Our reading this week is from the gospel of Matthew:
Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
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Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just 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.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15:10-20, 21-28)
Before we begin this week I want to address some harmful language in our reading. The first is a generalizing reference to Pharisees. The Pharisees were a very diverse group that held many of the same ethical views of love and inclusion as the early Jesus community did. They were the progressive liberals of their community, and appealed to a large portion of the masses. The Pharisees later evolved into what would become Rabbinic Judaism. Their ethics of love and compassion, justice, and inclusion are a central part of Jewish wisdom today.
This is important to say because using the term “Pharisee” as a pejorative slur is historically incorrect and has also been the root cause of antisemitism in Christianity over the centuries.
There was a sect of the Pharisees (the school of Shammai) that opposed the more progressive Jesus community. But this group of Pharisees were just as much opposed to their more progressive fellow Pharisees in the school of Hillel.
Because of this complex historical reality, as we tell the Jesus story we need to remember that many of the debates we encounter in the Jesus story were not between Christians and Jews (as Jesus himself was never a Christian). They were a debate within the Jewish community, between competing voices in Judaism, over what fidelity to their God looked like.
The first portion of our reading addresses whether things we eat defile us individually and whether how we relate to one another defile us collectively. This was a debate between Jesus and some of the Pharisees, and also a debate among the Pharisees themselves.
We’ll begin unpacking our reading and it’s relation to us today, next.
(Read Part 2)