Once again we are confronted with two passages which on the surface appear disconnected. Don’t you believe it. Still, the disconnect appears strong enough to where the common lectionary optionally disconnects them for us. That is scholars talking. That is not writers and storytellers talking.
What I mean is Matthew (Luke, Mark and John) wrote the gospels in order to tell the story of Jesus. They were not writing scholarly works. They were storytellers. And while any number of people do not know this, Matthew (and the others) did not write in chapter and verse. They wrote a continuous narrative, and any narrative will flow in a logical and connected way just as much and as well as the storyteller can make it flow. So consider this:
One key to reading the gospels is to recognize when Jesus acts in the narrative right after teaching it is invariably because the author saw that act as a “best” example of the teaching, not as a disconnected incident.
(Yes, all of the Biblical writers made what we would call chapter or section breaks in their writing. A modern writer might put in symbols to indicate a break, like ### or ~~~. Matthew did not use that technique. Other modern writers might use the words, “And then” or “Meanwhile…” Again, the gospel writers did not follow that pattern (except perhaps Mark who wrote “and” or “and then” a lot). But generally it is best to assume that the acts of Jesus exemplify the teachings of Jesus, at least in the author’s mind. Otherwise, the author would not have put them together).
So here, when we find two apparently disconnected passages, we have to rethink and realize that they are not disconnected in the author’s mind and so should not be disconnected in ours.
One more note: Jesus probably taught the same teachings any number of times over the years. This, now, is considering the way teachers work (again, as opposed to the way scholars work). One passing comment, even in a classroom setting, is not likely to be remembered. If a teacher hopes the students will “get it,” the information has to be spoken, written, underlined, repeated and reviewed and tested (and even then, as any teacher will tell you, some still don’t grasp it).
It is likely Jesus taught the same basic teachings over and over to his disciples. For scholars to pick at when he said this or when he said that misses the point. This being the case, though, we should all the more recognize that when an action follows a teaching, at least in the author’s mind, it does so to illustrate that teaching.
So here Jesus is teaching that what goes into a person does not defile them.
And what went into the woman in the active passage? Canaanite culture, beliefs and society. Likely anti-Jewish, pro Tyre and Sidon thinking, beliefs and behaviors. She was born and bred an outsider to the Jews and the fact that she followed after them and kept crying out annoyed the disciples.
Jesus said, instead it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.
We can only wonder what came out of the disciples when they urged Jesus to send her away.
But what came out of the woman? Jesus stopped to hear what came out.
“Lord.” She recognized his authority over her. “Son of David.” She knew who he was. “Help me.” She believed in him.
He said (in effect) but you are not a Jew. What has gone into you is anti-Jewish and really we might call it anti-God. Why should I help you?
She did not say anything about his need to be fair. She said nothing about any entitlement. She did not make demands. Indeed, she did not say any such thing that we would expect in our current culture. (She did not threaten to sue if he refused to help her. Think about it). She said instead, yes, given everything I am in where I live, in who I hang out with, in how I was raised, I am no better than a dog. (Can we see ourselves with such clarity? Can we admit such about ourselves)?
Then she said, “But even the dogs…” Now, it is not in the cleverness of her words that Jesus found favor for this woman. Many a preacher and teacher has gotten hung up and been totally misdirected because of the woman’s cleverness in her response. Get over it. What she was saying, and all she was really saying is, “If you are willing, I believe and know that you are able to help my daughter.”
Jesus named her words correctly. This is faith, and his response to faith for her was as it had been for so many Jews in his ministry. “I am willing.” And her daughter was healed.
You see, everything that went into this woman her whole life was anti-Jewish and anti-God. But it did not defile her. What came out of her was honesty, humility and faith in Jesus. Martin Luther King Junior really got it right. People are, have been, and will be judged, not by the color of their skin (or the culture of their birth) but by the content of their character.
The worst went into this woman, but what came out of her was the best. By contrast, many of us in this nation have been spoon-fed with the best, and yet what comes out… well, I am not the one to judge.