What is Faith?
Matthew 15: 10-28
Last weekend, I was away on vacation and spent some time with dear friends. There were nine of us altogether, and I’m grateful that we’re an eclectic bunch. In the group are a lawyer, a Brookings fellow, a Log Cabin Republican and Sr. Vice President of her PR firm, a librarian, a water conservationist, a youth worker, an economist at the World Bank, an MBA student, and me, a Presbyterian pastor. At best, a couple of them grew up going to church from time to time, but for the most part, though not entirely skeptical of God, most are untrusting of Christianity as a religion. Over dinner on Saturday night, the MBA student, a naturally inquisitive person, started asking me questions – and they weren’t the usual questions I get from non-church-goers. Usually I get the, “Because I do this, the church people will hate me, right?” Or, “if I believe this, I can’t come to church, right?” Or, “I can’t do that and go to church because God isn’t a fan of that, right?” Or “How can you like church? At my parents’ church, all they do is talk about money and what not to do and they don’t do much else…” To which most of my responses are simply – ‘No – you’re not right…and, yeah – that’s a problem with church.” But, with my friends on vacation, the questions were different. They were about what I believed, what Presbyterians believe, and what I think about various parts of Christianity such as the Bible and Jesus and the Trinity and why.
It was a wonderful conversation – stimulating to be sure – and got the wheels turning in my mind in a fresh way – thinking theologically usually does that to me. And then, on Sunday morning, while you were all here, I read the Scripture for this morning. I read in our passage that Jesus is teaching the Pharisees that it’s not about what you put in your mouth, but what comes out of your mouth that matters – that monitoring what one consumes is not enough to reflect ones faith, but that it is what one says or does that matters, as that is what comes from the heart. Then, a woman calls out to Jesus for justice – unconcerned with the rituals of the people of Israel – she raises her voice in confidence of God’s power to heal and usher in justice. The Scripture is a story of an ancient community, mirroring our community today, listening to Jesus call us away from the privilege of self-centered consideration of what might harm ‘me’ – to the broader concern of the fact that words spoken and actions taken can hurt others. And then, I read in the paper about another young, black man who had been shot and a community erupted. Thinking theologically, delving into Scripture, exploring faith is not simply an exercise for us – as Jesus suggests, and learns himself in our text today, enacting our faith matters to those around us.
As we ponder what our faith is, let us pray: Gracious and Loving God, startle us. Startle us to listen to your Word and move us to consider our own faith. Amen.
Matthew 15: 10-28
10Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: 11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” 12Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” 13He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” 15But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” 16Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding?17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.22Just 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.” 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Throughout this last week, I was going back and forth as to whether we should read this whole passage or if we should only focus on one scene or the other. Each scene holds several sermons within it – however, I was compelled to keep them together – and over time, I came to find them inseparable. The first scene is of Jesus teaching the crowds and the Pharisees. We’re all familiar with this kind of setting and can anticipate that Jesus is going to school them on the difference between religious practice and expression of faith. In consistent fashion – Jesus does. As a sign of religious faith, the practice of the community was to monitor what was taken into the body – cleanliness was next to Godliness when it came to diet. It was an individualistic practice that all could participate in as a custom of the community and they collectively understood this practice to be a sign of piety. The more strictly monitored and disciplined, the cleaner and more “faithful”.
However, Jesus turns this on its head. He says to the crowd, “Look, it’s not about what goes in your mouth that reflects your faith, it is what comes out of your heart. Yesterdays lunch is gone forever – what goes in your mouth ends up in the sewer anyways. What matters is what comes out – what words you choose to use when speaking to one another, what actions you take towards one another – that’s what matters.” As Gary Charles, pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, GA says, “For Jesus, religious purity and faithful discipleship are not measured ultimately by how many perfect attendance badges one has earned for Sunday school or worship, how often one has read the Bible from cover to cover, or how much money one contributes to the church treasury. Purity and faithfulness are shown ultimately by how the church speaks and lives out the radical hospitality and love of Christ.” This was an incredibly radical idea for them to grasp – shifting their badge of piety from being self-controlled and self-centered to being communal and about the engagement of oneself as a member of a community. This was so radical that the disciples ask Jesus to say it again, and he teaches the disciples until they learn the new way of practicing faith. Once again, Jesus turns a paradigm on its head.
And, then we have the next scene. Jesus has moved on from the crowds and has moved to Tyre and Sidon and as they are walking along, there is a woman on the street shouting – perhaps you can hear her voice. Annoyed by her shouts, the disciples ask him to send her away – she is a Canaanite woman, a foreigner, not to be paid attention to, not to be worried about or bothered by. Jesus, a Jew, a historical enemy of Canaanites, didn’t exactly respond to her according to his culture – in fact he was considered to be quite gracious and civil by simply ignoring her. She kept shouting at him. She acknowledged his culture by calling him Son of David, she called him Lord, and finally, he stops and says to her, probably with as much compassion that he could muster. “Listen, I’m not here for you…I’m here for my people, for the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” She persisted. Kneeling, she asks again for help on behalf of her daughter. And his response to her here is quite astonishing and not exactly the Jesus we are used to – though would be in line with what one would expect at the time. He says, “You ask me for help but what sense does that make for me? It would be like throwing money down the drain, like wasting a perfectly good healing, like taking food from children and giving it to the dog.” And this is where this scene gets interesting – at least, I think so. She speaks up and turns the paradigm on him. She does exactly what Jesus taught to the crowds and Pharisees and Jesus is now on the receiving end of his teaching. As Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary says, “She voices her trust, her acknowledgement of Jesus’ power. What comes out of her heart is the seed of her faith.” What comes out of her heart is a cry for justice – to be treated with equality. She recognizes the cultural barriers and she tells of her faith in a God which transcends cultural location. She believes that even the crumbs from the masters table will be sufficient to bring healing to her daughter. And in her cry for healing, her cry for justice is laid bare and Jesus’ eyes are opened and he sees her faith is great. And, here is a moment of transformation – a moment when the teacher learns a lesson on the power that faith has when at work in the world.
