The Possibilities of Being Fully Human and Divine – August 16
A sermon based on Matthew 15:10-28
given at Mount Vernon, OH on August 16, 2020* 2011
by Rev. Scott Elliott
In our lesson Jesus refers to eating rules, because he’d just been accosted by some religious folks for violating eating rituals they were obsessed with. They criticized Jesus and his followers for not performing a ritual washing before eating. They thought that what the Jesus followers put in their mouth without that ritual defiled the eater. In other words, those following the particular religious ideas of purity, considered those who didn’t follow them to be impure and separated “from the holy community and the holiness of God.” 1
Our lesson starts with Jesus teaching that following religious rules about what goes into our body is not nearly as important as what we do and say to others. What comes out of our being, from our hearts, is what really matters. “[Jesus] 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.” Jesus explained, “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.” In other words, what is in our heart, and actions derived from our heart, matter.
For Jesus, of course, love in our heart and love in our actions is THE heart of the matter . . . and what matters. Always. And rules that do not go to the heart of that matter, are not nearly as important as making sure what comes from our heart is love. Lack-love slings and arrows flung at others from our mouth and in our deeds are actually what separate us from holiness, both from Holy community, and the Holiness of God. As Jesus puts it, “evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.”
As if to prove this point, then, “Jesus . . . 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. His disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” Where were the disciples’ hearts that day? The words that came out of their mouths were defiling.
Clearly the disciples did not learn the lesson about lack-love slings and arrows flung at others from our mouths. Surely this woman and her child– even if Canaanite and an enemy of Jewish people– deserved help. Jesus ignored the disciples and did not send the woman away. But he answered the woman’s plea with a surprisingly exclusive response that matched the disciples’ lack-love toward her. The words of his mouth defiled. Jesus said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But [the Canaanite Woman] came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’” Jesus’ response to this person’s pleading is even more surprising. It’s awful, it’s as if he took the thoughts behind what the disciples said to him and flung them at the poor woman and her child. “He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’”
And calling a woman a female dog was as insulting then as it is today. It was meant to defile. The woman did not let this phase her. She had love for her daughter, and a desperate need for her daughter, and has faith that only Jesus provide the help she needs. She responds to Jesus’ defiling words saying “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.”
What do we do with this story which we are told happened right after Jesus’ teachings to not defile with words? In the story, words from Jesus’ mouth echo his disciple’s lack love and defile the Canaanite woman and her daughter. This has troubled Christians over the ages.
Some of us grew up saying the Nicene Creed as a part of worship service. The Nicene Creed goes way back to the 4th century. It was the result of arguments among different factions of Christianity over the nature of Christ. Some claimed Jesus was not human at all but a Divine being on earth. Others claimed Jesus was not Divine at all, but merely human. At Nicaea it was decided that Jesus was both fully Divine and fully human. So, these words were included in the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ . . . God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God . . . he came down from heaven was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human . . .”
Jesus is considered in our faith tradition as both human and divine. I bring this up because the idea of Jesus being truly human and truly Divine, or acting human and Divine can help us understand today’s difficult text, the story of the Canaanite Woman. Today’s scripture reading has Jesus leaving his homeland for the first and last time during his human life. It also has him very tired and weary. Fully human beings experience fatigue and irritability. Exhausted Jesus sought time to rest and solitude from the swarms of people – and perhaps all the bickering from religious critics. Jesus had nothing left for the children of Israel, so he went to out of the country to rest, to hide out and escape notice for a while. We can think of Jesus as on a sort of vacation, trying to recuperate.
But Jesus did not escape as planned and his rest is interrupted. A Canaanite woman, a person considered an enemy and lowly to Jesus’ culture, sought out Jesus. The woman had a sick little girl and was desperate – like any parent would be for help. She courageously came to Jesus. But the disciples wanted to shut her up and for Jesus to chase her away. Jesus chose not to. She bowed at Jesus’ feet and begged him to heal her little girl. Weary, too tired to help the children of Israel, let alone anyone else, and perhaps even irritated, Jesus may have snapped at the woman “‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’” . . . Or maybe he was mimicking the disciples lack love to prove a point, give them a glimpse of how ugly their approach looked played out.
