Pentecost 9A 2011
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 offense 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.
One of the most notorious – and hilarious – episodes of the iconic TV show Seinfeld is called “The Bubble Boy.” On their way to vacation in a lakeside cabin, George and his girlfriend, Susan, stop by a house to visit a young man who, because of an auto-immune deficiency, lives in a plastic bubble. His father, a fan of Jerry’s comedy, plays upon their sympathies, telling them of the sad, isolated life his son lives. When George and Susan arrive at the Bubble Boy’s house, they discover he is a rude, selfish lecher. They try to play “Trivial Pursuit” with the Bubble Boy but get in an argument about one of the answers. George and the Bubble Boy start trying to choke each other and Susan accidentally punctures the bubble, sending the Bubble Boy to the hospital. Trust me – it’s hilarious.
Like the Bubble Boy, some – not all – of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day wanted to quarantine themselves from the world’s messiness. In the passage immediately before today’s lesson, Jesus is accosted by some scribes and Pharisees who ask why Jesus and his disciples don’t observe the tradition of scrupulously washing their hands before they eat. Much of first-century rabbinical literature is preoccupied with ritual holiness. Surrounded by a Roman army of occupation and an increasingly politically and religiously diverse culture, the Pharisees were trying to recall Jews to their distinct identity as God’s holy people.
It’s customary for Western Christians like us to ridicule the Pharisees for their attempts to call their people to distinctive patterns of holiness by emphasizing cleanliness, but we need to look in our own mirrors. This nation is little more than a generation removed from separate bathrooms, schools, and even water fountains for Anglo and African Americans. It was not long ago that people with terminal but non-contagious diseases were excluded from general society. People with handicapping conditions were kept separated from “temporarily abled” people. We have our bubbles, still. We live, and work, and learn, and play, and worship, for the most part, with the “right kind of people:” you know, people like us.
Jesus, as usual, went to the heart of the matter with the Pharisees. Instead of obeying the commandment to honor and care for one’s parents, Pharisees were declaring that because they were giving money to the Temple they were no longer under obligation to care for their elderly relatives. That, Jesus said, was hypocrisy. Then Jesus went on, in this morning’s reading, to talk about where sin comes from. It doesn’t come from the outside, he said – from eating the wrong foods or not washing hands or listening or looking at the wrong things. Just as the Bubble Boy in Seinfeld was free from outside germs but was an obnoxious and dirty-minded jerk on the inside, Jesus knew where sin came from. The snake didn’t make Adam and Eve sin in the Garden of Eden – the snake only brought out the problem that was already there.
Two monks were walking down a road one day and, approaching a town, a naked young woman was lying in the ditch, bruised and unconscious. The first monk immediately veered to the other side of the road and hid his eyes. The second monk went to the young woman, wrapped his cloak around her, picked her up and carried her to a doctor in town, leaving her there with money for her care. The two monks resumed their silent journey through and out of the town. About two miles on the other side of the town, the first monk broke his silence and said to the second, “I can’t believe you touched that naked woman and carried her into town. You will have much to repent of when we get back to the monastery!” The second monk said, “I took her into town and left her there. You’re still carrying her.”
The episode that follows Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees perfectly embodies Jesus’ teaching about what comes from without and what comes from within. He heads into pagan territory north of Israel – modern day Syria. A Caananite woman confronts him, shouting at him to heal her daughter from demon possession. Multiple taboos are broken in this scene: women were not supposed to approach men; she is an idol-worshipping, pig-eating pagan asking favors from a devout Jewish rabbi; demons were to be avoided at all costs. In an amazing give-and-take, Jesus first refuses her demands, saying that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. She insists, kneeling before him and crying out, Lord, help me – not incidentally, exactly the same words Peter used last week when he was drowning in the Sea of Galilee. Jesus, incredibly, calls her a dog. It’s not right to take the children’s food – the message of salvation intended for the Jews, God’s children -- and throw it to the dogs. Forget, for a moment, that our pets eat better than millions of children around the world. Forget our cute and cuddly puppies. Jews didn’t keep dogs as pets – dogs were unclean animals. Jesus is calling this woman and her daughter dogs. It’s a stunning comment from gentle Jesus, meek and mild. The Quaker writer Elton Trueblood tried to excuse this by suggesting that Jesus is being funny. I’m not so sure. I think something else is going on here – I think this pagan woman is going to help Jesus expand his understanding of himself, of his mission, and of God.
Rather than run from this shocking insult, the woman, for the love of her possessed daughter, throws Jesus’ insulting analogy right back at him: But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the Master’s table. Jesus, you said it’s not what comes from the outside that makes us who we are. Don’t measure me by my nationality, by my history, by my diet, or by my gender. I’m not asking for a banquet, Jesus, I’m asking, for the love of my daughter, for just a crumb of love, of hope, of healing. Three times in three sentences she calls Jesus Lord, and then refers to him as Master. If it’s not what goes in that makes us what we are, but what comes out of us from our heart, then this woman, kneeling at Jesus’ feet begging for mercy is a child of God and a disciple of the Savior. No wonder Jesus, amazed, exclaims Woman, you have great faith! Let your wish be answered! Isn’t it possible that Jesus, not just real God but real man, learned and grew from this encounter with this remarkable woman? If we can’t change God’s mind, why do we pray?
Quarantine, whether for religious or biological reasons, is far less effective than immunization. Recent medical research seems to show that overuse of antibiotics and underexposure to normal allergens and bacteria in infants actually increases the likelihood of them developing allergies and asthma during childhood. The presence of dogs and cats in an infant’s home decreases the chances of children developing allergies to pets, ragweed, grass, and dust mites.  Exposure to small amounts of bacteria, allergens, and viruses – as when we are inoculated against smallpox, tetanus, measles, chicken pox, polio, whatever – helps us build up resistance. The same is true spiritually. That’s why we need to talk to each other and with our children about sin, evil, temptation, and things that go bump in the night. It’s like Halloween: when children dress up as ghosts, goblins, monsters, vampires, or congressmen, it helps inoculate them against their fears. It gives them some sense of control over things they don’t understand. It tells them what Jesus said is true: it’s not what comes from the outside that makes us dirty and sinful – it’s what’s in our hearts that really reveals who and what and whose we are.
Don’t live your life, or your family, or your church, in a bubble, terrified of all the bad things out there. Let’s talk instead about the real fears, the real hopes, the real darkness, and the real dreams that are down inside each of us. Way down there, Jesus says, is where God knows us and loves us.
Many years ago I was invited to a Bible study and prayer group, and at the end of the evening, the group leader led us in prayer, and asked us all to raise our hands as we prayed. That’s just not the way I pray. If you want to raise your hands when you pray, I think that’s fine, but that’s not how I pray. The leader noticed I wasn’t raising my hands, and launched into a mini-sermon about how if we really loved God we should feel comfortable raising our hands to bless God. He went back into prayer, and I didn’t raise my hands. He stopped again, and repeated his insistence that everyone should raise their hands. A friend of mine in the group interrupted him and said, “I think God is much more interested in where our hearts are than where our hands are.”
It’s not what comes in that defiles – it’s what comes out.