by Reader Christopher Ward

Readings: Isaiah 56:1, 6-8; Psalm 67; Romans 11:1-2, 29-32; Matthew 15:10-28

May I speak in the name of Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

If I had to give a theological name to this Sunday, it would be BOGOF (Buy One Get One Free) Sunday, because, in our Gospel reading, we have not one, but two, magnificent passages of teaching from Jesus, both full of rich imagery and deep nuance.

The background is that Jesus is initially in Gennesaret, where his fame has spread, and many have come to him and been healed simply by touching his cloak.[1] His ministry is in full swing.

Then the Jerusalem religious Establishment appears on the scene in the form of some Pharisees and scribes. They ask Jesus why his disciples break with ancient tradition and do not wash their hands before eating. Jesus does not answer the point directly, but counters by accusing them of hypocrisy; he points out to them that another of the traditions that they embrace runs completely contrary to God’s law on the relationship between children and their parents.[2]

We come in this morning as Jesus takes matters further by publicly articulating an important principle: “Listen and understand,” he told the crowd, “No one is defiled by what goes into his mouth; only by what comes out of it”. The Pharisees, we are told, are greatly offended, no doubt because they thought Jesus was setting aside the food laws set out in the Book of Leviticus. Peter, too, was puzzled, perhaps for the same reason; we know that he was a strict observer of the Jewish dietary laws from his reaction to the vision, recorded in Acts 10[3], that he had much later in Joppa of the sheet filled with all kinds of creatures, and the command from God to kill and eat any of them.

Jesus then explains the parable to the disciples: in essence food is digested and simply nourishes the body, a physical process. But what is said and thought is a moral process and can lead to all sorts of harm. The state of one’s hands when eating is irrelevant in this context. In his rebuke to the Pharisees, Jesus was not setting aside the Law, as they perhaps thought, he was simply debunking a practice that human tradition had allowed to become confused with, or put on a par with, the God-given Law. In modern parlance, the tradition of hand washing was simply ‘guidance’, in legal terms, and the fundamental basis of moral purity was not related to how food was eaten, but rested elsewhere, as Jesus explained.

Jesus then moves on to the region of Tyre and Sidon, an area and people that Jews would traditionally look on with disdain, not least for the cities’ historic disobedience to God. There he is publicly accosted by a Canaanite woman, seeking his help to heal her sick daughter. At first he simply ignored her, as any Jewish man at the time would likely have done in similar circumstances. But she persists, only for Jesus also to rudely dismiss her second approach, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs”. But the woman is not finished, she points out that the dogs eat the scraps from their master’s table, thus demonstrating the extent of her faith in Jesus. Jesus admires her faith, and heals her daughter, just as he had similarly previously healed the servant of the Roman centurion at Capernaum[4].

I think it is significant that both these healing miracles involve people who were not Jewish. It is also significant that Jesus’ teaching on the true basis of moral purity shows it not to be dependent on anything uniquely Jewish. One of the things I believe that we are seeing here is the fulfilment of the prophecy made by Isaiah in the passage set for this morning[5], and the hope expressed by the psalmist, that God is a God not just for Jewish believers, but for all who have faith in Him. In other words, the breadth of the scope of God’s mercy towards us all – Jews and Gentiles alike – is one of the things that underlies this Gospel passage.

So where does this immensely comforting thought leave us, and how do the argument with the Pharisees over ritual washing and the encounter with the Canaanite woman speak to us today? The answer is of course in many ways, but this morning I want to highlight just two – a warning in the first, and a challenge in the second. Both are eloquently captured in the well-known hymn, There’s a wideness in God’s mercy.

The warning is encapsulated in the opening lines of the second verse:

But we make his love too narrow by false limits of our own

And we magnify his strictness with a zeal he will not own.

That was where the Pharisees went wrong in their stance on ritual washing, and as we in the Church, individually and collectively, move forward as the Body of Christ we must be mindful of the risk of making the same mistake.

The challenge is encapsulated in the hymn’s closing lines:

If our love was but more simple, we should take him at his word;

And our hearts would find assurance in the promise of the Lord.

The Canaanite woman certainly showed a simple love for Jesus, and did find that assurance in her heart.

My final question for us today is just four simple words – can we do likewise?



[1] Matthew 14:34-36

[2] A ‘qorban’ vow, by which resources can be withdrawn from secular use and dedicated to God’s use, thus making them unavailable for use to support parents.

[3] Acts 10:9-16

[4] Matthew 8:5-13

[5] In Isaiah 56:3, the prophet writes, “The foreigner who has given his allegiance to the Lord must not say, ‘The Lord will exclude me from his people’.