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  • Writer's pictureNorthminster Church

"No, Rabbi, You Are Mistaken," by Zachary Helton

Matthew 15:1-28

Some Pharisees and religious teachers came to Jesus from Jerusalem and confronted him. "Our tradition tell us that we are supposed to ritually wash our hands before eating, but your disciples don't do that. They willfully unclean, and that is unacceptable." "Unacceptable?" Jesus replied. "You are so quick to call them unclean, yet you pay no attention to the way you, yourselves, violate the commandments of God for the sake of your 'tradition.' Does God not say, 'Honor your mother and father,' and 'whoever curses their mother and father must be put to death?' But you tell your followers to neglect supporting their parents and give everything to the Temple. Which do you think God cares about more, taking care of the vulnerable, or a ritual tradition of washing your hands? You ignore God's Spirit for the sake of your tradition. You all put on this religious mask, but care nothing for what is underneath it. "Isaiah prophesied about people like you when he wrote, 'These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is worthless, and their doctrines are just empty rules.'" Jesus called the crowd together and said to everyone, "Hear this and understand: It is not what enters your mouth that makes you unclean - it's what comes out of your mouth that makes you unclean!" Afterwards, the disciples approached Jesus and said, "Do you realize that you offended the Pharisees by what you said?" Jesus replied, "Don't worry so much about what they think. Every plant God has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. What I said had to be said, for now they are but blind people leading other blind people, and soon they will all wind up in a ditch." Peter said to him, "Explain to us what you said about things coming from your mouth making you unclean." Jesus replied, "The Pharisees are so obsessed with washing their hands and eating things that are ritually clean, but they don't realize that everything they eat just goes into the stomach and then out into the sewer. What comes out of their mouths, however, comes from their heart. The things that come from our hearts, the ways we hurt others, take advantage of the vulnerable, the ways we lie and cut down others with our words… these are the things that make a person unclean! Wash your hands all you want, those are the things that matter to God. Jesus left that place and departed for the district of Tyre and Sidon. It happened that a Canaanite woman living in the area came and cried out to Jesus, "Heir to David's Throne, have pity on me! My daughter is possessed by a demon!" Jesus gave her no word of response. The disciples repeatedly asked him, "Please get rid of her! She won't stop calling after us!" Finally, Jesus turned to the woman and said, "My mission is only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel." She fell down before him and begged, "Help me, Rabbi!" He answered, "No. It isn't right to take food meant for children and throw it to dogs." "That may be true, Rabbi," the woman replied, "but even the dogs eat scraps that fall from the children's table." In reply, Jesus said, "Woman, you have great faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." At that very moment, her daughter was healed. This is one of our sacred stories, Thanks be to God.

Sermon – “No, Rabbi, You Are Mistaken.”

Part I: “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye…”

One day, on the outskirts of town, Jesus was teaching his disciples. Susanna, listening intently at his feet, noticed a quickly approaching group of Pharisees and teachers of religion. Hearing them coming, Jesus turned and smiled warmly. “Good morning, friends,” he said. “How can we help you?”

The teacher leading the group waved a hand in dismissal. “Rabbi,” he began, not acknowledging the disciples, “we must talk. We have it on good authority that you and your disciples do not cleanse yourselves before taking a meal.” He paused for a reaction, but got none. “You make yourselves willingly unclean!” he accused. “This is not acceptable! You are blatantly disrespecting the tradition of our people.”

Jesus nodded along. “The tradition of our people…” he echoed back, considering his words carefully. “You know,” he replied at long last, “if you look deeply at our tradition, it is, I believe, about living a life that honors God. It is, at its core, about allowing God’s Life to flow through us, about allowing it to move us to peace and kindness. Now, we set up structures, laws and traditions, to remind ourselves who we are, but… have you ever noticed that our history shows us to be a people who very easily fall into the trap of worshipping the structure and forgetting about God?

“For example,” Jesus continued, “let’s take the cleansing ritual you mentioned. It reminds us that we are a holy people, set aside with cleansed with pure hearts, and that is very good. However, when we begin to use it as a measure of who is worthy of respect and who is not, then I’d say we’ve begun putting the cart before the horse, wouldn’t you say?”

“No. You are mistaken, Rabbi,” argued the teacher. “These traditions are our sacred duty. We do not get to pick and choose what to follow and what to set aside.”

“And yet,” Jesus pushed back evenly, “we all do. We do pick and choose traditions and how to interpret them based on what is most important to us. Even you do this.”

“I beg your pardon?” the teacher demanded, shocked.

“Well,” Jesus explained “the law says, ‘honor your father and mother,’ does it not? Yet you teach your followers to instead give whatever money they would’ve used to care for their aging parents to the temple.” The teacher began to grow purple, and the Pharisees behind him straightened their backs importantly.

“It is not a question of whether we do this,” Jesus went on, “but of how we do it. How do these traditions help us to surrender to God’s Spirit, or to distract us from it? It is perfectly possible to look religious – by cleansing yourself before every meal, for instance – and yet neglect God’s Spirit entirely. We become like our ancestors, of whom Isaiah wrote, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is worthless, and their doctrines are just empty rules.’”

“Empty rules??” the Pharisee stuttered in indignation. The whole party seemed to be puffing up their chests defensively. Jesus thought, for a moment, it looked like bears rising up threateningly on their hind legs to protect their cubs. What were these bears protecting?

