Two paragraphs from Matthew’s Gospel, set side by side for us today. One, a teaching about what defiles a person, the other a story about Jesus meeting an indigenous woman on the road. Why are we hearing both of these stories today? And why did Matthew put them together?
At morning prayer on weekdays we don’t have a sermon, but after the Gospel reading we share our thoughts and reflections about the Scripture we have read. Unlike the Sunday lectionary, the daily office lectionary is not designed for the readings to complement each other: we read more or less all the way through three unrelated books: right now we are reading from Judges, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Gospel according to St. John, three very different texts.
In our group reflections, we notice that Scripture speaks to Scripture surprisingly often: we find connections, or some kind of dialogue, between one reading and another or between different portions of the same reading. For example, last Wednesday, when we read about the marriage of Samson and an unnamed Philistine woman in Judges and the encounter between Jesus and an unnamed Samaritan woman in John, we noticed that these were two stories that commented on women’s lives and the influence for good or evil that women had in those ancient times.
Matthew was a skilled storyteller: he put these two pieces of his Gospel together for a reason.
Paragraph one is a continuation of an argument between Jesus and the Pharisees, those guardians of the Jewish faith who were so particular about every detail of the Law of Moses. The Pharisees criticized Jesus and his friends for being casual about some of the law’s requirements, such as the complicated, ritual handwashing before meals that wasn’t enshrined in Leviticus or Numbers but had become an established tradition. Jesus, always ready to fire back, responded with his own criticism of their hypocrisy.
Now, in the verses we read, Jesus turns the encounter into a teaching moment about what it means to be a person of faith. He essentially demolishes the “we’ve always done it that way” argument in favor of actually living the way God wants us to live. The Pharisees had made an idol of their traditions to the point that they allowed their rigid rules to outweigh the needs of the people they served. They have built a mountain of assumptions on top of the words of the Law, and Jesus is destroying those assumptions with his iconoclastic ministry, telling people not to get all wound up about what you eat: but rather pay attention to what you say and do: teaching them that the way you care for others says far more about your faith than whether you say the right prayers or avoid eating shellfish. Jesus is calling for the abandonment of a dead tradition, but it’s a tradition upon which the Pharisees have built a great deal of power, and they aren’t going to let go without a fight.
In the second paragraph we see Jesus and his disciples in hostile territory. We don’t know why they left Galilee to go northwest into land populated by the indigenous people. These people had been displaced by the Jewish incursion centuries before. The Jews despised them, regarded them as barbarians: Jesus’s reference to dogs is typical of the kind of language the Jews used for their neighbors. Naturally the indigenous people resented the people of Israel, and a Jew wouldn’t normally venture into their territory. Or if he did have to go there, he would try to move through the region as quietly and invisibly as possible.
So, when a local woman starts yelling at Jesus in the street, it’s not only shocking but also dangerous. This woman recognizes Jesus and acknowledges his power to heal and save. With a desperately sick daughter at home she isn’t about to let slide the chance, however, remote, that the Jewish wonder-worker might be able to help. Not surprisingly the disciples react to this unwelcome attention by begging Jesus, tell her to shut up and go away. Instead, after an initial reluctance to speak, Jesus enters into this extraordinary conversation. If you want to hear a masterful examination of this passage you can do no better than to watch the keynote address given at this year’s Light Up the Cathedral service by the Reverend Naomi Washington Leapheart: the video is in our online archive.
Jesus engages with this courageous and persistent woman, whose name we never learn, but who apparently broadens Jesus’s own sense of vocation, leading him to see that he has been sent, not only to the lost sheep of Israel, but to all who call on God’s name for help. The tradition says that Jews are the chosen people of God; Jesus, whose name means He Will Save, now learns that he is to save all people, tearing open the tradition and leaving behind his own assumptions about who is in and who is out. So, now, it’s Jesus’s turn to be challenged: will he break with tradition in order to demonstrate God’s unconditional, unlimited love and compassion? After a brief struggle, Jesus does indeed respond to this woman, and the dam of his own assumptions is breached, leading ultimately to the Great Commission at the end of this Gospel when the risen Christ commands his followers to go and make disciples of ALL nations.
This passage is hard for us to read, because it portrays Jesus as having something to learn: he is initially abusive of this woman, using what we might call a racial slur. But he’s a quick study, and in the process of learning, he offers us a model for our own growth. These two stories together invite us to examine our own assumptions. What are the dead traditions that we cling to? What are the stories and myths we tell ourselves that need to be discarded? What boundaries do we try to set on God’s love? Isaiah, in our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, speaks of the God of Israel who gathers the outcasts and the foreigners together into one worshiping community. The mainstream of Jewish tradition and history really does embrace all people: the restrictive distortion of the law by the Pharisees was an anomaly; you might draw a parallel with the Jim Crow laws of the last century in this country, which were similarly a tragic distortion of God’s vision for humanity.
God’s dream for God’s people is today and always has been, a dream of a single, beautiful, diverse, multi-colored family of humanity, gathered together by a common commitment to justice and peace. God grant that we can do our part to make that dream a reality.