Bigotry defines some people as unwashed, unclean, unwanted based entirely upon physical characteristics such as race, nationality, income, religion and so on. Yet, Jesus shows that what is important is whether or not our hearts are clean.
I would like to bust the bigotry of classism, racism, nationalism, religious superiority and such like.
We will look at Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees over cleanliness rituals and with a gentile woman over racial issues.
1. Confrontation with the Pharisees
Defiled by the Words
What makes us clean or unclean? Old Testament laws defined clean and unclean foods or practices. The Pharisees’ hand washing ritual was a man-made rule but showed serious devotion to those laws. Jesus' disciples were criticized for ignoring the ritual (Matthew 15:10-28). Jesus was blunt and provocative. He stated that these highly respected religious leaders were not of God and that the disciples should ignore them. Was Jesus concerned with spiritual cleanness? Was the real purpose of Old Testament cleanliness laws to teach us about being spiritually clean in our hearts? Fastidiously following the Old Testament food laws does not guarantee a clean heart. Can religious rituals distract us from important matters of the heart? Faith is not outward religious mumbo jumbo, a show. Cleaning up unclean hearts is God’s focus. Are we letting God wash our hearts clean? What about political correctness?
Some people have the philosophy that we should by all means avoid offense. If we naively swallow the line of politically correct speech we may find difficulty with passages such as Matthew 15:10-28. Yet, Jesus was often faced with a dilemma, avoid offense and stand for nothing or cause offense and teach a valuable lesson. He often criticized the Pharisees publicly. Jesus was no obsequious sycophant. At times tough words are required in order to bring out the best in people. The shock value of offensive language is used sometimes throughout the Holy Scriptures to wake people up and bring them to repentance. One of the weaknesses of the King James Bible is that it watered down some of that language due to English cultural prejudice towards polite speech. Tough love occasionally requires speaking in a blunt, offensive manner. When is being blunt right?
When Blunt is Right
Some cultures have a reputation for being tactless and blunt while others seem to be more diplomatic and polite. To the well-mannered among us Jesus’ behavior in Matthew 15:10-28 could seem inappropriate. Yet Jesus was without sin, so is it is behavior that we need to examine? What can we learn from Jesus' bluntness in his encounter with the Canaanite woman? Grace towards others includes tact and is therefore in many cases a good response. However, is tact the appropriate course in every situation? In professions like the theater, choreography, firefighting and the military there is little time for polite diplomacy. Commands must be given sharply and followed quickly. When someone is about to drive over a cliff, is saying "Pardon me" really appropriate? Positive confrontation can be used for good and what Jesus did was always good. Let’s look at his confrontation with a gentile woman.
2. Confrontation with a Gentile Woman
Faith not Race
Was Jesus a bigot? He rejected a Gentile woman asked for healing, saying that it was not right to give the children’s food to dogs (Matthew 15:10-28)? Rather than take offense, the woman boldly challenged Jesus. Her faith was bigger than racial sensitivities. Jesus was elated to see her great faith and healed her daughter. Could such a glowing compliment coming on the heels of such an awful insult be the core of this lesson? Was Jesus really a racial bigot or testing her faith? Dare we judge Christ by human political correctness? A good teacher will sometimes challenge students with an offensive view to bring out the best in them. How could Jesus, who created all of humanity, be racially bigoted? Does not the story really show that regardless of race, bold faith is what counts with Jesus? Do we find faith in other churches?
Rude & Bigoted Jesus?
The story of Jesus and the Gentile woman in Matthew 15:10-28 is one of the most shocking. Jesus appeared to be rude and bigoted. It was an animated encounter. The woman cried for mercy and the disciples, like a bunch of school bullies encouraged Jesus to just get rid of her. It is reminiscent of some churches today, who turn away from communion those of a different church or shun family members who have left their order. Why was Jesus so uncharacteristically blunt? Unlike harshly exclusive churches Jesus relented when he saw faith. Faith is what matters, not the race or church or order that a person belongs to. Abraham was the father of the faithful. Faith transcends breed, and Jesus’ drama emphasized that point. When will we get over our religious bigotry and recognize the faith of others? Does Jesus confront us to test our faith?
We don’t like confrontation. Yet occasionally it is necessary. Some avoid it by gossiping or pretending that everything is okay. Others confront in negative and divisive ways by the extremes of bullying or cowardice. In Matthew 15:10-28 Jesus confronted a Gentile woman in a positive way. What can we learn from this in regard to confrontation Jesus-style? First, we notice that Jesus gave the woman no reply. The time for confrontation was not until she became insistent. Second, he became increasingly specific with the woman. First, he replied mildly about his ministry excluding Gentiles. Then he became very blunt, reminding the woman of her ancestry. The Canaanites once engaged in child-sacrifice and ritual prostitution. This disgusting history is perhaps why Israelites called them dogs. The confrontation revealed the woman’s faith for the disciples to see and Jesus intervened as she requested. Did her faith make her acceptable?
Unclean made Clean by Faith
In the Old Testament period unclean eating and unclean people were equally forbidden. Some have tried to link the lists of unclean foods with in-edibility, but that is reading into the Bible more than it says. The whole of the laws of clean and unclean are summarized by Peter’s remarkable revelation that we should no longer call any person unclean (Acts 10:28). And so in Matthew 15:10-28 Jesus began leading his disciples into this new understanding by confronting a Gentile woman from a region with a particularly heinous history, Canaan. Every nation has a history of crimes against humanity. Americans bow their heads in shame over slavery and native Americans. Australians bow their heads in shame over the Tasmanian aborigine. Germans bow their heads in shame about the holocaust. Jesus’ confrontation was a practicum, an object lesson in understanding that faith makes anyone clean, no matter what their historical background. Her faith overcame her national shame.
