Sunday, August 14, 2011

9th Sunday after Pentecost - August 14, 2011

Upon reading the gospel lesson this week, two difficulties came into my mind.  The first one you can see on your bulletin insert, verses 10-20 are listed in parenthesis.  This is probably because they don’t seem to have anything to do with verses 21-28.  In those first verses he’s talking to a Jewish crowd about eating.  In the other verses, he heads out of the country and drives a demon out of a foreign woman’s daughter.  The one really doesn’t seem to have to do with the other. 

The second difficulty is that Jesus treats the Canaanite woman so contemptuously.  He basically calls her a dog.  It isn’t easy to hear those kinds of words in the mouth of our Savior.  Is there some explanation for it?    

As it turns out, everything in this gospel lesson fits together really well.  The two parts are like two parts of a puzzle and when you fit those two parts together, then it makes sense why Jesus treats the woman so harshly.  The first puzzle piece lays out an important teaching.  This is followed by the second puzzle piece which is a real life situation in Gentile country that illustrates the teaching for the disciples. 

Part I. Teaching:

Jesus tells the Jewish crowd, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”  Jesus is talking about Jewish dietary laws. If you look in the Old Testament, you will find all kinds of rules about what can be eaten and what can’t be.  Pigs, lobster and animals that aren’t killed or cooked in a particular way are off limits.  These dietary laws were important because they determined whether a person was “clean” or not.  Something or someone who was not “clean” could not be holy and could not even come into contact with what was holy.  Thus it was hugely important to eat the right things in order to be clean, because doing so had spiritual consequences.

Jesus is doing something amazing here.  He tells the crowd that it does not matter what you eat.  He is not tweaking the system or reinterpreting it.  He is turning on its head.  The Law says that what you eat matters a lot!  Jesus says that what you eat doesn’t matter at all.  We can see that this caused some controversy because the disciples say to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?”  Of course they took offense!  Jesus is attacking their beliefs.

Peter now steps forward and asks for Jesus to explain this controversial teaching.  This is what Jesus tells him, “What you eat just ends up in the toilet anyway.  It really doesn’t matter.  Instead, what matters is what comes out of you, your words.  Because the words that you speak testify to what is really in you.  If you are full of wickedness, then wicked things will come out of you in your words, and this is what makes you dirty, not the food that you eat.”  We could put this in a different way.  “It isn’t the cover on the book that matters, but the content of the book.”

So, to take stock: Jesus has just overturned Jewish religious practice.  He has just told the disciples that part of what they have grown up believing is wrong.  It isn’t easy to be confronted with a new teaching like this.  It isn’t easy to adjust.  Sometimes we need to hear the same lesson in a new way, or see the lesson play out in front of us.  And this leads to our next section.

Part II. Object Lesson

This is when Jesus and his disciples head north, out of Jewish territory and into the land of the Gentiles.  According to the old way of thinking, they were headed into unclean territory where people don’t eat the right way.  Thus, according to the old way of thinking, the people that they meet will be unclean.  And I believe this is the reason for the trip.  Jesus is going to show them what the new teaching means in practice.  Or rather, an “unclean” Canaanite woman is going to show them what the new teaching means.  This will be an object lesson for the disciples.

So here’s the situation, Jesus and his disciples are walking along, minding their own business. Jesus isn’t teaching the crowds or anything like that; there aren’t any crowds; he is there on the down low, incognito. 

And then up runs this woman and she starts shouting at Jesus, saying, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”  Now what we want to have happen is for him to take care of the problem right away.  But remember that his concern is for this Canaanite woman to teach his disciples an object lesson.  And so he ignores her and just keeps walking along.  She continues to shout and to make a scene.  The disciples just want Jesus to quick take care of the daughter so that the woman will go away.  After all, she isn’t an important person, she isn’t Jewish, she’s one of those unclean people, she is of no account.

But Jesus tells them no, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  Is Jesus being serious?  Has he come only to the Jews?  I don’t think so.  I think he is inviting the disciples to apply the lesson that he has just taught them.  Do they do it?  No, of course not.  And that is why the Canaanite woman must teach it to them.  So here is the lesson.

First, the conventional wisdom says that she is dirty.  She is not a Jew, so she hasn’t been following Jewish dietary laws.  Therefore, she has been putting all kinds of things into her mouth, lobster, ham, bacon, etc...... that make her unclean.  Because she is unclean in the matter of food, that means that she cannot be holy or come near to the holy.

But the words coming out of her mouth are the following, “ Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.”  By calling him the Son of David, she is essentially calling him the Messiah.  The words coming out of her mouth testify to what is inside her.  And Jesus has just taught that it is what is inside of us and that comes out which make us holy.  And what is inside of her is faith.  She believes that Jesus is the Messiah and she believes that he can help her daughter.  There is faith inside of her which comes out in words.  This is what makes her holy.  It is faith that justifies.

The woman is the embodiment of the lesson.  She is the lesson in human flesh.  According to the old teaching she is worthless.  According to Jesus’ new teaching, she is clean and holy, because what is inside of her is faith.

To hear the harsh words which come next, we must understand that Jesus is drawing something out of her that she needs to say and something that the disciples need to hear and learn. 

“Lord, help me” she says.  Jesus replies, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  Ouch.  With those words, Jesus has laid out the old teaching.  The old teaching said that the Gentiles were the outsiders.  The old teaching said that only the Jews were God’s chosen people and they drew near to him by keeping the Law.  Jesus gives her this old teaching like a hanging curveball......

She replies with the new teaching and hits it out of the park, “Yes, Lord, for even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”  “Yes, the Jews are fed first; they have received the teaching.  But God cares for us Gentiles too.  God provides for us Gentiles too.”  She speaks words of faith.  Before, being clean was only for the Jews, being close to God was for the Jews.  This was the understanding.  And this understanding was based on the Law.  But now Jesus has changed this.  Being near to God, being clean and holy is now based only on faith.  And what an example of faith she is.  There is faith on the inside of her that comes out in her words.  This faith is what makes her clean, what makes her holy.  This is the lesson that she has taught the disciples. 

So the basic Lutheran teaching that we can see from our lesson today is that the Law has been surpassed by the gospel.  It is faith that saves, not following the rules, not being part of the right group.  No, it is faith.

In closing, consider this.  The Canaanite woman understands and confesses that Jesus is the Son of David, which means the Messiah.  Next week, you will hear in the gospel lesson that Peter confesses this very same thing; and he gets all kinds of credit for being the first one to figure it out.  But this Gentile woman has beaten him to the punch!  She has understood the new teaching of Jesus!  It is not the works of the law, the things that we eat and all that business that matter, but only faith in Jesus Christ which is in our hearts and on our lips.  Amen.

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