“Ritual cleanness is a law handed down by our father Moses! When we disobey, we are a defiled people!”

“No,” Jesus shook his head calmly. “It’s not what goes into your mouth that defiles you, Rabbi, it’s what comes out. It’s the fruit borne by your life that matters. What do you think is most precious to God? Washing our hands, or caring for God’s beloved children? If one leads to the other, that is wonderful, but it one happens at the expense of the other, it is idolatry. Cleanse your flesh all you like, but until your heart is cleansed, you cut yourself off from the God you claim to worship.”

This was too much for the teachers and the Pharisees, who were all at least twenty years his elders. “How dare you, boy?” the teacher in front demanded. “We will not tolerate this disrespect!” He turned on heel and stormed away. The party following in a huff, leaving Jesus, stable as a stone, exactly as they’d found him.

There was an uncomfortable silence. After a moment, Susanna spoke up. “Rabbi,” she said, “does it not seem unkind to show the teachers such disrespect?”

Jesus answered calmly. “Do not be so worried about others taking offense that you fail to speak the truth in love. And it is a mistake,” he went on, “to confuse truth with disrespect. Our flesh will always confuse one for the other because it is easily threatened, but the Spirit listens with humble curiosity. The bears of defensiveness will rise in our chests to protect us, but we must learn to speak gently to them and calm them. Vanity is weak, but truth does not need protecting. How much suffering do we cause ourselves and others because we are not mindful of this within ourselves?

“The Pharisees and teachers,” Jesus said, looking back in their direction, “have not yet learned to do this work, and so they walk away from God in favor of comfort and tradition. They are blind shepherds leading a blind flock, and unless become humble enough to listen to warnings, they will all soon fall into a ditch.

“Now,” Jesus gave his full attention to his friends. “Where were we?”

Part II: “…but considerest not the log that is in thine own eye?”

The following day, Jesus and his disciples began a journey to Tyre and Sidon. Susanna, walking at Jesus’ side, heard someone quickly approaching behind them, calling loudly. It sounded like a woman. Hearing her coming, Jesus turned and frowned. “Keep walking,” he said resolutely to his disciples. “We can do nothing for her.” From her clothes, Jesus had seen that the woman was a Canaanite, not a Jew, and while had a deep desire to call his nation back to their identity as children of God, what could he do for Gentiles? What did they know of God to begin with? They only ever wanted quick fixes and miracles from him, and that was not his mission.

All the same, in her desperation, she quickly caught up to them. “Rabbi!” the woman began, glancing apologetically at the disciples, then back to Jesus. “True King of Israel! In your mercy, please help me. My daughter is possessed by a demon, and you are certainly our only hope!”

His suspicions confirmed, Jesus paused and looked at her. “No.” he said, simply. “My work is to help the lost sheep of Israel. There is nothing I can do for you. It is not right to take what is meant to nourish the children and throw it to the dogs. I’m sorry.”

Stepping around her, he carried on. The disciples believed what Jesus said must be truth, so they followed him, giving the woman a wide berth… that is, except for Susanna. She couldn’t leave the woman, who was now weeping. The woman caught sight of Susanna and quickly looked down again. Quietly, almost to herself, she muttered through her tears, “Even the dogs catch scraps that fall from the children’s table.” This was too much for Susanna.

“Wait here,” she said.

She ran to catch up with Jesus, cutting him off on the road. “No, Rabbi,” she said, catching her breath. “You are mistaken.”

Jesus was surprised, and he straightened up for a moment. The disciples thought he was preparing to rebuke her. But then Jesus took a deep breath, and they watched his body relax. “How do you mean, Susanna?” Jesus asked, curious.

“Yesterday,” Susanna said, “you explained to the Pharisees that our tradition is about allowing God’s life to flow through us – allowing it to move us to peace and kindness. We’ve set up structures like clean and unclean, Jew and Gentile, to help us remember our task… but they’re only good as far as they help us open ourselves to God’s Spirit. Is that right?”

“Yes, Susanna, that is right.” Jesus nodded.

“You taught us that it is not the structures and divides that ultimately matter, Rabbi, but the fruit borne by our lives.” Susanna pointed over his shoulder, causing him to turn and look at the woman, still weeping in the street where they’d left her. “So, teacher,” Susanna said, “is that the fruit of God’s Spirit? A woman weeping in the street over her daughter?”

Jesus looked at the woman for a long moment. The disciples were uncomfortably silent, shocked by Susanna’s show of disrespect to their master.

Jesus turned back to Susanna and gently, he nodded. “You’re right,” he said. “Please, give me a moment.”

The disciples watched as he turned and walked back to the woman, kneeling in the dust beside her. They saw her tears become his tears, saw unheard words exchanged, and then watched as they embraced. The woman let go and bowed prostrate before Jesus, before scrambling to her feet and taking off back down the road. Letting her go, Jesus smiled and took a breath. Then he stood and returned to his disciples. Stopping at Susanna, he put a hand on her shoulder and looked her in the eye. “Thank you,” he said, smiling. Then he let go and walked on.

Most disciples followed, but one stayed back, a confused expression on his face. “I don’t understand,” he said to Susanna. “He is supposed reveal the truth of all things… but he was wrong. He made a mistake. Perhaps he is not the Christ after all.”

Susanna laughed. “If that was not truth,” she said, “I don’t know what is.”

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