Whatever the cause, Jesus’ words are stinging. But they probably came as no surprise to the woman. Not only because she was a cultural lowly female intruding upon a weary male seeking solitude, but as a Canaanite she knew she was looked down upon by, and even considered an enemy of the people of Israel. The denial of help and the time-honored insult of calling an enemy a dog– did not rile the unnamed woman in her dire quest for help for her daughter. She pressed on respectfully “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Jesus’ weariness and irritability, his fully human weaknesses came out but soon gave way to his fully Divine-strengths. Or, if he was mimicking the disciples to make a point, he certainly made it. Either way he let God shine. Because Love won the day. The lesson being, that it should . . . it must win.
The crumbs of Spiritual nourishment Jesus had been giving to the children of Israel, were crumbs that all manner of people on earth desire and need and are starving for, –and are entitled too– even those cultures consider “dogs.” The Christ, the fully God-ness of Jesus, saw the value of this woman, the value of Gentiles; the value of honoring all people of all nations, the value of Love winning the day. The value of not defiling, of having love in our heart control our actions!
This is a critical turning point in the Gospel, a point at where Jesus reached beyond the narrow confines of his religion and culture to all peoples of the world. Christians can even hear this as Jesus fulfilling God’s promise in Genesis 12 that through Abraham “all the families on the earth shall be blessed.” What a great way to make that lesson stand out, by having an enemy female, the lowest of the low in his culture be the only person to ever win an argument with Jesus, a victory that causes his Divine nature of love to override any human lack love. She said, Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Clearly moved Jesus replied,” ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.”
Jesus, the great Rabbi, the one who proves to be God incarnate, was fully human . . . like us. We hesitate to acknowledge that. But the truth is if he was fully human he got tired, he grew weary, and he was a product of his culture. He could even make a mistake. That’s only human . . . very much human. And he could learn. He could change. That’s human too. Thank God. Jesus could transcend his human limitations and search deep for the Divine thing to do. And then he could find the Way to do the Divine thing– and Jesus did that so well. It is among the many blessings he showed us, as he modeled the Way, HIS WAY.
First John 2:6 tells us that we are called to walk as Jesus walked, that is to do just as he did. “Whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked. See, if Jesus was fully human. One of us . . . Like us . . . Then conversely . . . We can be like him. Meaning at some level we are not just fully human, but also have a Divine nature within us. That means the potential to walk as Jesus walked is possible. IT. IS. POSSIBLE.
We have to let our words and actions not come from a heart with the intent to do evil, but from a heart filled with love intending to love. “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.” When confronted by the enemy and asked for help Jesus was able to transcend human limitations and search deep for the Divine thing. In his heart he found the Way to that Divine thing. The right thing for an outsider, even an enemy.
The good news is the disciples made a mistake initially, acting and speaking with less than love for the enemy. Jesus at one level or another is reported to have done that too. But Jesus listened with his heart to the Canaanite woman, a fully human person in need. She was calling for help from her heart filled with love for her child. Fully human Jesus listened to his loved-filled heart, ignored the culture and instantly changed a human defiling response to a very Divine loving response. “Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ ” And her daughter was healed instantly.
We’re all fully human, truly human. All our words matter. “[I]t is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” First John 2:6 tells us that “whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked.” Even if it means changing our mind. Or changing our way . . . or words. Fully human, we are to be like Jesus. The lesson of the gospels is not only that our actions can be like Jesus, but that they should be like Jesus. They. Can. Be. Fully. Divine . . . AMEN
* Based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2011
1. New Interpreters Bible, Vol. VIII, p. 333.
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2020 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED