A reflection on Matthew 15:10-28, the Gospel lesson for August 14, 2011 according to the Revised Common Lectionary. A reflection on the Old Testament lesson for the same day can be found here.
…”it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”
In Frederick Buechner’s The Son of Laughter, Rachel says to her son Jacob: “A word can never be unspoken once it has been spoken. Do you understand what I mean?…This is what I mean. If you speak a word with the strength of your heart in it, you can never get that word out of the ears of the one you speak it to and back into your mouth again. Once a word goes forth, it makes things happen for better or for worse. Nothing you do will ever make those things unhappen even though you live for a thousand years.”
Those words are true, in the fullest sense of the word.
I’ve seen relationships undone with the speaking of a word, families torn apart. I’ve seen congregations come undone at the flip of the tongue.
And, it’s always ugly. It always hurts–and the hurt is always bigger than one person, or one moment.
It’s the kind of hurt that lasts. It’s the kind of hurt that makes you wonder if things will ever be ok again.
Jesus’ words in the fifteenth chapter of Matthew are spoken directly about the Pharisees. Apparently, they did a lot of tongue lashing. Apparently their some of their talking provoked others to sinful behavior, and slander.
But, the words of Jesus here aren’t just directed to them, they were also directed towards Matthew’s community.
The Epistle of James picks up this theme early on in the first chapter: “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” James 1:26
These passages, and the teaching of Jesus here, is very much about the character of Christian community. Christian community is meant to be gentle on the ears, because harsh words hurt. It’s meant to be gentle, because it’s meant to embody love.
That doesn’t mean that we don’t talk truthfully. But, it does mean that we speak the truth in love.
I have to say that I’ve always disliked the way that Jesus talks to the Canaanite woman in the fifteenth chapter of Matthew. He calls her a dog. I’ve always pictured Jesus being so much more gentle and merciful than he appears to be here.
And yet, while I still don’t particularly like it, what Jesus seems to do is provide a way for her to be an example of a gentle tongue. She gets ignored and called a name, but she doesn’t lash back. And, because of that she becomes an example of “great faith.”
The irony here is that the Pharisees who have dedicated their lives to the study and implementation of God’s Law are far worse examples of faith than this woman of another religion.
She is the example that we are to follow, as individuals and as church communities: gentle, merciful…faithful.