hands before dinner. Horror of horrors, right? Eating a meal with dirty fingers.
The really amazing thing about this, though, is that really is no prescribed Law (in the Torah, that is) for washing your hands before you eat. The problem, though, is that Pharisees are so concerned with maintaining the Law, they’ve decided to add heaps and heaps to the Law so that no one can even come close to breaking the Law. It’s akin to setting to cruise control to 45 mph when your on the freeway so that you could not possibly break the speed limit, which the state has declared to be 65 mph.
So, here are the Pharisees saying, “Look, ritual purity is so important, that you have to wash your hands before you do eat. And you have to wash all your bowls and cups, too. And the reason you have to do this is because, just maybe, you accidentally touched something unclean today. Or, just maybe, somebody unclean touched your bowl. And if you eat out of that bowl, or with those hands that might be unclean, then you might be unclean, and that would be the end of the world as we know it. So, even though you might be certain that you haven’t touched anything unclean—because if you’d touched a leper or a dead body, you’d probably remember—and even though you might be certain that no one unclean has touched your cups—because you’d probably remember if someone with oozing sores had stopped by—just in case, you have to wash your hands and all of your dishes before you eat.
And because Jesus is more concerned with honoring God by loving people, and holding to the spirit of the Law rather than the heaps and heaps of rules that have been tacked onto the Law, he has this to say, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what come out of the mouth that defiles.” In other words, who cares what kind of dirt might go into your mouth? That is not what the Law is truly concerned with. The Law is concerned with what comes out of your mouth.
In a pattern that has become quite familiar, Jesus’s disciples take him aside and Peter says to him, “Explain this parable to us,” because, you know, the disciples just don’t get it. So Jesus, being the patient guy that he is, explains what he means. He gives them a lesson in digestion: what you eat, goes into your mouth, through your stomach, and out of your body as waste. What you eat cannot make you unclean. What you eat, the physical food that you put into your body, does not affect your spiritual purity.
Rather, Jesus tells them, it is what comes out of your mouth that makes you unclean. Because what comes out of a person’s mouth is determined by their heart, by their spirit. What comes out of a person’s mouth is what identifies a person as being clean or unclean. This hearkens back to the prophet Isaiah who, when called by the Lord to prophesy, replied, “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”
What comes out of the heart, Jesus tells us, is “evil intention, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.” These are the things that demonstrate whether or not we have a purity of heart—not the food that we eat, or whether or not we wash our hands before dinner. We will be judged by the words that we speak.
And then, Jesus moves on.
Jesus goes to a place called Tyre.
Now, Tyre is located in on the coast, outside of Jerusalem. It’s gentile country. Which means it full of things and people that the Pharisees would consider unclean. And a woman, a Canaanite, comes to Jesus, and she started shouting at him, begging him, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” And Jesus ignores her.
Now, a little bit of history about Canaan might help to understand some of the tensions we see in this text. Way back, a long time before, God commanded Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. And God led the Israelites to Canaan. And God gave Canaan to the Israelites. And, the story goes, God commanded the Israelites to kill all of the inhabitants of Canaan to take the land that God had given them.
And the Israelites did. They settle Canaan, and the land flowed with milk and honey. The Israelites were prosperous and living it up in the land of Canaan. And because they had it so good, the Israelites forgot that God was the one who had provided it all. They began to disobey God and to worship false idols. So, God had the Babylonians overthrow them. They were carried, once again, into captivity and they lost everything.
So, here we are, some 500 years later, and Jesus and his disciples waltz into Canaan one day, and a Canaanite woman begins pleading for mercy.
Now, maybe it’s just me, but the response of the disciples seems to point to some continued tensions from that time 580+ years ago when their ancestors were forcibly removed from Canaan, because they starting urging Jesus, “Send her away, because she keeps yelling out to you.” “Get rid of this woman! Her begging you for the life of her child is getting on our nerves.”
And in this moment, the disciples prove beyond any doubt that they just do not get it. What’s more, they actually think they do. After all, when Jesus spoke in parables, they knew they didn’t get! So, they asked him, “Will you kindly explain to us the meaning of these riddles?” And Jesus did.
