Scripture Readings: Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 | Psalm 67 | Romans 11:1–2a, 29–32 | Matthew 15:10-28
“But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 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.”
Cleanliness is a big concern these days… of course, for good reason. Though this was true long before the rise of COVID-19, and the renewed attention that has come along with it to simple practices like frequent hand-washing. The old phrase “Cleanliness is next to godliness” was quoted by the Anglican Priest and Methodist founder John Wesley, way back in a sermon from the 1780’s entitled “On Visiting the Sick”, and now questions of cleanliness come up when we consider visiting with anyone. As blessed as we have been for the most part here in Atlantic Canada, this ongoing global pandemic has still made us all more aware of the risks of being unclean… and what to do to avoid it.
In our Gospel passage this week we have two seemingly unrelated stories: Christ’s teachings on what it means to be truly unclean, brought about by a dispute about eating food with unwashed hands, and an uncomfortable encounter between our Lord, and a Canaanite woman. But as different as these stories may seem on the surface, held together they help to reveal what we could call spiritual cleanliness… helping us to understand what it means, and what it does not mean, to draw close to, and share our whole lives with, the Living God.
In the first part of our Gospel reading we hear Jesus teaching His followers that “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles” (Matt. 15:11). He says this in response to a dispute about handwashing before eating, which the Pharisees, a devoutly religious group, insisted should be practiced by all… even though this tradition was not found in the Old Testament Law.
Now given what we know today about how germs and diseases are spread, everyone washing their hands before eating was certainly a good idea when it comes to promoting health. But the issue here was not really about
sanitation, but about sacredness: this was a debate about ritual purity… about cleanliness based on God’s Law, not about a healthy lifestyle or disease prevention.
In the ancient world, and in the Old Testament Law the concept of ritual purity, of spiritual cleanliness, was extremely important for maintaining a healthy relationship with the divine. Being ritually clean was about upholding the sacredness of God, recognizing that He is holy, and that to be with God, to share His life, we must be made holy too. One scholar writes that, in the Bible, “Cleanness is a condition of being obedient to the statutes and ordinances of the law, which allows one to encounter the holy without danger.”  Being unclean meant that one was not prepared to draw close to the LORD… until the proper steps were taken to make one clean again. Hartley goes on to not that “There is no harm, however, in becoming unclean. Uncleanness neither harms or destroys. Destruction comes from the holy when uncleanness is brought into its presence... The danger lies in mixing holiness and uncleanness.”
In order to avoid any divine trouble, the Pharisees had gone well beyond the Old Testament Laws, and insisted that their own tradition of ritual handwashing made them spiritually superior. In short, they were focussing on outward practices they thought would make them fit to be closer to God… and they were upset when others, like Christ’s disciples, did not follow their lead.
But Jesus goes on to explain to His confused followers that the Pharisees are actually way off track; that for all their extra traditions that help them appear clean on the outside, they were not really doing much about being made clean on the inside… which is much more significant in shaping our lives: “[W]hat comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19 For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.” Here Christ is warning not only the Pharisees, but all who merely try to seem close to God on the outside, while letting sin run amok under the surface... where it draws us into all sorts of destructive and self-destructive ways of life.
Christ wants us to seethat Living God is concerned with our whole lives: our outward, public actions, and our inner selves as well. We need to do more than wash our hands: we need deep cleansing through and through.
After this, the Gospel story quickly shifts to this strange encounter between our Lord and a Canaanite woman… a mother… desperately begging Jesus to rescue her daughter from the destructive influence of a demon… a being also known as an unclean spirit… a rebellious spiritual creature at odds with the will of the Living God.
So much about this story is hard for us to hear: We’re told that Jesus at first simply ignores her heartfelt pleas… because she is not an Israelite; she is a Gentile, a Canaanite… a descendant of Israel’s enemies from centuries long past… and Christ says He “was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel”. This response seems cold enough, but when the Canaanite mother does not give up Jesus makes use of an insulting Israelites term used to describe those “unclean” Gentiles: dogs.
Why does Jesus respond this way? What is going on here?
As I have said before, it is always dangerous to try and explain away the things about Jesus or the Living God that make us uncomfortable. We can easily fall into the temptation of trying to smooth over the rough edges of our faith instead of being open to God’s disruptive word to us. In fact, there are times when God seems to intend for us to be uncomfortable… to wrestle with Him, and seek to understand what He is doing… which can also force us to face what’s really going on in our own hearts… and exposing what lies deep beneath the surface of our lives.
Whatever the reason for Jesus’ strange response to the Canaanite mother, let us consider what happens as a result: In the face of apparent silence… rejection… and even insult, this Canaanite Gentile shows her true colours what was in the depths of her heart: she persists… she does not give up… she continues to believe… she places her faith, and the fate of her daughter, on the mercy of Jesus. Unlike the Pharisees, who seemed very concerned with being clean on the outside, yet who responded to Jesus’ ministry with insults and rejection… this unclean Gentile persevered and placed all her hope in Jesus, who sees and praises her for her great faith, and sets her child free… holding her up as an example for all who would follow Him.
The theologian Stanley Hauerwas points out how her humble faith continues to inspire the prayers of the Church even today: “This woman, this unknown Canaanite woman, not only becomes for us Gentiles the forerunner of our faith, but her reply to Jesus teaches us how to speak. It is not accidental that we are taught to pray before we receive the body and blood of Christ:
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he is us. Amen.”
The Canaanite mother’s faith in the mercy and grace of Jesus point us to the source of our spiritual cleanliness: Christ’s own life offered in holy love on the cross for the world. N.T. Wright makes the point that “Ultimately, [Jesus] is himself the remedy, as in his death and resurrection, and the gift of the spirit, he deals with the wickedness and uncleanness that infects the human race.” It is through His saving work that we can be made clean, and now through what Jesus has done for us all can we truly draw near to, and share in, the life of the Living God.
If we seek to be cleansed, inside and out, we need more than outward rituals can offer. Like the Canaanite woman, we are invited to persist in placing our faith and our hope in Jesus: trusting in His mercy from the depths of our heart… even when we are tempted to believe He does not care. Time and again God has shown Himself to be rich in mercy towards all who cry out to Him. So let us hold fast to our faith and place our fullest hope in Him. Amen.
 John Wesley, Sermon 98 ‘On Visiting The Sick’ II.6 May 23, 1786. Found at Wesley Center Online: http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-98-on-visiting-the-sick/
 Hartley, J. E. (1979–1988). Clean and Unclean. In G. W. Bromiley (Ed.), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Vol. 1, p. 720). Wm. B. Eerdmans.
 Hauerwas, S. (2006). Matthew (p. 144). Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.
 Wright, T. (2004). Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (p. 198). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.