When you were a child what did your mom tell you about washing up? Did you always have to wash your hands before dinner? Did she remind you remind you to wash behind your ears? That piece of advice always seems to be something out of Leave it to Beaver. I do have to confess; now that I’m a parent I worried more about some other areas getting washed more than behind the ears. There are other things I remember from my childhood I heard kids say their moms or grandmothers always told them. Did anyone get the advice to always wear clean underwear when they go out in case you got in an accident, at least you would have clean underwear on? I never understood that one either because if I got in a car accident my underwear probably wouldn’t be clean anymore anyway. But what these pieces of advice were doing was keeping us prepared, clean, making us ready to eat or interact with the world.
Many of you probably have heard the word Kosher. It is the name for the Jewish dietary laws. A food is kosher if it follows the preparations and other rules of the Jewish faith. Take out your Bibles or if you don’t have one grab one of the red ones in the pews and turn to Leviticus 11. Scan this chapter quickly. It is here that we get some of the dietary laws. As you can read you learn that a kosher animal has a divided hoof and is cleft-footed and chews the cud (v.3). If an animal has all that then it is a clean animal to eat. You cannot eat a camel because it may chew the cud by it does not have a divided hoof; same with a rabbit. A pig has a divided hoofs and is cleft-footed but it doesn’t chew the cud so it is unclean. It continues with other restrictions and recommendations.
Kosher is not a style of cooking. There is no such thing as “kosher-style” food. If a restaurant promotes “kosher-style” food what they mean is that they offer classic Jewish foods. Chinese food can be kosher if it is prepared correctly. Nor does it mean that if a rabbi blesses the food that it automatically becomes kosher. Once again it has to be prepared a certain way using certain ingredients. Some classic foods that we associate with being kosher are matzah ball soup, knishes or bagels. Yet these can be made non-kosher. I recently watched a show on the Food network about the best finger foods the hosts from different programs ever ate. One of the hosts mentioned bacon wrapped matzah balls. Well as we know bacon is actually pig and pigs are not kosher. Although the motzah ball could be kosher wrapping it bacon makes it null and void. I like how the host said it was both delicious and sacrilegious.
But what does this have to do with our scripture today? In the beginning of the 15th chapter of Matthew the Pharisees and scribes had come to Jesus and were asking him questions. They wanted to know why Jesus’ disciples didn’t wash their hands before they ate. Jesus replies by asking them “and why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” You see washing hands before they eat was a tradition of the elders and it is what a good Jew did back then. But Jesus wasn’t concentrating on what traditions told him to do. He was attempting to break them out of that and so that is when we pick up the story in the 10th verse. Jesus turns from the Pharisees and calls the crowds to him says, “Listen, and take this to heart. It’s not what you swallow that pollutes your life, but what you vomit up.”
This has to be a middle school boy’s favorite part of the Bible because all Jesus talks about in these first ten verses is throw-up and poop. Jesus uses some harsh language here that differs from his normal style of talking. We are not use to hearing words like vomit and defecated come from Jesus’ mouth. I wonder if he was getting a little agitated or even a lot agitated at the Pharisees and scribes and then the disciples. The harsh language is because these are the people that are supposed to understand. The normal people, out there in the crowd, they may get it, some might understand, but the religious leaders and his own disciples knew better. They were the ones who were supposed to shake their heads in agreement as Jesus said these things. “Ah yes, it is what comes out of your mouth that is more important than what goes in.” But they miss the point.
The point is that traditions are good and they do have a place. Kosher laws were set up for a couple of reasons. They helped keep a nation healthy. If you were to grow up a nation and take over the holy land, you would want them to be as healthy as possible. So you would have them stay away from foods that caused illness or were tricky to prepare without the luxury of refrigerators and pasteurization. If eating dairy products and meat causes upset stomach and other more personal issues, than why not stay away from those? It also helped people from not eating the help. If you are wandering the desert with thousands of people, you will need beasts of burdens like camels to help carry stuff. If camels start looking like food they may not be around to carry the family tents. Also if you are trying to show the difference between your people and others, if you are trying to show a better way of living and being over other cultures, you will need to separate yourselves on many levels. Including some of the basic ways of life, like what you eat. Kosher laws were traditions that helped formulate a culture.
But what was happening in Jesus’ time was that people were putting too high a price on tradition, especially these. They were looking for what people put into their bodies as what set them apart. You lived like God wanted you to live if you ate the right foods not if you feed the hungry. Jesus came to put that all on its head. He uses harsh language because he really wants us to pay attention. He doesn’t want us to be like Peter, who he calls “willfully stupid.” What we put in our mouth is along for the ride and will eventually head out the other end. That usually ends in up in the sewer and taken far away from us. But what we say, what we live out in our daily lives that stays with us always. That isn’t flushed, that reputation is pushed in front of us everywhere we go.