We’re not used to thinking of Jesus as a learner. We’re used to Jesus being the teacher – and, for many Christians, this may have significant consequences for their understanding of who Jesus is. For some, it is difficult to accept that Jesus was a learner. Sure, when he was a boy, in the time of his life between when he was a boy and before he appears again in the Scriptures as being a man, sure – he was learning in the synagogues. But, this Jesus, this all-powerful, divine Jesus who teaches the masses – it is difficult to accept that he also was open to learning. But, important nonetheless, and something I would encourage you to ponder over the coming days. And what is also remarkable here, in this text that portrays Jesus as a learner, the teacher is quite unexpected – she was a teacher not of his ilk, not of his class, not of his religion, not of his race – and this woman who speaks of justice, when receiving none, was a powerful teacher. This Canaanite woman’s faith reflects tenacity, boldness in her faith in God’s strength and ability to heal all people, and though an outsider, she works within the system to speak for this justice. And, Jesus responds to this. In fact, he declares this great faith!
The catch-phrase of the seminary I attended is that they have the “CURE” for your theological education. “CURE” standing for ‘cross-cultural,’ ‘urban,’ Reformed,’ and ‘ecumenical.’ Roughly 30% of the students are African American, 30% Euro-American and the other 40% are Latino-American, Asian-American and students from other countries such as South Korea, Ghana, Colombia and South Africa. Religiously, it is all over the map – fewer than 40% of students are Presbyterian and denominations such as Baptist, UCC, Reformed, non-denominational, Pentecostal, and even Seventh Day Adventist are represented. The Center for Cross Cultural Theological Education that is housed at the seminary inform all of the course curriculum that are offered, and the culture of the campus is infused with a commitment to engage in conversations around race. When I was a student, a class was offered called Racial Identity and White Privilege and it was one of the most challenging courses I’ve ever taken. Engaging honestly about race in our culture is hard work and often intense in nature – and, mind you, this is in the context of a classroom, with a professor trained to navigate through these conversations – not on the streets stained with blood, wrought with emotion. Even still, in the classroom, white students would become so overwhelmed with guilt, it was difficult for them to stay in the conversation in a meaningful way. And, for some of my classmates of color, experiences of pain were conjured and paralysis set in from depression of the uphill battle ahead. The work is grueling – we see how grueling and painful, particularly this week – the work to get out from under the pain, out from under the guilt to meaningfully engage with one another to discover a path of reconciliation ahead. And, today, we find Jesus alongside of us in these conversations, learning and seeking justice.
This scene of engagement between the Canaanite woman and Jesus, though seemingly aspirational, is also possible for us. In such a time as this, we need not look to the disciples as models – we need not send the voices crying out for justice away and we need not cower behind our guilt of not knowing what to do. Those of us gathered here today, we are people of privilege. And, as people of privilege, we need to look to the one whom we follow and be open to learning, listen to voices other than our own and engage together in confidence of God’s power to heal – perhaps then, we might delight in an experience of the power of great faith in the world. We need not be satisfied with the status quo. We need not sit at the table while others are waiting for the scraps like dogs. We need to listen to this woman and we need to understand a greater need for equality in Christ and pursue it.
What is faith? Doris Betts believes, ‘[Faith is] “not synonymous with certainty…[but faith] is the decision to keep your eyes open.” It’s more than articulating what not to do, as my friends and I discussed last weekend or as the Pharisees believed. And, in the case of our Scripture today, faith was experienced in a relational exchange of two people with their eyes open. A woman of an’other’ religious tradition, from an’other’ land, of an’other’ race, who believed in the power of God to heal, persevered for justice and the man she spoke with, listened and responded. Jesus’ initial encounter with this woman was according to culture – he remained silent when he first heard her. Then, when she persisted, he spoke of his mission, that she was outside of the bounds of his mission. And, when her voice speaking of justice persisted, Jesus recognized her faith. It matters what comes out of the mouth, out of the heart – not simply the ritual. And an openness to learn, as Jesus did, is a part of the experience of great faith at work in the world.
This discussion of what faith is, is real and important and has consequences not only for our own personal faith, but others too. There is a time for retreat, for tending to one’s spirit, one’s spirituality – and there is a time to remember that our words and our actions matter to God and to the world. Inequality continues to seep into and fester in our community like a pernicious poison. In such a time as this, this is when our words and our actions matter most – when we have the responsibility and opportunity, as followers of Christ, to listen and to tell of a more peaceful way of being. Don’t send the voices crying out away. Speak to them. Listen to them. Engage with them. And, in all, even when you don’t know what to say or what to do, have confidence in the power of God to heal.