There are some pretty serious currents of religiosity colliding in today’s passage. On one hand you have the Pharisees, and by now you likely know that the Pharisees are always set up to be wrong in the Gospels. Here, they are concerned with the minutae of keeping the Jewish law. In particular, they are disturbed that the disciples don’t wash their hands before they eat. Honestly, a fair concern. But the Pharisees are not concerned about disease transmission so much as tradition. The disciples, they say, are breaking the tradition of the elders.
On the other hand, you have Jesus, who is frustrated by this strain of religiosity that is more concerned with the ritual observance than with the spiritual movement behind it. The Jewish law was given as an observance of Israel’s covenant with God. That is, the practices it prescribes are meant to help the Israelites be mindful of their relationship with God. When the Pharisees fret about the disciples’ handwashing, or lack thereof, their concern is with the ways of the elders, not with what the unwashed hands might signify about the disciple’s dedication to God.
Or, as Jesus puts it, “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what goes out of the mouth that defiles.” The law famously sets a lot of rules for what foods should be eaten and how they should be prepared, and how the people should prepare to eat. The argument Jesus appears to be making is that these precepts are not about some substantial impurity inherent in those foods, but rather about the value of the ritual for orienting people toward God. The value of our practices as people of faith is how they orient us toward God. Same goes for us. The Eucharist, or any sacrament we share, is not like activated charcoal for the soul, purifying us by some metaphysical charm. Instead, it invites a movement of the soul toward God. It invites us to move our souls toward God.
So you can tell more about someone’s relationship to God by what they say then by how they ritually mark that relationship, says Jesus. Pretty explicitly, too. Food passes through into the sewer, where as words come from the heart. The caution is always relevant. Rather than get all worked up because someone else worships differently or embraces a different set of practices than we do, we are instructed to seek to understand their heart. Difference is not a threat, and dissent is not evil. Our hearts can be aligned while the practices and language we use to signify that alignment varies widely.
The intentions of murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, and slander…these are the things that defile us. These are the things we hope to find the strength to resist. But the strength doesn’t come because we prayed just right or ate just right or made all the gestures at the appointed time. The strength to choose what is good comes from recognizing that God’s power comes as compassion and vulnerability and truth, and that the illusions of power we construct for ourselves are feeble grasps at something we cannot give ourselves.
So it is more than a little offputting when, in the next paragraph, a Cannanite woman approaches Jesus, begging for help for her daughter, who is tortured by demons, which is of course the Bible’s not-so-charming-in-hindsight way of saying the daughter is struggling with a mental illness. That she is a Canaanite matters, because it means for the purposes of this story that she is essentially not white. She is not from the privilege-wielding culture in this particular scene. The disciples are annoyed by her and want Jesus to send her away. Jesus himself tells her “I was sent only to the the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” which is, to be honest, really very rude. He is basically saying, “I am not God for you, I am God for other people.”
Thank God the woman is persistent. Jesus is under a lot of pressure at this time, and in this moment it seems he may need someone to remind him who he is. “Lord, help me” she says. And he responds, “it is not fait to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” This will go down as the cruelest thing Jesus says in any of the Gospels. He has just called this woman a dog. He who recently said that it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out has just told a woman that having compassion for her would be like taking a child’s food and giving it to a dog.
This is, to put it mildly, a moment of significant inconsistency for Jesus. People will sometimes try to smooth this over, but I think it’s important to recognize. This moment matters. His humanity is pretty plain to see. So then this story pivots on what happens next. The Canaanite woman says “Yes, Lord” as though she agrees, which is kind of heartbreaking to hear, and then she goes on “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She has just reminded him that she, too, though not an Israelite, is reliant on the very same God. If her help will not come from Jesus, then where is her hope?
Jesus, son of God, the messiah, has just been called out by this Canaanite woman. She has shown that, though she is not an heir to Israel’s covenant, and though she may not participate in the particular culture it defines, her heart can seek God as truly as any other. It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but what comes out. By extension, it is not what goes into the mouth that makes one holy, it is what comes out.
Jesus sees that she is right. This is a huge moment. For all of the talk we hear of God’s unchangingness and how everything is planned from time immemorial, we see in this moment that compassion is not possible without a willingness to hear ourselves called out. Unbending adherence to a particular understanding of the world, any understanding of the world, will blind us to the sacred in our midst. Even Jesus needed to be reminded of that. “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” You and I, and everyone else who came to faith through the mission to the Gentiles, can thank the Canaanite woman for her insistence that Jesus be who he came to be.
The underlying lesson is that the Spirit will always move in ways we do not anticipate, or which we are not prepared to see. It was true even for Jesus. The day-to-day ministry placed a lot of demands and a lot of stress and a lot of heartache on him. We can allow him a moment of unkindness, especially when it is followed by what I can only read as a moment of deep humility.
The passage ends, then, on a consistent note. The strength to choose goodness, to choose compassion, doesn’t come from a certainty that our culture and practices are correct. It comes from the faith that the deepest power in our universe is God’s steady and insistent love for each person, with no exceptions. If our words and actions are guided by this spiritual truth, then we will surely walk with God.