Sermon; 11 Pentecost/Proper 15A; Matthew 15:10-28
When dealing with Scripture, or anything for that matter, context is important. At its most basic level, context rounds out a story so we can fully understand what is going on. At its most important level, context keeps us from making harmful or dangerous sweeping generalizations from only one particular point. For instance, there's a place in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus tells his disciples, “Go away from me, you evil doers.” Taken out of context you can see how this changes the whole image of Jesus. But placed in context, we see that his words are directed to those religious people who follow Christ superficially while refusing to put his words into meaningful action.
Why am I bringing this up? Because even though today's gospel passage may sound complete, it's missing some context. “Jesus said to the crowd, 'Listen and understand. It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth that defiles'.”
This is certainly a good teaching, and one to which we should pay attention. As Jesus explains, what goes into the mouth is processed, the necessary nutrients extracted, and the rest goes into the sewer. It is what comes out of the mouth, however, that reveals our true nature and how we damage and hurt other people; things like murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, etc. But Jesus didn't just sit down and say to the crowd, “Hey everyone! Gather 'round and listen up; I've got something to tell you.” So . . . context.
If you remember from last week, Jesus had sent the disciples on ahead in the boat, a storm developed, Jesus and Peter walked on water, and when the storm ceased they crossed on over to Gennesaret where the people brought all who were sick to him to be healed. Gennesaret is in Jewish territory on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. While there, he is approached by some Pharisees and scribes who had apparently been watching him and the disciples for an opportunity to strike.
“Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” Game. On.
“And why do you break the commandments of God for the sake of your tradition?”
From there Jesus launches into an attack on how those “sacred traditions” have been used to skirt the commandments of God that were designed to help the needy. In this case, the specific tradition he was attacking allowed a person to designate an offering to the Lord that was then untouchable by anyone else – including the parents of the one making the offering, no matter how much in need they were. Jesus concludes his rant to the Pharisees by quoting Isaiah 29:13:
“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.”
There is, in this story, an underlying tension between what one person or group thinks are important piety issues and what another person or group thinks. It doesn't take much observing to see that various Christian groups quarrel with other Christian groups over traditions and practices that are both large and small. It seems we would rather fight about our traditions than look to see how each may be working for the kingdom of God. These traditions may have started as a good thing, but they may also stagnate our faith and our ability to proclaim the good news. Part of the evolution of our faith, though, is to recognize when things need to change.
Once upon a time in the Episcopal church, only men could become priests and bishops. Divorced people were barred from Holy Communion. Marriage was limited to a man and a woman. But, as we moved forward, we saw that God could work just as well through women. We understood that marriages fail for a variety of reasons and barring people from Communion did more harm than good. We learned that love could be expressed fully between people of the same gender just as well as it could be expressed between a man and a woman. In short, we evolved in ways that truly began to exhibit God's love to all people, and in that evolution we have made the decision to cast aside some of the traditions of our elders.
I'm currently making my way through a book entitled, The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution, and the Power of Love, by Ilia Delio. The basic premise of the book is that God works through evolution because God is a God of newness and creativity, and that self-giving love is the source and goal of evolution. Evolution, she says, is a constant unfolding and unveiling of divinity in creation. She also says that Jesus Christ, Son of God, was a “wholemaker” (with a “W”), bringing together those who were divided, separated, or left out of the whole. This is, as Scripture says, a new creation. And Delio argues it is evolution at work.
Which brings me to the second part of today's gospel. Because even though Jesus, Son of God, is working with and through evolution to bring about a new creation, Jesus, Son of Mary, product of Nazareth, and man from Galilee, still had to learn this.
We are told that Jesus and the boys leave Gennesaret and head on over to Tyre and Sidon, towns in Gentile territory that had a sizable population of Jews who had left their home country for one reason or another. He's approached by a Canaanite woman who is looking to have her daughter healed. Jesus ignores her and the disciples urge him to dismiss her, but she persists, as would most parents desperate to find a cure for their child.
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” Jesus tells her, a probable reference to those Jews living in that Gentile region. And here we have Jesus the man making the same mistake as the Pharisees earlier.
The Pharisees were overly focused on the traditions of the faith that had developed over time to the point that they lost sight of the commandments of God. Jesus the man, I think, was overly focused on his mission to ONLY the lost sheep of Israel that he lost sight of an evolutionary God working to make whole that which had been divided and separated. And because he lost sight of that new creation of loving wholeness, he made the mistake of disregarding this Canaanite woman.
Hopefully Jesus was able to convince the Pharisees to reconsider their position about those sacred traditions and religious laws in favor of seeing the bigger picture of the will of God. Regardless of whether he was successful or not (and in reading the rest of the gospel story, it would appear he wasn't), this Canaanite woman got Jesus to open his eyes to see the evolutionary new creation of God. She got him to see yet another way he could be a “wholemaker” and bring together those who were divided.
Context is important. When we add in the confrontation with the Pharisees, we can see how both they and Jesus were overly focused on only one aspect of their faith – traditions of the elders and a mission to the lost sheep – so that they both missed the larger purpose of God.
Traditions are not bad things, we just need to be careful that they don't blind us to the will of God. Having a specific mission isn't a bad thing; we just need to make sure we don't limit our ability to bring together those who seem to be separated or left out of God's new creation of love.
Context is everything. As we move forward in this changed world, let us not be afraid to evaluate both our traditions and our mission in the context of God's evolving new creation of love.