For Sunday, August 20, 2017
As often is the case, this liturgy and lectionary commentary for this week are based on a larger selection of text than what is found in the Revised Common Lectionary. For this week, it will work with the entire text of chapter 15 of Matthew.
Again, the lectionary passage for this morning cannot be properly understood outside of its context, and this is true whether one beings at verse 10 or at verse 21. The entire exchange in chapter 15 is about the rules of table fellowship, what rules govern our eating together, who is invited to join, and what difference it makes to God. In the pericope beginning in verse 10, Jesus is explaining to the crowd what has just happened in his exchange with the religious elites. They have charged him with being defiled because the disciples do not follow the religious customs when eating. In the pericope beginning with verse 21, Jesus suggest he is not supposed to heal someone from outside Israel, only to find himself corrected using a metaphor about dogs, and again, about table fellowship. Then, in the pericope that follows beginning with verse 29, Jesus sets a table among a great crowd and, for the second time in Matthew, celebrates a miraculous feast.
We begin today’s reading having crossed the sea at night in a storm. I want us to imagine we are on the journey with Jesus as one of his disciples. We have just seen Jesus walking on water. Peter tried to walk on water but failed. There on the sea, we learned not only to name Jesus as the Son of God, but we also heard Jesus’ rebuke for being concerned a lot for things that matter little, and being concerned little for the things that matter a lot. When we arrive on the shores of a place called Gennesaret, the people there recognized us and immediately started sending to us their sick. People were even reaching out just to grab a hold of Jesus’ clothing in hopes that just touching him would bring them healing. It seems that everywhere we go, people approach us—for good or for bad.
The text is part of a chiastic structure with the sea in the middle. Jesus goes up the mountain to be alone but ends up feeding five thousand, we then journey across the sea, only to arrive on the other side to be confronted by the religious elites. The story then digresses to show Jesus’ interactions with three distinct groups of people: (1) the Pharisees and scribes who have journeyed all the way from Jerusalem (vv. 1-9 and 10-20); (2) a Canaanite woman from the outskirts of Israel who is begging to have her daughter healed (vv.21-28); and (3) great crowds of people looking for healing, including “the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others” who end up joining a feast where five thousand people are fed (vv. 29-39).
One key thing to note is Jesus’ reputation, what he is known for. To the crowds gathering at every turn, he is known for healing people of all kinds. This is true, as with the Canaanite woman, even for those outside Israel. But to the religious elite, Jesus is known for not emphasizing specific rules, obeying customs, or following tradition. The problem they point to is specifically about their table fellowship. (It is not according to tradition because they don’t wash their hands first.) As the Pharisees and scribes confront Jesus about it, his rebuke of them is unequivocal. They “void the word of God for the sake of their traditions” (15:6). Quoting from Isaiah, he says that “these people honor (God) with their lips, but their hearts are far from (God),” they worship in vain and teach human precepts as divine truths (vv. 8-9).
After rebuking the religious elites, Jesus turns to the crowd and explains to them that it is not how or what they eat that defiles them, but how they treat each other. When the disciples tell Jesus that what he said has offended the Pharisees, Jesus repeats John the Baptists words in the form of a parable. In reference to the Pharisees, Jesus says that “Every tree that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted.” He says that the Pharisees are “blind guides leading the blind” and that “they both fall into a pit” (vv. 13-14). But the disciples don’t seem to get it. Surely, I imagine they wondered, Jesus is not suggesting that the Pharisees are false teachers. They ask for clarification from Jesus. Jesus responds with a list of things that “will defile a person”—implying that these are things the Pharisees could even be charged with, “evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander”—but that failing to keep the Pharisees’ religious code will not.
In the next passage, where Jesus is confronted by a Canaanite, we see Jesus himself is called on the carpet for doing exactly the same thing. He has been healing people all along and drawing massive crowds because of it. Now, a woman from outside Israel approaches him and asks for healing for her demon possessed daughter, and Jesus acts in a way that seems uncharacteristic of him. Going along with his disciples, he suggests to the woman that he cannot heal her daughter because she is not from Israel. The woman, however, seems to have heard Jesus’ teachings. He even says to her, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (v. 26). We could go the route of arguing for Jesus a way out of it, making it look like Jesus did not just mean what it sounded like he said when he called the woman and her daughter dogs. However, there is no need. In its context, this makes perfect sense. Jesus has just taught his disciples that in God’s eyes, slander will defile you but following your tradition’s definition about who can and cannot join you at the table will not. The woman, bold enough to call Jesus to keep his words, says to him “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (v. 27). In other words, even calling her a dog does not entitle him to keep her from the table—since even dogs don’t leave the dinner table hungry.
Most traditional commentary would not go so far as to say that Jesus learned something from the Canaanite woman. But reading the passage in its context, what seems to be clear is that this woman points to a larger system of injustice, even beyond this scene between her and Jesus. Some religious people will allow their food to go to the family dog before they will go beyond their own community to feed the hungry and needy people. Jesus, having rebuked his own disciples in just the chapter before for having little faith, sees that he had indeed placed his religious customs above the needs of another person, and responds to her with something like, “Wow woman! Now that’s what I’m talking about! That’s is what faith looks like!”
The chapter then concludes with another passage which is outside the Revised Common Lectionary readings—the story of another miraculous feast. Here, we see Jesus returning again to the Sea of Galilee and sitting down on a mountainside surrounded by a hungry crowd filled with people desperate for healing. With seven loaves and a few small fish, Jesus feeds five-thousand families.
In summary, this week’s reading is about reputation and table manners. Jesus now has a reputation for healing and restoring brokenness that extends beyond the borders of his community. To the religious elite who travel from Jerusalem to confront him, he has a reputation for being a rule-breaker and a trouble maker. To the people even outside Israel, Jesus is known for his unorthodox approach, his broad welcome, and his work of compassion. This passage is also about table manners, specifically what and who is welcome at the table.
This passage should call each of our communities to ask ourselves what we are known for. Are we people known for our compassion? Are we known for our radical hospitality? Are we known as people who do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly? Like Jesus, are we known for our willingness to rethink and even abandon old doctrines, traditions, or customs when they stand in the way of our ability to care for each other? In the end, the teachings of Jesus show that if adhering to our doctrines (our comfort, traditions, beliefs, or customs) become more important than the way we treat others, we will not be defiled by breaking them. Rather, it will be in following them at the expense of others that will defile us.
Leader: Come, people of the Living God! Let us delight in the Word of the Life.
People: Let us meditate on God’s teachings every day and every night.
Leader: Come, people of the Living God! Let us rediscover the ways of love.
People: Let us become deeply rooted, firmly in the ground, yielding fruit every season.
Creator God, over stormy waters you spoke words of life calling creation into existence. In Jesus, you have shown us a new way to live. May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts allow the fullness of your love to overflow from deep within us to bless the world around us. Empower us to journey beyond our doubts and challenge us with a hope that leads us forward. In the name of Christ, the Light of the World that guides us, we pray. Amen.