A sermon for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, August, 20, 2017
Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York
It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.
The setting of today’s Gospel is that Jesus had been healing people on the shore of the lake, where they landed after that stormy night that we read about last week. People were broken, sick and infirm, and Jesus made them whole with his touch. And some religious people came along who were very worried about whether Jesus’ disciples were washing their hands properly. In fact, the healing didn’t matter at all to them, it was the forms of purity that were all-important. Jesus points out to these ultra-religious people that their technical compliance with rules is really a way to avoid complying with one of the most important of the Ten Commandments, “Honor your father and your mother.” Then, today’s passage begins and Jesus says to 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.”
It would be a mistake to think that by saying this, Jesus is against Judaism or against a particular Jewish group, like the Pharisees, who were the most devout and active religious group in Palestine in those days. Many prophets and rabbis had said similar things.
What Jesus was saying was: Stop trying to game the system. Stop using your religious observance as a way to feel superior to others. Once people get into positions of power – in business, in government, in the church – they often turn sanctimonious and say to others: If you’re not doing what I say you should do, then you’re defiled. Jesus won’t go along with this. It is what comes out from the inside that defiles, Jesus says. The products of hatred, disrespect and selfishness defile the people of God. “Murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.” How much do we see these on the national scene nowadays? How often are they excused – even by the President of the United States? How is it that his councils of advice have resigned, except for those religious leaders who he appointed to give him spiritual guidance?
It takes a transformation and cleansing of the heart to live the life of God’s compassion. It takes courage to heal. In our Gospel today, the religious people took offense. Jesus was aware that they would. People protect their selfishness, and their self-serving manipulations; especially religious people. The holiness of God is not revered by honoring a form, an image, an idol, a statue. God is revered by accepting God’s mercy, by living from God’s generosity—seeking the good of others, welcoming those who have not been welcomed, healing the broken hearts of those who suffer or who have been rejected. It takes courage to be with Jesus in this way, because he won’t necessarily let us off the hook, settling into the comfort of our own self-righteousness, or into the isolation of our own hurts. He gives us no room to be smug.
It’s no accident that the story about the woman whose daughter had a demon follows directly after this in the Gospel of Matthew. The disciples, of course, represent the church, and like the church, we love the disciples and we’re with them and they show us the truth of the Gospel as much in how they misunderstand it as by how they live it. Jesus has moved from the scene of conflict with the Pharisees and healing the multitudes out to the coast. There’s some indication that he went out to the shore, to get away from a lot of what had been going on – not that different from why people are out on the Jersey Shore or Cape Cod right now. It was foreign territory and Jesus was on a break from his mission to change and heal his fellow people of Israel.
It’s kind of fashionable nowadays for preachers to criticize Jesus in this passage, putting themselves in a position of moral superiority, seeing Jesus as insulting the woman, not seeing the dignity of the woman or his responsibility toward her right away. I read it a bit differently. Jesus is walking and this woman makes her plea. And he remains silent, reflecting, taking it all in. She’s upset and she knows that Jesus casts out demons, and this is about her daughter who she loves. And Jesus is silent, just walking. And the disciples are just like all these church people, and even, perhaps especially clergy, who have the quick answer, the decisive fix, and they know how to get rid of problems. “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”
I’m not certain who Jesus is talking to when he says the next sentence. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Maybe to the disciples. Not exactly as a reproof to them, but reminding them of his focus. Maybe reflecting to himself, “who are the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the woman heard him and courageously and tenaciously engaged him. “It isn’t fair to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs.” And she expands on the metaphor, “even the dogs eat the crumbs.”
Jesus says: “Great is your faith.” This isn’t because Jesus lost the argument, no matter how convincing the loving mother was. It’s that he understands her faithfulness. And her faithfulness isn’t to some doctrine or rule. Her faith is demonstrated through her deep compassion for another, for her child, which gives her the courage to stand up to Jesus.
We’ve seen another example just this week come out of a terrible national tragedy. That was when Heather Heyer’s mother said at her daughter’s funeral: “I’d rather have my child, but by golly, if I’ve got give her up, we’re going to make it count.” In the Gospel story the woman’s child is described as having a demon. There’s no specific or graphic description, but as I’ve said here before, that the demonic is a human, not a divine or magical reality. The demons are the results and symptoms of the evils of a society, where the angers, fears and selfishness are pushed off and dislocated: sometimes onto the weak or vulnerable, sometimes onto the most fearful or angry. Jesus saw this woman’s depth of faith and compassion and he said, “Let it be done for you as you wish.” And the child was healed immediately, just as those in the crowds were healed, those people who Jesus addressed, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”
O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.