August 16, 2020
Today we read from Matthew’s gospel. Our passage begins mid-conflict. Jesus takes an argument about the Pharisaic tradition of handwashing and goes deeper. Listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you this morning.
READ Matthew 15:10-28
The Pharisees come at Jesus with a surface complaint… washing your hands before you eat. His disciples weren’t following this tradition. Now… let’s be clear at the beginning. This passage has nothing to do with washing your hands before you eat… it has nothing to do with using hand sanitizer… it has nothing to do with wearing masks. All these things… especially right now… are good and healthy habits you need to be practicing daily. The Pharisees aren’t about establishing healthy habits in their complaint. What they are trying to do is set the agenda… to declare what is most important and where we should put the focus and the energy of our faith. This surface complaint about handwashing is about control and who decides what is clean and what is unclean to use those words in a religious sense. To decide what is acceptable to God and what is unacceptable to God. Or we could even say to decide what is orthodox and what is unorthodox.
I was having a conversation with someone the other day about the different types of Presbyterian churches. A conversation I seem to have again and again. Over the last hundred years or so… you look at the churches who have left the main branch of the Presbyterian church and what orthodoxy generally means to them is what orthodoxy has meant at a certain time in the church’s history. Those Presbyterians break off and freeze that time and declare it to be… I guess… the height of Presbyterian orthodoxy. They declare what is most important and where we should be placing the energy and the focus of our faith. So the Orthodox Presbyterian Church… yes, it’s there in their name… they froze the Presbyterian church of the late 1800’s during the conflict created with the rise of new types of Biblical studies. For them that is the line of orthodoxy which if crossed heads into unorthodoxy. For the Presbyterian Church of America it’s more the church of the 1950’s when only men were allowed in leadership and the Westminster Confession was the only theological perspective that mattered. The Evangelical Presbyterian Church crosses that line and is somewhat okay with women in leadership. The latest freeze is the church of the 1990’s and Eco who like the Presbyterian church when it didn’t allow for the welcoming of homosexuals. That was the line that couldn’t be crossed if you wanted to remain orthodox. Modern Biblical studies? Ok. Women. Sure. Homosexuality. Nope. Too far. You’ve now past into unorthodox territory. The line of tradition has been set and you have moved beyond.
In our passage, Pharisees defined the rules of orthodoxy. And here… as Matthew crafts the story… handwashing was a line in the traditional sand. Which again… in case you are wondering… we are today pro-handwashing and believe it to be a healthy habit… but don’t let that trip you up.
Because… says Jesus… it’s not about handwashing… it’s about your being in control and your defining what was acceptable and what was not. That is the root of their hypocrisy. Handwashing… while a good healthy habit… in the bigger picture of God and faith… handwashing is inconsequential. So… for example… I know for some of the people I’ve spoken with through the years… probably some of you… they were raised in churches where a woman wearing pants was unacceptable. Crossed the line of tradition into unorthodoxy and being more than a fashion faux pas… endangered your immortal soul. For others it was dancing… or going to the movies... or listening to rock and roll. All actions that are… in the scheme of things… inconsequential. The forbidding of them were human precepts taught as doctrines. The effort at enforcement far outweighed their real importance.
Character… on the other hand… actions that come from the heart that define a person’s character. These are what defile a person. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. Jesus tells this parable and it’s like he’s trying to redirect their energies… redirect their focus onto what really matters. I mean… I can hear all those 1950’s ministers with their thick glasses, well-oiled hairdos and thin black ties arguing back at me… that’s what we were trying to do. That was the evil of rock and roll and dancing and movies. Such activities lead to such things as fornication. The one begets the other as sure as the sun will rise. No… it is very possible for a woman to be of good character and wear pants, listen to rock and roll, go to the movies and even dance. It is also very possible for a woman to wear a skirt, listen to only church music, go to worship every Sunday and not even sway rhythmically and to still be of low character. Because it is from the heart comes evil intentions.
