A Sermon by Teresa Anderson Franklin
for Nacoochee Presbyterian Church
Based on Matthew 15:10-28
Today I want to talk about heart problems, but not the kind that sends us to a cardiologist for treatment. Rather, I want to address certain influences which Jesus lists while explaining a parable to his disciples, when he says, “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
The parable comes about in answer to an accusation leveled against Jesus’ followers by some Pharisees and scribes. The educated elite are critical of Jesus’ disciples who are said to sometimes eat with unwashed hands – thereby defying religious tradition.
Jesus had some harsh words for the Pharisees and scribes about their so-called religious traditions, saying, “For the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. 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.’” (Matthew 15:6-9) In other words, Jesus boldly questions the authority of their doctrines – not just their traditions, but the very doctrines which underpin them.
Since the question at hand is one of defilement by eating with unwashed hands, Jesus goes to the heart of the matter by identifying the specific influences that defile human hearts – and it isn’t dirty hands. Jesus says it’s corrupt, or ‘evil,’ intentions – the kind that lead people to commit atrocities, like “murder, adultery, theft, false witness, (and) slander.”
I would describe sin as anything that separates us from God and from God’s will. I’d imagine you’d agree with me wholeheartedly that “murder, adultery, theft, false witness (and) slander” are rightly classified as sin. But what about the item that leads Jesus’ list of things that defile – evil intent – the very root from which grow the fruits of sin.
The disagreement between Jesus and the Pharisees is about the source of defilement – defilement being inner corruption or impurity. The Pharisees and scribes insist it lies in disobedience – or rejection – of one’s traditions. But Jesus says corruption comes from our hearts – from intentions we harbor deep within us, mostly against people we believe have wronged or offended us.
Sometimes it isn’t easy to know – or recognize – our own intentions, as we do a great many things out of habit. We proceed in a certain way because that’s the way we’ve always done it. We may not question, or even be aware of, the motivations behind our actions or words.
Immediately following this teaching on what does and doesn’t defile a person, Jesus himself comes face-to-face with a situation which compels self-evaluation – an occasion in which he’s led to ask himself if he’s indeed made some erroneous assumptions about his own intentions. And Jesus’ self-questioning comes about because of a request from an outsider – a woman, and a Canaanite.
Her daughter suffers from a condition which throws the child into fits of uncontrollable behavior. The mother comes to Jesus seeking healing for her daughter, because she’s heard of this Galilean’s ability to heal those who suffer this way.
And I don’t believe there is ever any doubt about whether Jesus can heal her sick daughter. The uncertainty that comes into question isn’t whether he can do it but whether he will do it. Should Jesus heal this Canaanite woman’s daughter?
Initially, Jesus thinks no, he shouldn’t. It wouldn’t be right, for he was sent to the lost children of Israel – not to Canaanites. It is as if he tells her at first that her daughter’s suffering isn’t his affair – it’s none of his business. But the woman isn’t satisfied with Jesus’ rejection. She presses him to reconsider. Though he – as a Jewish man – is tempted to think of her, and her kind, as less than human – somewhat like hungry dogs – she challenges his long-held assumptions by reminding him of her humanity – how she can love her daughter more than life itself and certainly more than her own dignity. For she answers, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Do you remember how Jesus had just called the Pharisees and scribes ‘hypocrites’ because they wash their hands but aren’t concerned with the hardness of their hearts toward others? Now Jesus is putting the same question to himself. Am I being hypocritical? Am I guilty of judging this woman too harshly because she isn’t Jewish, because I haven’t, before now, considered her and her people worthy of the gift of God’s mercy? And he concludes, yes, he’d been wrong to exclude and deny her. So he changes his mind and heals her daughter. He commends the woman’s great faith. In fulfilling her request on behalf of her child, Jesus acknowledges the Canaanite woman’s humanity and her worthiness of God’s grace.
I’ve had reason this past week to give some thought to this issue of defilement – corruption of human hearts and lives. Where it starts and how it expresses itself – oftentimes in violence, and always in cruelty. On August 12, 2017, a Charlottesville, Virginia, rally of white nationalists led to the death of an innocent counter-protestor. A month or so after the rally, I had the opportunity to watch a Vice News documentary that went behind the scenes with the leaders of the protest in Charlottesville. The video made me privy to some of the comments of white nationalists which offended so many Americans during the coverage of the event, comments like: “Whose streets? Our streets,” and “White lives matter,” “We’ll f’in’ kill these people if we have to,” and “Parasitic class of anti-white vermin,” and “That which is degenerate in white countries will be removed,” and “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”
Let me conclude this recollection of nastiness with the portentous words of the last Facebook post of Heather Heyer, the young counter-protestor who was killed in Charlottesville, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
We all must be outraged. Hate speech does not promote dialog. It does not promote peace, or unity, or mutual understanding. Hate speech – and the assumptions behind it – separates people into warring tribes and turns us into warriors and combatants. That’s what Jesus realizes after he refers to the Canaanite woman’s daughter as a dog. That his assumptions about her were both unfounded and unfair. That he’d adopted them without examining them, without validating their authority. And what he found when he did examine them – in the face of the Canaanite woman’s great faith and bold request – is that the biased assumptions about Canaanites, which he’d inherited as a Jewish male, had no legitimate authority and so must be abandoned in favor of mercy, compassion and openness.
I believe that we serve a compassionate God – one who chooses to look on us with love and forgiveness, when there is every justification for looking on us with judgement. God doesn’t condemn us because we choose sin over righteousness, or hate over love, or violence over forgiveness. God doesn’t condemn us, but rather loves us, continuing to reach out to us, despite our sins, and calls us to higher ambitions: to love others in the same merciful way in which God loves us – without bigotry or condemnation or hate.
Our challenge is, and always has been, to become more godly people by becoming less judgmental and condemning of those who are not like us – who don’t look like us, or think like us, or see the world as we see it. Jesus discovered one day that such people are just like us – needful of God’s grace and worthy of God’s love.
Thanks be to God.