10Jesus 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 offence 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.’ 15Peter 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? 19Out 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 went 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. 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.
Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.
Over the centuries leading up to the time of Christ the Jewish religious establishment had developed several rituals which they insisted on people observing. One of those was the ritual cleaning of hands before eating food. Just as with the older rules of some foods being considered not safe to eat because they were associated with various forms of sickness, so too, with the cleansing of hands. Does it remind us of the instructions which have been pushed hard during 2020 as we cope with Covid-19 infections being spread because we pick up the bug from somewhere and have no defence against it. Let’s not forget that the scientific understanding we have about germs didn’t exist 2000 years ago. Jesus wasn’t against the idea of washing hands before eating food. He would undoubtedly have seen the impact of people eating food with contaminants on the hands, but He was very much against the rituals which had been forced on people. Telling His audience that eating without the ritual cleaning wouldn’t cause problems was always going to get up the nose of the Pharisees, and Jesus would have known that. The disciples, on the other hand, appear not to realise that people will often take offence about the least important matters when there is a suggestion that their own approach is not wise. Christ’s comments that ‘every plant not planted by God will be uprooted, and describing certain people as the blind leading the blind into a pit, will have been seen as direct criticism of the religious leaders. Looking at the track record over the centuries since then shows that we have learned little: we have not ‘listened’ or ‘understood’ (v10).
Doubting Peter, always prepared to show he doesn’t understand what Jesus is about, needs clarification, just like we do, but are afraid to ask, or too often we’re told our questions are silly, or we should know, or they’re ignored by those who can answer but don’t want to.
Allowing for the problems of getting infections because we don’t wash hands well enough, Jesus reminds us that food goes into our mouths, passing through our digestive system before the waste is disposed of in the sewer, and so cannot defile us. On the other hand, what comes out of our mouths as we speak, or what actions we take, are directed by the heart, and humans have an unfortunate tendency to speak and act inappropriately. When we tell others to do something because it’s in our interests, or protects our power base, we are defying God and misleading the people. How we try to control others for our own benefits determines our level of defilement.
So we move to the story that many avoid, because of the way Jesus talks to a woman, but we shouldn’t be afraid. This is early in Christ’s ministry, and He was focussed on the lost sheep of Israel, rather than expanding to include non-Jewish people. The woman who pleads with Jesus was a Canaanite, who would be used to dogs, as pets, eating at the same time as the family, and picking up the scraps, whereas the Jews wouldn’t allow dogs anywhere near the feeding family, but if we look closely at what she said, we can note that she was aware of who Jesus was. She addressed Him as “Lord”, respecting His status as a rabbi, she called him “Son of David” thereby claiming kinship through the Davidic line, and she knew that He could show mercy for her. She didn’t have her troubled daughter with her, but she recognised that Jesus could heal the child all the same.
The disciples want her sent away because she was crying out and annoying them, and they, as Jews, didn’t want anything to do with her. The Greek verb κραζω (kradzo), which gets translated as crying out, or screaming, also has a connotation of being like a crow’s call, which can be penetrating and annoying. Were they also reacting to how she sounded as she tried to get Christ’s attention?
When Jesus did respond it was in a way which was typical of Jewish interaction with Canaanite people: “I have come for the lost sheep of Israel, why should I waste the food on you?” The text doesn’t indicate to us if He was responding directly to the woman, or to the disciples, but it does show Christ’s humanity, and it provides an opportunity for her to come back at Him, and show Him that His mission wasn’t limited to the Jews. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs which fall from the master’s table”. In other words, even though you might think of us as low lifes, we can still listen to, and benefit from, the Lord’s words and healing, and we can still appreciate Him for who He is.
Her persistence has paid off: her daughter is healed, and Jesus celebrates that He has found someone with faith strong enough to counter the arguments put forward from Jewish culture.
If we turn this into a 21st century story, based in Australia, we can see how people of different cultures, or with different ideas, whether they have lived here for 50000 years or 6 months, can be mistreated by those who hold the keys to power. How do we treat people who are different from us, or who bring a different approach to a passage of scripture?