On my recent flight to Dallas I realized after everyone boarded that I was stuck on a stereotypical flight. There was a Mary Kay convention also in Dallas and the plane was full of ladies all dolled up and looking their Mary Kay best. Across the aisle and back one row was an 18th month old with his two parents and beside me was a Muslim couple. During the flight the toddler got restless and cranky which I didn’t blame him at all with all the Mary Kay chatter happening in at least three different languages. The couple next to me fell asleep as I pulled out the book I was reading and flipped to the next chapter which had in big bold letters on the top of the page said HELL. I laughed a little because I realized in that moment who I was. I was a minister, on a plane, reading a book on hell. I was one of those stereotypes too.
When we come in contact with stereotype moments that is when we vomit up all kinds of thoughts and feelings. That is where our inner selves start to show and take control of our outer selves. I learned later that the couple next to me was going to Dallas to scout it out because the wife was going to Dental school down there. The baby, after getting a snack was really good. To be a parent of a small child and to be crammed into a tube with over a hundred people has to be nerve racking and stressful. To be Muslim and fly one has to be seen with all kinds of curious, judgmental, and convicting eyes.
The same was true in Jesus’ time. The regions of Tyre and Sidon were gentile areas. Jews and Gentiles (which really means anyone who wasn’t Jewish) didn’t get along. When they interacted together bigotry and stereotypes flowed. In this closing scene in today’s text a Canaanite woman calls out to Jesus to have mercy on her and to heal her daughter. Jesus ignores her. This alone is a far more civil response than what could have happened. The disciples come and ask Jesus to take care of her because she is driving them crazy. He tells them that he has his hands full with the lost sheep of Israel. In this conversation Jesus is setting up the lines drawn by stereotypes. He is using this comment to draw that comforting line that states that Jews were on one side and Gentiles were on the other.
The woman is persistent and falls to her knees begging for mercy. Jesus answers her this time with a line that would get a ton of Jew’s heads nodding. He says, “It’s not right to take bread out of children’s mouths and throw it to dogs.” Here Jesus is equating her to a dog. It has the same type of feel as when we refer to someone as a dog today especially a female one. But then she reminds him that dogs that beg do get scraps from the master’s table. The stereotypically line is still in tack. It is still there. Jesus refers to her as a dog putting her on one side of the line and the woman agrees to that placement by not moving herself up in the social later, admitting that she is a begging dog.
This would all be comfortable for everyone involved. In fact the disciples were probably happy to see Jesus react this way. Their stereotypes, their racism is being vindicated and supported here. When they see her they think, “She is Gentile and Jesus is the Messiah for the Jews.” It is the kingdom of Israel the disciples were hoping would be restored but that is not the kingdom Jesus says is at hand.
It is like when we look at Muslims and think they are all terrorists. It is like when we hear the person speaking Spanish down the isle of the grocery store and we look at them like they have committed a crime. It is like when use dehumanizing and derogatory language to refer to other races and cultures. It makes us feel better about ourselves and puts us above them. Here Jesus seems to be following suit, until we get to the last verse. There he takes our stereotypes, our fear of those people who are different, and he flips it on its head.
It is in this moment that he lives out what he was just talking about. It is here that he shows them it is what comes out of our mouth that finds its start in our heart. Jesus has a compassionate heart, a loving heart, and grace-filled heart. His heart hears her cry and then sees her faith. She may not even believe in his Father because of her Gentile roots but she knows her daughter needs someone. She knows that Jesus is known for healing and has faith that if he wanted to her daughter could be healed. So she calls out to the Son of David and calls him Master. She acknowledges herself in the cultural setting but also has the faith that Jesus can and will heal.
What comes out of Jesus mouth is not more racism or dehumanizing language. What comes out is grace because that is what is in his heart. When we look at our heart do we find evil arguments, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, lies, and slander? Do we find racism, self-importance, and judgment? Or do we find the heart of God that welcomes all to the master’s table? Walter Brueggemann, a biblical scholar, says, “We cannot go from stereotypes to God, but must begin with God and from that understand what the term God means. God breaks our stereotypes.”
We have to learn that when we fill ourselves up with hate that is what we will vomit up. When we concentrate on the things that don’t really matter like language, skin color, political affiliation, sexual orientation, or nationality we aren’t seeing thing through God’s eyes. We have to learn to flush that along with all the other stuff that gets in our way of becoming more Christ like. We have to learn to share mercy with those who need it; to offer grace instead of judgment; to see faith instead of stereotypes; we will fill ourselves up with the things of God and our heart will be transformed.
And all God’s people said…Amen.