What the Heart Says
Gospel: Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28
Jesus teaches his disciples that true purity is a matter of the heart rather than outward religious observances. Almost immediately, this teaching is tested when a woman considered to be pagan and unclean approaches him for help.
[10[Jesus] called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: 11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” 12Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” 13He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” 15But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” 16Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”]
21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
A long time ago, at another church, at a church council meeting, the pastor (me) and a council member engaged in an argument. The discussion was heated and the both the pastor and the church council member said some things that they, in hindsight, regretted saying.
A few days after the council meeting the council member came to my office and presented me with a pillow, embroidered on the pillow were these words: “Nothing is opened more by mistake than a human mouth.” Every time I read this Gospel lesson I think of that council member and the pillow she gave me.
This is essentially what Jesus is talking about in Matthew’s Gospel appointed for today. Jesus says: “Listen and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”
I have never killed any one, as most of us haven’t. I do not carry a gun to protect myself. But I have hurt lots of people with my mouth. We play games with our children we teach nursery rhymes that try to fend off the power of words: “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.”
But names and words do hurt.
I can recount endless instances when I said something that hurt another human being. Once it comes out of your mouth a word cannot be taken back. You may say you are sorry, but there is always the nagging reality in the person’s mind that you really meant what you said.
There are three parts to our gospel story in Matthew this week. The first is about the mouth. It’s not what goes in that defiles us (the Pharisees really pushed dietary laws, keeping kosher etc.) But, what comes out of the mouth is what defiles.
Then Jesus ups the anti. 18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”]
The second part of our gospel lesson is that we keep our darkest thoughts in our hearts. We like to keep the focus on the externals and not the stuff that matters.
My mother’s words echo in my ears: “Wash your hands.” It is not just ancient Jewish culture that made ritual hand washing important. It is built into the fabric of our culture. Hand washing, hand sanitizer, all to keep us germ-free. But that doesn’t work with the words that come out of our mouths. Even the age old parental punishment of washing our mouths out with soap does not prevent us from using words in an inappropriate manner.
But clean hands, says Jesus, does nothing for our hearts. It’s what is deep inside us that makes us hurt each other.
Lutheran’s aren’t big on emotions. Most of the time a smile is outrageous laughter and a raised eyebrow is sufficient to express anger. We teach our children not to cry and we try to keep them silent in church. We are embarrassed when someone makes an emotional outburst, when a voice is raised, or even when laughter becomes too raucous.
We don’t like emotional extremes. We use lots of expressions that are part of language base to express the fact that we don’t like emotional extremes. We use phrases like: “Don’t cry! You’ll get it over it! It’s time for you to get on with your life!”
That is the third part of our gospel lesson and it is about Jesus going into a strange land meeting a strange woman who is different from him. A woman who is full of emotion, fear and anger. This woman is different culturally, different religiously, different in just about every way.
Today, had we been standing with the disciples in our Gospel lesson, we would have been telling Jesus as the disciples did to send this woman away. She was shouting. She was exhibiting some really strong emotions. She was yelling and screaming, arguing with Jesus, and she wasn’t even a Jew.
But she did want something from God. She was desperate enough, frantic enough, emotional enough to demand from this prophet Jesus something from his God.
Jesus is not helpful here. Jesus does not extend his hands to the woman and say, “There, there, don’t worry, I’ll take care of it. I’ll heal your daughter.”
But the woman won’t give up. She is being torn apart by the fact that her daughter might die. She was frightened and she was emotional. Then she and Jesus have this exchange: She says: “Lord help me.”
Jesus says: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
She says: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs get the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Jesus then relents and opens his heart and his healing power and says to the woman: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
Matthew then tells us that her daughter was healed instantly. Jesus goes from being judgmental and exclusive to being inclusive and loving.
Jesus is concerned about giving life only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. There is a Jewish-only clause in his theology. Jesus is frustrated, not by her emotional outburst, not by her shouting and her confrontation; Jesus is frustrated because she is a distraction from his mission.
And then, finally after more than one interruption, Jesus expands his mission and includes this woman (even though she is not going to become Jewish or Christian after her daughter is healed). She came to God with her understanding and left with a new understanding of God. But she did not change churches.
She did not become something she wasn’t.
Matthew’s world was changing. Matthew’s Gospel, many times, is referred to as the Jewish Gospel. He argues forcefully and consistently from a Jewish perspective. What Matthew is doing as he retells this story about Jesus is that the world is changing and it is not going to be the same anymore.
We could say the same thing about our time and our understanding of the Gospel in our context and our day.
Our world is changing. We stand in the midst of lots of conflict. Social, economic, political but much of that conflict is centered in our various religious perspectives.
We have divided ourselves into groups assuming we each have the truth. Some theologians argue that we all have the same God but we have different paths to get to God. Some theologians argue that we have only one way to God: the Christian way, the Muslim way, the Jewish way, the Buddhist way, etc., etc.,
Within Christianity we have the same tendency. We want it to be the Lutheran way, the Episcopal way, the Catholic way, the Baptist way, the Presbyterian way, etc., etc., etc.
But today we need get in touch with what’s in our heart. We need to get in touch with strong emotions. We need to hear Jesus reject and listen, stop being narrow-minded and judgmental and instead embrace being expansive and inclusive.
We need to encounter once again the scandalous inclusive love of God in Jesus and we need to ask ourselves: What’s does our heart say?