Sunday, August 20, 2017
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28
“Sticks and stones may break your bones, but names can never hurt you.” So go the words to the phrase from the early 19th century to try and soften the blow when someone is ridiculed. It’s supposed to make you feel better. To think that if you aren’t physically hurt, that the words are just words. But words do hurt. And words, especially cruel ones, can cause a great deal of emotional damage. They can leave scars that last a lifetime. Jesus said, “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.” He was trying to make the religious leaders at that time, and those who were trying to follow the letter of the law understand that it wasn’t about eating the wrong foods, or not washing your hands – all purity laws – that make a person unclean. Rather Jesus emphasized that you can follow all the right religious laws,
but if your heart is not in the right place – a heart not filled with love and compassion – then you are unclean. And words that come from the heart, especially cruel ones, can cause damage. Like toothpaste that squeezed out of the tube, once these words are out you can’t put them back.
Insults have been around for as long as people have been alive. It seems to be part of our human sinful nature to sling hurtful words. Sometimes we don’t even know we’re doing it, but more often than not we know exactly what we’re doing. We speak them when we want to get back at someone for hurting us, or because they’re different and we feel we are better than they are, or because we think they threaten us in some way. We use hurtful words to keep people out of certain groups. We create clicks of who is in and who is out. The recent events in Charlottesville, VA and Barcelona, Spain are just a couple examples of what happens when intolerance, and hatred toward people who are different is allowed to fester and grow in our hearts. This evil starts small – an angry thought, then thoughts of wanting to be rid of the person who is different, ignoring them, bullying, name calling and slander, treating them insultingly at the store, not approving a loan at a bank because they are a certain ethnicity – all real-life examples – and eventually it leads to outright hatred, violence, and even death. And this evil is what Jesus warned us to resist over and over again. He came to show us through his life how we are to treat others. He came to deliver us from this evil that tries to take hold of our hearts.
It wasn’t any different when Matthew’s gospel was written. Different cultural, ethnic, and religious groups kept the outsiders away. The Israelites were God’s chosen people and Gentiles, or non-believers were considered pagans and called dogs in a derogatory manner. The Canaanite woman in today’s story was known by the Israelites as a dog. She was the enemy, an outsider, an outcast, who didn’t look the same, act the same, talk the same, or even worship in the same way as the Israelites. And she was a woman – an outcast just from her gender . Yet she saw something that even the disciples at times didn’t see. She saw who Jesus really was and knew – with all her heart – that Jesus could help her. Sometimes the outcasts have a better insight into things than we do. Often someone on the outside can see things with a better perspective, but we have to take the time to listen with an open heart. This Canaanite woman was taking a great risk in asking for help, but sometimes the cause is great enough – great enough to speak out.
And so this outsider – this enemy – who was commonly referred to as a dog, came begging to Jesus for help. “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” We don’t know what was wrong with her daughter, but it was enough to go into town and face the ridicule and the stares. She addressed Jesus as Son of David. This is quite a shock –since one would not expect a pagan Canaanite woman to call Jesus this name. Surely this would grab Jesus’ attention. But he didn’t say a word. He seemed to not even acknowledge her. And so she kept on shouting. No matter where they went, there she was, shouting after them. Not giving up, and making a complete spectacle of herself! “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us,” the disciples urged. It’s easy to dismiss the cries for help from people we have closed our hearts to because they are different. Even Jesus answers, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Does that mean that this woman’s pleas were falling on deaf ears? Did Jesus really not care about her at all? It makes you wonder, but this story comes immediately after Jesus told the disciples that what comes out of the mouth is what defiles. It would seem that this is a perfect illustration of what Jesus what trying to teach them. He deliberately went into enemy territory, knowing that he would most likely encounter someone considered “the enemy.”
Jesus didn’t have to go to that area. He could have avoided it. But Jesus wasn’t one to avoid confrontation. And neither was this woman. She knew she was considered the enemy. She knew people looked down on her. She knew that she was going to be insulted and ridiculed. And she knew that she could even be killed, but she was willing to speak up on behalf of someone else. She was willing to risk it all when she fell on her knees and cried out, “Lord, help me,” just like Peter last week. They both risked it all in order to be closer to Jesus, in order to receive his saving grace, in order to be delivered. This Canaanite woman wasn’t beyond shouting, and begging Jesus for the same grace and mercy that he showed to the Israelites. Faith takes risks, and Jesus acknowledged her faith, and rewarded her for it. He heard her cries for help and acted. He hears the cries of those today.
There are people today begging to be included instead of treated like outsiders. Crying out to stop being insulted and called names or even killed because they are different. Jesus tells us that God’s grace is for all people and that we are to treat one another with kindness, compassion, mercy, tenderness, and love. Anyone or any group that tries to tell us otherwise is speaking contrary to Jesus who said that however we treat others is how we treat him. When we mistreat another person it hurts God to the core, because it is hurting Jesus.
We as Jesus’ disciples cannot be silent in the face of evil. We cannot be silent when people are being mistreated. We cannot be silent when the life of anyone is in danger, because we are all God’s precious children. The story of this unnamed Canaanite woman is an example to us to speak out for those who need help, just as she did for her daughter, just as Jesus did for us.
Just as we cannot put toothpaste back in the tube once it’s been squeezed out, we can’t take back hurtful and evil words once they are out. We can’t bring lives back once they are dead. But thanks be to God that Jesus can bring life back from the dead. Jesus can open our hearts and create in us a beautiful spirit – a spirit of peace and love, a spirit of compassion and mercy, a spirit of faith and courage to live like Jesus wants us to live – lifting up others instead of tearing them down.
Let us pray each day the offertory prayer we pray each week from Psalm 51: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” May God change our hearts to live our lives with the heart of Jesus, to listen with the compassion of Jesus, and to speak words of healing and life in the name of Jesus to bring peace on earth. Amen.