Racism on the lips of Jesus? Matt 15




Once again, we have wonderful readings this morning. It’s hard not to comment on them all. The Genesis reading is a good companion to our discussion about suffering from last week. Joseph looks back on his life and the suffering that he went through, and he saw that God was able to use the awful things that happened to him to save many people. It is a hint of the cross. The suffering of Jesus was used by God to bring salvation to humanity. This story shows us that sometimes there is something going on that we can’t see from our limited perspective. Sometimes as we look back, in this life or the next, we might see how our suffering makes sense.

In our Gospel and Epistle readings we see the ugly head of racism. Racism seems to be a persistent problem throughout human history. It is so persistent across cultures and throughout time that it seems to arise almost naturally in our fallen state. We are profoundly broken people. Our minds try to find patterns so that we can categorize people. Sometimes this is helpful. Sometimes it leads to prejudice. My suspicion is that that human beings will not overcome their racism by ‘trying to not be racist’. Humanity will overcome racism by believing something much greater, which makes racism look silly by comparison. For example, when we look to Christ and the ways of his kingdom, racism become a silly idea.

In our Epistle, Paul is correcting some anti-Jewish notions. There is a type of thinking called supersessionism. It is the idea that God has completely rejected the Jewish people, and is now only concerned with the Christians. So, Christians have ‘superseded’ the Jewish people. Paul, who is a Jew, says, 
“I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. … For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:1-2a, 29).
 Paul rejects any basis for anti-semitism and supersessionism as a Christian way of thinking. God has not finished his story with the Jewish people.

We see racism within our Gospel reading as well. This time it seems to be coming from the lips of Jesus! Jesus is Jewish, of course, as are all his disciples. A Gentile woman comes to Jesus looking for help. A Gentile is a non-Jewish person. Jewish people at the time of Jesus did not have a high view of Gentiles. Sometimes they would be called dogs. In a Middle Eastern context, calling someone a dog is a severe insult. Dogs were not really kept as pets. Often, they were considered annoying street scavengers that got into the garbage. Jesus calls this woman a dog! She comes to him asking him to help her daughter and he calls her a dog! … We read,

“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.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs’” (Matt 15:22-26).


It is a shocking thing to hear Jesus say, but we need to look at this a bit deeper. First, we need to remember that when Matthew was writing this, gentiles were included in the church. Paul was busy in his mission spreading the Gospel to the Gentile world. So, the kind of racism that was part of 1st century Jewish culture towards Gentiles was being overcome in a big way. Paul wrote to the Galatians, 
“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:26-28).
 We sometimes miss how revolutionary that was for the ancient world. It would be strange for Matthew, as a part of a community that has overcome this Jew-gentile racism, to put a racist comment into Jesus’ mouth. So there has to be more going on here than meets the eye.

Second, it is important that we look at what happens immediately before Jesus and the disciples encounter this woman. We read,

“Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, ‘Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.’ …
Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 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.’ Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon” (Matt 15:10-11, 17-21).


Right after Jesus says these words about what makes someone clean or dirty, he heads into gentile territory. The famous evil queen Jezebel was from Sidon (1 Kings 16:31), and the prophet Elijah encounters the widow and her son in this Gentile territory as well (1 Kings 17:8-24). So, the fact that Jesus heads into Gentile territory right after he gives this teaching, and in a Gospel written in a time when the Jewish-Gentile division was being overcome in Christian communities, cannot be a coincidence.

Jesus’ racist words would have expressed the normal thinking of a Jew towards a Gentile woman. My suspicion is that Jesus is teaching his disciples something here.

The central teaching here is 
“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).
 Gentiles were considered defiled, partly because they didn’t follow Jewish Kosher laws. They ate pork, for example. Jewish table fellowship rules meant that a Gentile couldn’t sit and eat at a table with a Jewish person because the Gentile was unclean. Even walking into a Gentile’s house could make a Jewish person ceremonially unclean. … But in the teaching Jesus gives, he is saying that what defiles someone isn’t what they traditionally thought made a Gentile defiled. Jesus is saying that a person’s character transcends the group they are a part of when it comes to issues of defilement. Character transcends ritual cleanliness.

Jesus expands on what he is saying- 
 “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 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" (Matt 15:17-20).
 … So what defiles you is not your ethnicity, not your skin colour, not your ritual cleanliness, and not eating pork. … What defiles you is a negative character- a cruel and sinful heart.

One of the ways we know if we have a deformed heart is through our speech and actions. These flow from the center of our character. Murder, sexual sin, theft, lying, and slander all show what is going on in our heart. If we want to know the state of someone’s heart, then look at their behaviour and what they say. Are they speaking and acting in the ways of the kingdom that build people up, that express forgiveness and blessing, that honour God? … or are they speaking and acting in ways that cause division, that tear down, that cast judgement and cursing, and that dishonour God. These are the things that matter, not our ritual cleanliness, eating kosher food, or our skin colour. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther king Jr. reflects this teaching in his famous line, 
“I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character”.


Let’s look at the interaction between Jesus and this woman again. This Gentile woman comes to Jesus saying, 
"Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon."
 What do we see in her heart on the basis of her words and actions? Her actions show that she believes in Jesus, that he can help her. … Even today in many places in the Middle East men and women will not speak to each other in public, especially a stranger. Jesus is mimicking the cultural expectations, but we know from other stories in the Gospels that Jesus is very willing to cross that barrier. For example, think of Jesus talking to the Samaritan woman by the well. This woman risks the ridicule and rejection that would be expected as she publicly tried to speak to a man, and a Jewish man. She was crossing a gender boundary and an ethnic boundary. This shows faith that is willing to risk ridicule. She humbly comes even in the midst of racist insults, being called a dog. Jesus is reflecting the thoughts of his culture for the benefit of teaching his disciples. She doesn’t insult back- she humbly continues to come to Jesus. … She also calls Jesus “Lord, Son of David”. This is a messianic title. The Pharisees wouldn’t address Jesus this way. …

So based on the actions and words of this woman what is the condition of her heart? Is she defiled as the Pharisees would see her? Or is she clean because she reveals a heart full of faith that is willing to risk insult without retaliation? Jesus dreamed of a world where people were judged on the content of the character. This was an important lesson for the disciples who were watching. And it remains an important lesson for us, too. AMEN



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