The Gospel Reading for this Sunday is Mathew 15:1-28
The plague we are fighting today is not simply Covid-19. It is prejudice—the prejudice that keeps us from listening to people’s cries—the prejudice that fills us with fear, anger and hatred—the prejudice that defiles.
The lectionary gives us the choice at stopping at verse 20 of Matthew 15; but if we don’t read on to verse 28 we cheat ourselves. In the first section Jesus shares a new vision of religion with the crowds: “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” When the Pharisees take offense, Jesus goes on to suggest the Pharisees are blind to the fundamentals of their own Jewish faith.
The adherents of any religion are susceptible to the blindness of thinking what makes them right with God is the outward markers. Some Jews of Jesus’ day thought keeping Sabbath, circumcision, and eating kosher were of utmost importance. These were handy markers for telling who was in and who was out. And then there was the added benefit that one did not need to be inwardly serious about divinely ordained social justice as long as one looked the part.
Jews who were truer to the heart of their faith always knew they were the chosen ones when they suffered, yet kept faithful—when they witnessed to God’s love and justice for the whole world to see.
Blind religion infects the church today as well. All you have to do today to be called an “evangelical Christian” is to oppose abortion and same-sex marriage, support the state of Israel against Palestinian causes, and vote for those who promise more political power for Christians. It is the markers that count. It is what goes into the mouth, not what comes out. “Social justice—we don’t want you to shout too loudly about that.”
When Jesus said the defiling thing is what comes out, certain Pharisees took offense. All through Matthew the word for this (scandalitzo, or “to stumble” in Greek) is a fulcrum word. It is a bit hard to track in English translations because it is translated in several different ways. But it points to something all-important. “Blessed are they who take no offense at me,” Jesus says. If we see Jesus welcoming and loving all people, especially the outsiders, and we stumble because of it–i.e. if we are repulsed, sickened, get angry, and spit out vile things—then we are unblessed. If we take bitter offense when we hear Jesus say that looking good doesn’t make us good, and that we will be judged by how we treat the poor, the hungry, and the naked, then we are defiled.
It is in the second section of this reading that all of this comes beautifully into focus. A “Canaanite woman” comes, shouting. The disciples take offense at her and ask Jesus to send her away because she is so annoying and inconvenient.
Now, of course, there were no more Canaanites in Jesus’ day. That label was long obsolete; but it felt so right to say when you were annoyed by another person just because of who they were—not because of what came out of them. It was a convenient way to denigrate people who didn’t have the right ethnic markers. Another way of denigrating them was to call them “dogs.” Was it for ironic effect that even Jesus uses that ethnic slur?
But when the woman says, “Even the dogs eat crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Jesus exclaims, “Woman, great is your faith.”
Great is your faith! If you follow Jesus through the Gospel of Matthew you will hear him say of only two people that their faith is great. Neither looks the part. One is this Canaanite dog of a woman. The other is a hated Roman centurion. (And the ranks of the Roman army in this backwater Judea were filled with poorly trained police who held Jews in their own prejudicial contempt.) In contrast, Jesus says of the thoroughly Jewish (and for us, quintessentially Christian) disciples, “oh ye of little faith.” Thankfully, even little faith can be used and turned by Christ into a mountain-moving faith. But that only happens when we take no offense at this Christ who calls us to love one another.
So, faith that produces love is what counts. That’s what Jesus says. And he says that if you keep thinking all you must do is display all the right markers, and if you keep judging other people by their book covers, and if you are filled with anger and stumble over the cross that you should carry, then you are defiled.
So, what really defiles a person? Another way of asking that is, “Where is the line that separates us from them—the good guys from the bad?” Another is to ask, “What causes you to take offense, or to stumble?”
The all important thing is that we are not offended by the cross, but take it up and follow this Christ who allows no line to be uncrossed.
Today’s critical moment in America seems to hang on Black Lives Matter. Would Jesus be asking us to decide? Would he be asking us if those three words make us take offense? Do we draw the line and say, when people shout too loudly, I take offense? Do we say that the way those people look and the way they try to make me take responsibility for injustice makes me angry? Do we feel safe on this side of the political line, and any reference to “systemic racism” is reason to stop my ears to all those lefties over there?
Or, is it possible that we have a different set of markers and a different line to divide folk? Do we hear someone else call themselves good Christians or good conservatives, and we immediately write them off?
Jesus says, it’s what comes out that counts. Jesus says, there is no line, and we must not allow our prejudice to divide us. He asks us all to stop and think. He says, “I came to love, and welcome, and heal all people. I came to lay down my life for others. I came to listen for what comes out of a person. So, judge me not according to your prejudices, according to the little ethnic markers you like to use—but judge me according to the fruit I bear. And judge one another the same way. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”
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