Sermon – Matthew 15:10-28
‘What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart.’ We have three examples of words that, proceeding from the heart, revealing to Jesus, and to us, the faith and lack of faith of those who speak the words.
Let’s start with the Pharisees. They take offense at what Jesus says. It is the content of the words they disagree with, that what goes into the mouth is comparatively unimportant. They take religious food laws seriously, and ritual hand-washing seriously, and so they are offended when Jesus seems to speak against them. But the two are not mutually exclusive. One might faithfully follow the dietary restrictions of the Old Testament and still agree with Jesus that one’s speech and actions give deep clues to the state of a person’s heart. But they ‘take offense’ at Jesus. They do not listen to him, not because they have weighed the argument and found it wanting, but because they have predetermined that whatever he says is wrong. It is not that their misunderstanding that is the issue – that might be forgiven. When they ‘take offense’ they reveal the angry, slanderous heart that dwells within them. And in the story of Matthew, their taking offense does not end with simply disagreeing with Jesus, it ends with their being in league with others to take Jesus’ life.
We contrast the behavior of the Pharisees with that of the Canaanite woman. This woman is an outsider to God’s people as much as the Pharisees are insiders. She is one who eats unclean food and does not ritually wash her hands, one who is considered little more than a dog in the eyes of some. But just as the Pharisees’ words reveal what is in their heart, so the words of the woman reveal what is in her heart. She pleads for her daughter and refuses to take no for an answer. Her faith looks not at her marginal status but at her daughter’s need and God’s superabundance of mercy. And she names Jesus ‘Lord, Son of David,’ she understands that Jesus is God’s Son, the one through whom God saves.
And who do we have in the middle? As usual, the disciples are those who are seemingly clueless. But they at least have the curiosity to ask Jesus what he means. They know that they do not understand and need his help understanding. But even after he explains that it is both faith and sin that comes from the heart, they still don’t get it. This is shown in their words to Jesus when the Canaanite woman keeps shouting for help even though Jesus has not answered. ‘Send her away,’ they say. Just as in the previous chapter, they are those of little faith.
The group of Pharisees, the Canaanite woman, the disciples. All three are revealed by their words. The group of Pharisees their unwillingness to learn, the words of the woman the faith of her heart, and the disciples their desire for faith and their need for further conversion. But what of the words of the fourth character in this story? What of the words of Jesus?
‘What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart.’ Jesus’ words are from the heart of God. We have in Jesus’ pronouncement against the group of Pharisees God’s judgment against all false religion which does not identify true religious observance with faith from the heart. We have in Jesus’ teaching to the disciples the patient work of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit seeks to work in us a deep conversion. And we have in his words to the woman, ‘Great is your faith! Let it be done to you as you wish,’ and his healing of her daughter, the availability of God’s mercy for all. God’s judgment, God’s patient understanding, God’s mercy. In Jesus’ words we see into the heart of God.
And yet what are we to do with Jesus’ initial refusal to answer the woman, and even more with his words to her about the difference between beloved children and mangy mutts? Do these words reveal his heart? These words are opaque and hard to understand. We might ‘take offense’ at them. And yet this incident reveals something to us. They reveal both God’s eternal choosing the house of Israel and his mercy upon all who come to him in faith through Jesus, the King of Israel. The heart of God elects his people and calls all peoples. The heart of God has room for both Jews and Gentiles, in fact the heart of God has room for all people. The words of Jesus that ring in the woman’s ears for as long as she lives are not about children and dogs but about faith and mercy.
And this story is also the concrete example of the abstract teaching about faith which Jesus wants to communicate to his disciples. The one you should imitate is not the secure insider who takes offense at every little thing. The one you should imitate is the one who comes begging for even the scraps of God’s mercy.
For if ‘what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart,’ then the words of the woman, ‘Have mercy, Lord, help me’ is the heart that God desires.
We are disciples of Jesus Christ. The angry words of taking offense we sometimes speak reveal to us that the old self is still hanging around. They reveal to us our ‘little faith,’ that we have yet much to learn, that the Holy Spirit yet has work to do with us. And yet in baptism into Christ we are called children of God and called to the life of asking for mercy and showing mercy. May these words sink down into our hearts, so that in asking faithfully from pure hearts we may please our heavenly Father, who delights in giving us far more than we can ask or imagine.
The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz,
St Stephen Lutheran Church
August 16, 2020