But here we are, the very next day, and the disciples have a chance to put what they’ve learned from Jesus into action. They get a chance to demonstrate, clearly, for all to see, what is in their hearts. And they do. They demonstrate that they still do not understand who Jesus is, or what Jesus is doing, or what Jesus means when he tells them that what comes out of a person’s mouth is what makes them unclean. “Send her away. Her daughter’s life is no concern of ours. She’s just a Canaanite, anyway. One less enemy to worry about, right?”
And Jesus response, seems to agree with them. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Except, I think something else is going on here. Jesus has this habit in the gospels of knowing what’s in people’s hearts. And more often than not, he calls them out on it. “Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, ‘Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts?’” (Matthew 9:4). “Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, ‘Why are you thinking these things?’” (Mark 2.8). “They discussed this with one another and said, “It is because we have no bread.” “Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them, ‘Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember?’” (Mark .16-18)
I think this is the pattern Jesus is following when he says to the woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He isn’t saying to her, but rather he is saying it because he knows that this is what his disciples are thinking, and he’s bringing their thoughts to light. He is showing the disciples they still do not understand.
And the woman, undeterred, begs, “Lord, help me.” This woman, this Canaanite woman, someone who has never met Jesus, someone who is considered unclean by the Jews, someone who is treated with contempt by Jesus’s disciple, and who has just been dismissed by Jesus himself, she gets it. She understands. She has seen who Jesus is, and she knows that he alone can save her daughter.
But Jesus, pushing things further, says to her, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” “You bitch. You worthless, mangy dog. How dare you ask anything of the Son of God. You’re not even Jewish.” This, I believe, is what the disciples are all thinking. “This woman isn’t even Jewish, and she’s asking Jesus to save her child?! Ridiculous.” And I can just imagine the disciples smug expressions as Jesus says to this woman what each of them wishes they had said. Because they still do not understand. This moment is not about this Canaanite woman. It’s about them, and the hatred and bigotry that they harbor in their own hearts.
And this woman, whom Jesus has just called a dog, responds with a clever retort, turning Jesus’s own remark to her favor. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She isn’t asking Jesus to give her the best, choicest foods. She just wants a crumb, discarded and unwanted. She just wants the leftovers that nobody else is interested in touching.
And Jesus answers here, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And he heals her child.
In this woman, we see an example of true purity of heart—a woman who seeks Jesus, undeterred by what others might think, undeterred by the rejection and humiliation she first experiences. This woman seeks, boldly, to save the life of her daughter by seeking out Jesus, because she knows that he is the only one who can save her.
This is the image of purity of heart: not responded with defensiveness and anger, nor with spite and bitterness; not with self-righteous contempt or disgust for those who differ; rather it is the earnest seeking of that which is greater, with patience and grace, and a willingness to engage in a difficult conversation because she knows the rewards are great.
Whereas the disciples would see this woman turned away, brushed aside, humiliated, and likely enjoying in what they have witnessed, this woman recognizes Jesus for who he is, and she continues to seek him.
This story starts with Jesus giving a very public teaching on purity. And he continues that teaching in private with his disciples, explaining patiently to them what he means. And we find, in the end that the disciples reveal their own hardness of heart—a heart, potentially, of evil intentions, slander, perhaps murder—at the very least complete indifference to the needs of others; and Jesus juxtaposes this with this Canaanite woman’s heart—a heart of great faith, a pure heart, one who seeks the well-being of others even if it requires that she face ridicule and humiliation herself.
What comes out of our hearts and mouths day to day? Do we speak words of kindness, graciousness, generosity and love? Or do we speak words of hatred, slander, or anger? Do our words seek to invite others to know the transformative power of the love of God through Jesus? Or do they serve to separate others from knowing who Jesus is? Are we more concerned with what people put into their bodies than we are with the condition of their hearts? Do we spend more time emphasizing physical purity at the expense of spiritual purity?
No body is perfect all of the time. There are days when I miss it. When I find myself short-tempered, frustrated, or impatient. There are days when I forget that I, too, am human, in need of a bit of patience, compassion, and grace; days when I’m focused on myself, on my comfort, on my wants. But I also know, that when my focus is on Jesus and what he offers not only me, but everyone, I have an easier time extending that patience, compassion and grace to others. I hope the same is true for you.