Tenth Sunday after Trinity Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28
“But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me’.” (Matthew 15:25)
There are many sermons based on the experiences of someone – for example, a church dignitary or bishop – who visits a church dressed shabbily or unconventionally for a churchgoer. That person is not welcomed, treated with suspicion, and generally given to understand that church isn’t for the likes of them. The tables are turned when he or she visits that same church in an official role, this time wearing smarter attire – and is welcomed. The church community is shamed when their visitor reveals his or her true identity. You may well have heard this kind of sermon.
Today’s Gospel reading might surprise or shock us. First, Jesus challenges the practices of the Pharisees. So far no surprise. But then, when he takes a short break, he is followed by a Canaanite woman, who is convinced that he can help her daughter. The surprise is that, where we might expect him to hear her pleas, respond to her and help her, he at first dismisses her. His mission, he explicitly says, is to the people of Israel, not to the likes of her. To us, his reaction may feel shocking. This is a hard Gospel for us to hear, as Jesus seems to be saying that some are more the children of God than others.
The two parts of today’s Gospel passage relate closely to each other. In the first part, Jesus is exasperated, both with the religious authorities, who are challenging what they consider to be his lax attitude to some of the religious practices of the time (specifically, the purity laws which require the washing of hands before eating), and with his disciples, who still seem unable to grasp what he is telling them. He explains the concept of defilement, or ritual impurity, as something generated by human beings. Rather than worrying about the external gesture of washing hands, he says, we should be more concerned with what comes from within, for from within comes sin, which defiles in the way that eating with unwashed hands cannot.
In exasperation, Jesus takes some time away from the crowds and religious authorities. But instead of finding peace and quiet, he is pestered by a local woman, a Canaanite and therefore not, in Jewish eyes, one of the people of God. His dismissal of her may shock us. Jesus tells her that his mission is not for the likes of her – it is for the people of Israel alone. But the woman is having none of it. With nowhere else to turn in her desperation for her daughter, she persists.
Her persistence is rewarded, for Jesus relents and acknowledges her faith. She, an outsider, has recognised Jesus’ authority, has called him “Lord”, and has knelt before him in full confidence that he can answer her plea. Where the religious authorities of Jerusalem are more concerned with outward observance, this Gentile woman has cut through to the heart of who Jesus is.
Jesus sometimes behaves in ways that we find confusing, challenging or shocking, especially for those of us who have been brought up with the idea of “gentle Jesus, meek and mild”. Reading scripture can paint an entirely different, altogether less comfortable, picture. However, our initial discomfort may compel us to look at things in a new way. Here, for example, Jesus is challenging us not to try to keep ourselves uncontaminated by the world. This, he says, is not the source of the problem. Rather, we should take care of what comes out of our hearts; having a care for what we say, what we write, and what we do. The list of bad things which can come from our hearts includes many that, two thousand years later, are familiar to us, when translated into twenty-first-century terms. For example, the modern interpretation of false witness and slander might be social media trolling, making hurtful comments online under the veil of anonymity, or cyber-bullying.
Of course we should welcome the ragged visitor to our church; so too the bishop in full regalia and most importantly the Canaanite woman. Her persistence should inspire us to ask and keep asking and not to give up at the first hurdle. And the core message in today’s Gospel is what really matters is not our outward gestures, but what we hold in our hearts.