Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, July 31, 2021
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All People are Acceptable

Matthew 15:10-28

The context of this passage is that Jesus has been challenged by the Pharisees over his disciples and their practice of traditions. Specifically, the Pharisees were angry that Jesus’ disciples ate without the prescribed ceremony for purifying their hands first.

Now, I’ll be honest and say that this story bothers me a little bit, because I’m a bit of a germophobe. Aren’t we all with the whole coronavirus pandemic situation now? Well, the good news is that this tradition was not about hygiene. Jesus is not telling you not to bother washing your hands. Please do. In fact, Jesus wants you to wash your hands. Especially if you’re ahead of me in the buffet line. Okay? This is about a tradition that had emerged over the centuries to wash one’s hands in a certain prescribed manner to remove the impurity of coming into contact with “unclean people,” like Gentiles or even less “faithful” Jews. There was no Scriptural foundation of this tradition; it was something that had emerged out of centuries of tradition.

Tradition is not good or bad. It can be both, honestly. It can be good. It can be a path toward true religion, which is a matter of the heart and living in right relationship with God and neighbor. But tradition can also be an idol. It can be a thing that is worshipped instead of God.

In the centuries between the end of the Old Testament and the time of Jesus, enormous volumes of tradition had been added to the Law. Literally. There were three extensive volumes of tradition built around the Law, the Mishnah, the Babylonian Talmud, and the Jerusalem Talmud. Together, they represented tens of thousands of pages. And in the minds of many Jews, this was the essence of religion and piety. And sometimes, these traditions stood in direct contradiction to the plain words of Scripture. Jesus illustrated that it in his exchange with the Pharisees.

And this was not a new problem, either. Jesus quoted Isaiah to the Pharisees, and Isaiah basically lamented the same problem, that people loved their own traditions more than God’s Word. And it’s easy for us to say, “Oh, that was their problem.” No, it’s ours, too. We also struggle with too much love for our own traditions.

But then Jesus takes things farther. He says, “You are not defiled by what you eat.” In other words, the kosher laws are no longer in effect in the New Covenant he is bringing. And that was a pretty radical thing for a Jewish person to say.

The kosher laws were part of the cultural mandate of the Old Covenant. They were part of a way of living designed to set Israel apart from the Gentile nations. Kosher diet was the most important part of that cultural mandate, but there were other things

like dress and such. These things were not moral mandates, not related to ethical behavior. They were about cultural distinctiveness. But even still, they were Scripture. They were part of God’s word. And they were important to Jewish people, a matter of life and death even. About two centuries earlier, during the time of Antiochus Epiphanes and the Maccabees, they were literally life and death. The Greek king Antiochus ordered some Jews to eat pork or die. And they chose martyrdom over “unfaithfulness.”

But now Jesus says these things are no longer a part of the New Covenant. The cultural mandates no longer apply to the church because the Church will be a covenant of God with all nations, not one.

The disciples were shocked. “You offended the Pharisees!” I suspect Jesus offended them, too! But Jesus is not concerned. “They are blind guides leading the blind.”

Peter says, “What do you mean?” And Jesus makes it clear, “Food does not defile you before God. Rather, it is what comes out of your heart.” Some Jews would agree that the matters of the heart were more important than external obedience to traditions. Maybe even most would agree. But by and large, none of them would challenge the traditions. What Jesus is saying is revolutionary. It is not food that makes you unclean before God but what comes out of your heart: Your actions, words, and thoughts. It is your sin that makes you “unclean,” unacceptable to God.

Jesus goes on to give a list of the kinds of sins that make one unclean. And they are all things that come from the Old Covenant laws. In other words, Jesus is affirming that the moral laws are still in effect. Right and wrong are not done away with. Sin is still sin.

But no person is unclean because of something like food. Instead all of us are unclean because we are all sinners. We are all in the same condition before God; sinners in need of a Savior. The difference is that now we understand that this salvation is available to all. And that is what we see illustrated in verses 21-28.

Jesus goes to Phoenicia, the region of Tyre and Sidon, Galilee’s neighbor to the north. This is the region where Queen Jezebel came from. Jezebel was married to Ahab, remembered as the worst of the Old Testament kings, and she was a big part of the reason he was so bad. She was not a good influence.

There he encounters a Gentile woman, specifically a Canaanite woman. The Canaanites, of course, were the original inhabitants of the Promised Land. They were

the people God commanded Israel to drive out because their sins were so great. So she is part of one of the most despised groups of people by most Jews.

She pleads with Jesus for mercy for her daughter who is afflicted by an evil spirit. And strangely to us, Jesus seems rather unconcerned. And then we have to wonder why. And I’ll just be honest and say that I don’t know why.

Two possibilities have been suggested. One is that Jesus wants to see if she really has faith. And she does, of course. She calls Jesus Lord and Son of David. She worships him. She has an unshakable faith that Jesus can do something to help her daughter.

I think the more likely reason why Jesus waits to act is because Jesus wants to demonstrate a point to his disciples. They seem to be rather unconcerned with the situation, mostly just wanting Jesus to send her away.

Jesus says, “It’s not right to take food from the children and give it to the dogs.” Gentiles kept dogs as pets, and that is what Jesus is referring to here. The form of the word for “dogs” that he uses is the diminutive form, “puppies,” in our way of speaking. By the way, as far as I’m concerned, all dogs are puppies. If I ever meet your dog and call him or her, “puppy,” and you tell me, “Oh, no she’s not a puppy. She’s three years old.” I will just stare at you like you’re out of your mind, just so you know.

On the other hand, first century Jews did not keep dogs as pets. They regarded dogs as unclean animals. And most Jews regarded Gentiles as “dogs,” unclean, unacceptable to God, less than fully human. I think it’s important to note that Jesus does not compare her to what most Jews considered Gentiles to be.

She responds in faith: “Just a crumb, just the smallest amount of what you can do is enough.” And Jesus responds to her faith by saying, “Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed.

The two stories should be read side by side because the point made in the first is magnified in the second. Just as no food is unacceptable in God’s eyes, so no person is unacceptable. All forms of racism are antithetical to the gospel. Racism is built on the belief that some groups of people are inferior, less than others, that God has made some people less than others. That is a terrible falsehood, and an evil that must be stamped out every time it appears or we are unfaithful to the gospel. And the Church has not always done that as we should. At times we have been unconcerned or permissive about racism. That cannot be the case or we are the ones lacking in faith in a God who created all in his image and a Savior who died for all.

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