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Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost – August 16, 2020
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
The whole world is obsessed with cleanliness right now. We’re all germphobes these days, using hand sanitizer after touching doorknobs, scrubbing our hands raw after we get home from the grocery store. I was traveling this week, and you really see it there. Everyone, of course, was required to wear masks in the airport and on the plane. The flight attendants assured us that the plane had been thoroughly sanitized, including the use of an electrostatic fogger. In addition, as we boarded, each passenger was given a wipe soaked in the strongest antiseptic I have ever smelled to use to wipe down our armrests and trays. We’re obsessed with cleanliness, and rightly so. It is our best defense against a virus that is outside of ourselves.
It has been said that “cleanliness is next to godliness.” This is not in the Bible actually, but the Pharisees took this ancient proverb quite literally. They were obsessed with cleanliness. They were spiritual germophobes. And so you can imagine their shock and outrage when they saw Jesus’ disciples eating without performing the ritual hand washing first! This was not a hygienic concern here so much as it was a spiritual concern. They were not observing the traditions of the elders put in place to guard one’s spiritual cleanliness.
This is what prompts the conversation we hear in the first part of our gospel reading for today. Jesus insists that spiritual cleanliness isn’t a matter of defending against something outside of ourselves. This uncleanliness, this virus of sin, is already within us. We already have it, and no amount of spiritual handwashing can get rid of it.
Jesus says, “Listen and understand, it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles someone, but what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” You aren’t made unclean by what you eat according to the dietary laws, Jesus is saying. You don’t “catch sin” by eating the wrong food. You already have it, and this is evidenced by what comes out of the mouth!
When Jesus’ disciples express concern that he has offended the Pharisees by saying this, Jesus doubles down on the metaphor. He says, “Look, it isn’t what goes in, but what comes out!” Jesus then uses probably the most colorful metaphor of his entire ministry. He says, “Don’t you see? Whatever goes into the mouth just goes into the stomach and eventually out the other end! That is what those traditions are worth when it comes to making you clean!” It isn’t what goes in, but what comes out, what comes out of the heart. And what comes out of the human heart isn’t pretty: evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, not eating with unwashed hands.
You see, sin isn’t like coronavirus. It isn’t outside of ourselves. It is already within our hearts. It is less like a virus and more like a genetic condition. We can, and should, guard ourselves against flare ups of this condition – the Pharisees were right about that much. We can manage our anger so as to not let it turn into violence or murder. We can guard our eyes and our hearts so as to avoid a slippery slope into adultery or fornication. We can cultivate virtue and character so as to avoid theft or lying or slander. What we cannot do is cure ourselves of sin by our own efforts. We cannot cleanse ourselves of the sin in our hearts. The Pharisees had made a fundamental epidemiological error, thinking that the spiritual uncleanliness of sin was outside of us rather than within.
So if we cannot cure ourselves of the sin within us, how is it cured? How are we made clean? How are we healed from this genetic condition? That’s what the next part of our gospel reading is about.
A Canaanite woman approached Jesus with her daughter in tow. That this woman was a Canaanite is important. Canaanites were among Israel’s most despised enemies. They had long been known and are described in the Bible repeatedly as a wicked and idolatrous people. The Israelites often referred to them as dogs. This woman was one of them. Talk about unclean! To make matters worse, her daughter had a demon. It is hard for us modern, post-enlightenment people to make sense of what “having a demon” means exactly, but in Jesus’ time whatever was going on with her was understood as something profoundly evil.
This desperate Canaanite mother approached Jesus for help. First Jesus ignored her. “He did not answer her at all,” Matthew tells us. But she didn’t give up. She kept shouting after Jesus, such that the disciples got annoyed and asked Jesus to send her away. So Jesus said to her, “I was sent only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she still wasn’t deterred. She knelt before him and said, “Help me.”
Then Jesus said something that bothers many people. He said, “It isn’t fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Ouch. It is hard to know if Jesus was really being derogatory here. We can’t hear Jesus tone of voice, which would really tell us something about his intentions in speaking to her this way. What we do know is how the woman responded. It might bother us, but it didn’t seem to bother this woman! She understood her position before Jesus. She didn’t get offended when Jesus suggested she is was like a dog begging beneath the family’s table. Instead, she owns it! She admits it! She confesses it! She says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
And both her persistence and her clever confession were rewarded. “Woman, great is your faith!” Jesus said. “Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed immediately.
How are we made clean? How are we cured from the sin that lurks so deeply in our hearts? By owning the fact that we are beggars in need of Christ’s mercy. By owning the fact that we are dogs who are hungry for the crumbs that fall from our master’s table. We find healing from this genetic condition within by confessing our sin and putting our persistent trust in Christ Jesus, who casts out our sin, who drives out our demons, who makes us clean and whole.
By all means, continue to be obsessed with outward cleanliness in this time of pandemic. Keep washing those hands! It is indeed our best defense against a virus that is outside of us.
By all means, continue to keep your emotions – especially your anger – in check. Guard your eyes and your heart to prevent unclean thoughts and even more devastating actions. Work to cultivate virtue and character in your life. All of this will help manage the symptoms of this genetic condition we all have.
But the disease of sin is already inside of us, and the only cure for this spiritual uncleanliness is the Lord Jesus himself. Turn to him. When it seems like he is ignoring you, don’t be shy and don’t give up. Say, “Lord, help me!” Confess your deep need for his mercy. Admit your situation. Own it. Turn to him in faith, and he will make you well.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church