Sunday, August 20th, 2023

Truly Clean

Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God our Father, through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. Let us pray.  Lord sent forth your word into our ears that it may bear fruit in our lives. In Jesus name Amen. Well, if you’ve been with us since I started you’ve heard a lot of the Gospel of Matthew, been working our way through especially Matthew chapters 13 and 14 and in those chapters we’ve heard over and over again an emphasis on the mercy and the compassion of Jesus and also on the unexpected way that he will reign in his Kingdom. Today we move into chapter 15 and it’s no exception. Now we actually skipped over a big chunk of chapter 15 before we got to today’s text and then the story just before today’s reading Jesus is confronted by a group of Pharisees who have come to challenge him. Now we’re told that these Pharisees are Pharisees from Jerusalem but Jesus is up on the northern edge of the sea of Galilee, so imagine somebody who lives in Taos or Angel Fire being confronted by officials from Santa Fe. These are not the local cops. These are the feds, the big guns who have been called in to question Jesus, and they questioned Jesus about purity laws, about ceremonial hand washing, and they wonder why the disciples aren’t washing their hands the right way before they eat. Now this is a requirement not found in the laws that God gave on Mount Sinai to Moses and to the Israelites. This is a requirement found in the tradition of the rabbis, in a tradition of the Pharisees, so Jesus puts these Pharisees in their place by pointing out that they have added to God’s law. They placed the traditions of men above the word of God and then Jesus offers a final memorable teaching, the most recognizable part of that entire text. He tells them “It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person but what comes out it”. I’m sure you’ve heard those words before and then later when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them what that means, to help them understand Jesus says “What comes out of the mouth proceeds first from the heart and out of the heart comes all manner of evil.” So simply put, if you want to know what’s going on in a person’s heart, don’t look at what goes into their mouth, look at what comes out. Now perhaps you can see where this is going and why Matthew put this story here. You have an emphasis on Jesus revealing himself as the God of compassion, you have the teaching that what comes out of a mouth shows what’s in a person’s heart, you have Jesus reprimanding the Pharisees from Jerusalem, and then you have today’s text, where Jesus left the northern promised land and he entered into Pagan land, where he went to Tyre and Sidon and when he was there a Canaanite woman comes out to him. Now we shouldn’t gloss over the fact that she’s identified as a Canaanite because, in Bible trivia, this is the only place in the New Testament where the word Canaanite is used. Canaanite is an Old Testament word. The Canaanites were the people who lived in the promised land before the Israelites, the people the Israelites were supposed to drive out in the days of Joshua. This is the only place in the New Testament where anyone is ever called a Canaanite, which means when we hear this story we’re supposed to remember the events of Moses, remember the events in the days of Joshua, remember what happened in that region this Canaanite woman, one who is unclean one, who is descended from the enemies of Israel, one who was at war with Israel’s God, comes out and cries out, in mercy to Israel’s Messiah, “ Have mercy on me, O Lord, son of David.” The contrast is clear from the start. The Pharisees who are supposed to be the religious teachers, and the religious leaders of God’s people, well they came to God’s Messiah not to seek mercy from him but to challenge him to put him in his place. It’s the Canaanite, the enemy of God’s people who comes and cries out for mercy. So great is her cry that she refuses to give up even when Jesus ignores her. Her second cry “Lord help me”. The force of that word is like someone hearing a cry for help in the distance and running to aid, like a child who’s stuck on top of a slide crying out “Mommy come get me” or a rock climber whose harness breaks under dangling off the side of a cliff and they cry out, “Someone come to me and help me”. This woman looks at Jesus and says “Lord come to me quickly and help me.” It’s not what goes into a person’s mouth that defiles them, but what comes out. The words of the Pharisees, the mouth of the Pharisees, shows pride in their hearts, and the words from the mouth of the Canaanite woman show what’s in hers. The question before us today: what are the words that come out of my mouth, what are the words that come out of yours? What’s in our hearts? Do we attempt to stand before the Lord on the basis of our own character, on the basis of our own righteousness? “Lord help me. I’ve been faithful in my church attendance for years upon years. Lord save me for not only have I tithed, I’ve given above and beyond. Lord help me. I don’t gossip. I’ve been faithful to my spouse. I voted for the right person. I protested the right injustice. I sent my kids to the right school. Lord help me. I’m a good person. If we try to stand before God on the basis of our own righteousness we will leave as empty and as embarrassed as the Pharisees who confronted Jesus. So how should we stand before God? We don’t. We don’t stand before God. When the woman first cried out for mercy, Jesus answered her nothing. When the disciples tried to send her away. She would have none of it. She threw herself at the feet of Jesus. Today’s translation says that she knelt at the feet of Jesus but more literally, the Greek says she prostrated herself before him, she fell down to the ground before him in a posture of worship, and when she was rebuked by Jesus, and told that the gifts of the children of Israel ought not be given to their enemies like Canaanites, to the pagan dogs, she agrees. “Yes Lord,” She says, “I know I’m not one of the chosen people. Yes Lord I know I don’t deserve a place at your table. I’m not asking for a full plate Lord, a simple crumb would be enough.” Jesus replies, “Great is your faith. Be it done for you as you desire.” Now at this point it might be easy to think the text is telling us to be humbler or be diligent in prayer. Those are good things. I don’t think that’s the point of Matthew putting this story right here in his gospel. That would still make God’s mercy dependent on my behavior somehow. No I think this is a text about who Jesus is, not one about who we are supposed to be. We’ve heard it a lot over the last few weeks. Jesus is a God of mercy. Jesus is a God of compassion, and that’s definitely in this text too, but this text also beautifully, poignantly illustrates our Lord’s desire to work in surprising and unexpected ways. The Pharisees of Jesus day, they were the ones that God’s people looked up to as the religious examples. They were the ones people wanted to be like, not like this Canaanite woman. Not like this pagan. Not like this unclean person who had never kept the ceremonial law for a day in her life, and yet she, not the religious elite, she is held forth as the example of one out of whose mouth flows words of praise, flows words crying out for mercy. She is presented as the one who is truly clean. That’s an unexpected turn. She’s another in a long line of figures in the Gospel of Matthew, who are these unlikely examples, the unlikely heroes. The magi from the east who recognized the birth of the Messiah well before the scholars of Israel do, or the Roman centurion whose faith outshines any that Jesus has seen in all of Israel. This Canaanite woman who confesses Jesus to be the son of David right after the Pharisees attack the disciples about it and right after the disciples looked at Jesus in doubt and confusion, this woman is written into the gospel of Matthew in this place as the embodiment of what Jesus just said,  it’s what comes out of the mouth that shows whether a person is truly clean. And that is unexpected. But that’s how the Kingdom of God works. The Kingdom of God works in unexpected ways, like a mustard seed, the smallest of seeds which grows into a ridiculously large tree so big that birds can even come and nest in its branches. So also, the Kingdom of God works in ways that people do not expect, or like leaven, kneaded in dough. It’s hidden from sight. You don’t see it working until ultimately the bread rises in the end. So also we shouldn’t try to measure the Kingdom of God through what we can see, rather, we rejoice in the unexpected ways our Lord comes to us in the unexpected ways our Lord gives himself to us. A splash of water on your forehead that unites you to the death of Jesus so that you can certainly be united with him in a resurrection like His. Simple words spoken, sung, preached, heard in this room or in your home or in your car, the words of the living God that create in you a new and living faith. Simple bread. Simple wine. Joined to God’s work. Joined to God’s promise of forgiveness, life, and salvation for you. Scraps from the master’s table. Crumbs in the eyes of the world. They look like nothing from outward appearances, but they are truly the gifts of immortality and we are blessed today to gather around those scraps. In just a few moments, we’ll feast once again on those scraps. A morsel of bread so small that would hardly fill the belly of the goldfish much less than that of a grown adult. A sip of wine so small that it doesn’t often even wipe the bread off your tongue. And yet through these means of grace, Jesus is here for you. Jesus unites himself to you. Jesus now lives in you. Like a dog under the chair of a toddler, faith eagerly devours whatever scraps they can get, and the great gift of this faith is that through these simple scraps, through these simple crumbs, Jesus now lives in you making, you truly clean. To the simple crumb of bread and wine, simple splash of baptismal water, the seemingly innocuous proclamation of God’s word, through these things, we are now adopted into the family of God. We who are filthy in our sin have been covered with the robe of Christ’s righteousness, made truly clean by the crumbs that fall from our master’s table. For now we gather as God’s family around these crumbs, until the day we take our seat at the masters table and the marriage feast of the lamb and his Kingdom which has no end. Until that day, we rejoice that Israel’s Messiah works in simple and unexpected ways. So what matters is not whether we have washed our hands like the Pharisees want us to. What matters is not whether or not we voted for the right person or supported the right cause. What matters is who Jesus is and what Jesus has done for you. We take our place beside the Canaanite woman, prostrate before our Lord, ready to devour the crumbs that fall from His table, for those are the things that make us truly clean, and with each crumb falls our way, we get more than we could ever hope for. So may God grant us the faith to devour the crumbs of his salvation in, Jesus name Amen.