August 16, 2017
By Jeffrey Gallagher.
Scripture: Matthew 15:10-28 (NRSV)
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.’ Then the disciples approached and said to him, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees took offence when they heard what you said?’ He answered, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.’ But Peter said to him, ‘Explain this parable to us.’ Then he said, ‘Are you also still without understanding? 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. Just then 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.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Yeah, file that one under “things they tell us as children that aren’t true.” Names hurt. They leave scars. I have them. You probably do too. Remember the name (yes, that name!) that you were called on the playground as a child? Do you remember the tone of the child who said it? The look in her eye? The way he laughed on the jungle gym after he said it?
And I’m sure you remember what you did after, right? Maybe you stood up for yourself. But if you’re like me, you probably just turned away, head downcast, stifling that tear in your eye. Names hurt—because 20, 30, 50, 75 years later, we still remember them.
The Canaanite woman surely remembers. She remembers the name, the way she felt, and the look in Jesus’ eye when he said it. Wait . . . . Jesus’ eye? Yes. That’s right. While many scholars try to pass off this passage by saying that the insult really wasn’t that bad, or Jesus was using the diminutive form of the word for dog, there’s really no escaping the fact that this was an insult. It was an insult and it was insulting. And it was from Jesus.
Yet notice what the Canaanite woman does: she doesn’t walk away, head downcast, stifling a tear. No, she calls Jesus on it. She says, “I may be a dog, but even the dogs get to feed on the leftovers of what you’re serving.”
“You know what? You’re right,” Jesus replies, admitting he was wrong, healing the woman’s daughter immediately.
Now that may be the end of the lesson, but we can’t forget what preceded it: Jesus saying that whatever comes out of our mouths defiles us. Now Matthew could have chosen to separate these two passages. But he doesn’t. Which means he wants them to be read together. Which seems to suggest that he wants to at least imply that Jesus’ words, in some way, defiled him.
And for me that’s actually comforting. For to understand what it means to be truly human, Jesus needed to understand the fullness of humanity—and that includes making mistakes. And so it’s comforting to know that Jesus has been there. Jesus has been the one called a name and he has been on the other side of the jungle gym. So no matter where we find ourselves on this journey of life—head downcast, tear in our eye, or unbelieving of the words that came out of our mouths—we can turn to Jesus and know that he has been there.
An insulting reminder, if there ever was one, that we are never abandoned on the playgrounds of life.
Thank you, God, for understanding what it’s like to be on both sides of the jungle gym and for the promise that Jesus never abandons us on the playgrounds of our lives. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Jeffrey M. Gallagher is the Senior Pastor of the United Congregational Church of Tolland and author of the book Wilderness Blessings: How Down Syndrome Reconstructed Our Life and Faith.
August 16, 2017