Look at the story that has been told in Matthew and what Jesus has been doing to this point. He has fed the hungry. He has brought healing and wholeness to the sick. He has been casting out the demons that torment people. He has brought good news to the poor and called people to repentance… called people to return to God and God’s ways so that the Kingdom of Heaven might grow and flourish here in the now… so that God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven. He has shown the way of empathy and compassion teaching people to do to others as you would have them do to you. Bear the good fruit of God. And the Pharisees on the other hand… worried about following Sabbath rules or washing your hands before you eat. Had they been putting their focus on first priorities instead of inconsequentials… it would be different story. Traditions… there is nothing wrong with traditions. Traditions are good. They help us pass on our values. They help us to tell the story of Christ. They can remind of what is important. And… and they can be twisted around to where maintaining the tradition becomes the main thing… even if the effort to maintain that tradition violates our greater more important principles.
In case one day ministers try to approach this too light heartedly and that point gets missed… we have this Canaanite woman approach Jesus. She breaks all the human precepts. She is wholly unacceptable to what the Pharisees with their traditions would define as orthodox. She is so far out of their orthodox box it isn’t funny. And she confronts Jesus in all her wrongness asking for mercy for her daughter. Traditions of the day say nothing about her warrants Jesus’ mercy… let alone his attention. The disciples around him can see this. Now remember… these are the same disciples who were just accused by the Pharisees of being unclean because they did not follow the tradition of washing their hands before they ate. So after standing behind Jesus and giving one another high fives when Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites. That’s telling them Jesus! These very same disciples hit their line in the sand with this Canaanite woman. Well, handwashing is one thing. Showing mercy to a Canaanite woman is another. And there it is, right. The disciples take control and now define for themselves who is worthy of God’s mercy in Christ and who is not.
And revealing their hypocrisy, Jesus says the very things to the Canaanite woman that would have fallen from those disciples’ mouths as they would define orthodoxy. I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. Do you hear the spirit that is behind such words? Do you hear the gall that comes when they now define who is worthy of Jesus’ mercy and who is not? It stems from the traditional labels put upon the woman. First and foremost… Canaanite. Traditional enemies of the Jews. Surely not worthy of God’s mercy. Dirty hands are one thing. You can always pick up the habit of washing your hands. But you can’t wash off being a Canaanite. In my imagination, I can see these disciples looking at this woman and picking her apart… just like we do today. How is she dressed? Does she have a reputation? Where is her husband? What gives her the right to infringe upon us… to take what we have been given? What is her worth and value and does it rise to the level of mercy or are we wasting our mercy on her?
The Pharisees fail. The disciples fail. The Canaanite woman’s faith hits the mark. What comes out of her heart is love… love for her daughter. What comes out of her heart is the pursuit of wellness and mercy… a pursuit that would inform her own sense of empathy… that would allow her to see others and fight for others who are like her… or worse off than she is. She is not above looking down from a place of self-constructed importance and privilege. She is in the messiness of life. The Canaanite woman will face any inconsequential obstacle and will persevere past. That is her faith. Through Jesus she seeks God and will not be put off. Jesus throws up the obstacles we make and believe to be so important. She knows first priorities. God is first and foremost love… and not an exclusive God of a certain people. God is a God of justice and mercy… and not the source that doles out endless blessings and benefits to those who have reached a certain level of status through their expert practicing of those traditions that they deem most important.
The Canaanite woman is the mother who will fight for healthcare for her child. The Canaanite woman is the mother who will fill out every condescending form and walk through every demeaning process it takes to get food for her child… who will listen to time and again the pompous, self-righteous speeches of why she is undeserving… why she is a drain on society… why she has no value and contributes nothing. She is the woman who will go through the hell of inconsequentials thrown at her… because her child is sick… her child is hungry… her child needs clothes and shelter. That is what she knows. That is where her faith is focused.
Jesus answers her, “Woman, great is your faith”. And I can see him look over at his disciples and saying to them the words he had just said to the Pharisees… You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” Amen.