Shame and Grace
Shame is a terrible burden. Are we so ashamed of our past that we find it difficult to pray? In Matthew 15:10-28 a Gentile woman asked Jesus to heal her daughter. We are not told of her personal sins, only that she was from a culture known for ritual prostitution and sacrifice of newborn children. Our culture is similar, with our shameless immorality and killing of inconvenient unborn children. When we are ashamed of personal sins or the sins of our people we may find it difficult to pray and ask God for any blessings. We may feel undeserving and we would be right. None of us is deserving. However, God’s grace covers shame. He blesses us though we don’t deserve it and this story is one of many examples where God graciously intervened when someone boldly requested his help. God welcomes all who come in faith.
Welcome Mat or Trespass Sign
What kind of sign is outside our church building? What kind of reputation do we have in the community? Do we seem to have a welcome mat or a no trespassing sign? The discussion between exclusivity and inclusiveness in the Church is two thousand years old and the conversation is not over yet. Part of that discussion is the events of Matthew 15:10-28. The Old Testament was very exclusive. Males had to be circumcised. Everyone had to meet strict requirement of ritual cleansing. Even marriages with foreigners were forbidden. Israel’s relationship with its neighbors was best described as a one-way street with no compromises. In the New Testament, we find a change. The requirements are simple: repentance towards God, faith in Jesus Christ and willingness to follow where the Holy Spirit leads. All people everywhere are being invited in. What if God says no?
When Jesus says No
When Jesus says no are we reluctant to appeal? Remember the importunate Gentile woman in Matthew 15:10-28? Did you think I was going to say the importunate widow? That’s another example of being persistent with God. Could it be that God will sometimes test our faith in ways that make us think he is unfair, racist, bigoted, rude, arrogant or uncaring? Yet, in the end his mercy is just. Faith means not giving up. Jacob wrestled all night with God’s messenger. It seems that God wants us to learn to be unrelenting. Indeed, he that endures to the end shall be saved (Matthew 10:22, Matthew 24:13). Just as a wise parent will encourage a placid child to fight for themselves, is God trying to bring out the best in us by helping us to learn persistence even in the face of insults?
Unable to be Insulted
Don’t you just love to be around people who are unfazed when they are insulted! Some people just shrug their shoulders, others even agree with the insults with a so-what attitude especially if a fault that is common to all is part of the affront. There are many similar fascinating approaches that defuse potentially angry encounters. In Matthew 15:10-28 Jesus insulted a Gentile woman by saying that it's just not right to take bread out of the children's mouths and toss it to the dogs. Many people would hurl back another insult and some might even want to start a useless fist fight over such taunting words. What did the woman do? Rather than be insulted she turned the insult to her favor, by insisting that even the dogs get to eat the crumbs from the table. Let’s imagine a time when our culture has few Christians left.
The Year 3020
It is the year 3020. Asia and Africa are wealthy Christian continents. After a thousand years of poverty and trouble, Europe and America are returning to Christianity. Historians tell us what happened to the once great Christian powers of Europe and America. They became decadent and worshipped the gods of Money, Power and Sex instead of the true God. They were Democratic Oligarchies making parents work long hours with low pay and with little time off. Families were sacrificed for the wealthy elite. Reminiscent of other ancient societies like the Canaanites they were sexually promiscuous and killed their unwanted children. Christianity waned, marriages failed and children suffered most. They became possessed by the demons of violence. In the year 3020 many from Europe and America are returning to Christianity and praying to Jesus to heal their children (Matthew 15:10-28). Is this our future? Are we filled with national pride and arrogance or do we come to Jesus with nothing?
She Came to Jesus with Nothing
The woman of Canaan in Matthew 15:10-28 came to Jesus with nothing. European and American Christians come to Jesus with pride and arrogance. We believe that our heritage makes us superior. Canaanite history by contrast was reprehensible and despised. We quickly forget our own shame. The Napituca, Mystic and Jamestown Massacres are only a few of the many shameful acts of American history. The Spanish Inquisition, Polish pogroms and Nazi atrocities are only a few of the many shameful acts of European history. The disciples were from a people with a long history of knowledge of God but they had little faith. The Canaanite woman came to Jesus with nothing, but her faith was strong. Perhaps like Paul we ought to count our own pasts as dung (Philippians 3:7-8) and come to Jesus with nothing to brag about. Are we proud of our church traditions?
Tradition Does not Guarantee Faith
The woman of Canaan in Matthew 15:10-28 came to Jesus with nothing but was praised for her great faith. The Pharisees came to Jesus with a great tradition in the Holy Scriptures but were criticized for their almost total lack of faith. Modern Christianity is based upon Scripture, tradition and reason. Of those three, Scripture is the most reliable. Our traditions often mirror those of the Pharisees and our literature reflects the Jewish Talmud. We are proud of our traditions, whether they are ancient or modern. We speak highly of our Church fathers and bind rules upon our denominations that neither Jesus nor the Apostles demanded of the Church. We ask if we have fulfilled all the requirements that were established by mere men, but do not ask if we have great faith. Yet it is faith that saves.
Bigotry defines some people as unwashed, unclean, unwanted based entirely upon physical characteristics such as race, nationality, income, religious tradition and so on. Yet, Jesus shows that what is important is whether or not our hearts are clean. Will we allow him to make our hearts clean?