Clean and Unclean in God’s Eyes

The text for this sermon is Matthew 15:10-20.  Pastor Jim Kniseley presented this sermon at Resurrection on August 14, 2011, the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost.


Dear Friends in Christ,


The gospel lesson for today is a difficult one to understand at first  reading.  It deals with our mouth, our hearts, and things that make someone unclean.  It also addresses an obvious disagreement between Jesus and the Pharisees.  The challenge for you and me is to enter this section of God’s Word and see what we can learn that will have meaning for our lives as Christians today.


It is helpful to understand that context of this lesson.  It is part of the 15th chapter of Matthew, the chapter that can be titled “Clean and Unclean.”  At verse 1, several Pharisees (teacher of the Jewish Law) came to confront Jesus with 2 questions: “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?” and “Why don’t they wash their hands before they eat?”


We already know that Jesus considers the Pharisees to be too legalistic.  He says they concentrate on the details of the words too much and don’t try to teach people about loving relationships with God and with people.  The Pharisees in turn call Jesus too liberal, saying he makes it too easy for people, that he doesn’t lay down the law as to what God demands.


So, in the midst of verbal battle with the Pharisees, we hear how Jesus thinks, and as Christians we believe this reflects the heart of God.  Jesus says to these disciples who have a whole list of food that can or cannot be eaten in order to be pleasing God’s sight, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”  Jesus goes on to talk about the connection between the mouth and the heart.  “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.  For out of the heart comes evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.  These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”


This washing of hands talk could be lost on us today if we don’t understand what it represents.  The Jewish laws (there were at least 600 of them) listed what was unclean and what you were to avoid and why you were to ritually wash your hands while asking for forgiveness.  Here are just a few things that these laws said made you unclean:


·         If you had contact with anyone who wasn’t a Jew

·         If you did any work on the Sabbath, even if it involved helping someone in need

·         If you touched a woman during her time of the month

·         If you ate certain foods that weren’t allowed in the Jewish laws


Some of us may think that Jesus was teaching something foreign to Jews when he said that words and actions are more important than ritual.  But we can go back to the prophets of Israel and Judah and hear these words:

·         Isaiah 56:1  Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed  (today’s first lesson).

·         Amos 5:21f  I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies…Away with the noise of your songs!  I will not listen to the music of your harps.  But let justice roll like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.

·         Micah 6:6-8  He has showed you, o man, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.


How can we apply what we have heard in Matthew to our Christian lives today?  Let me ask some questions to get us thinking:

·         Who are the Pharisees in our midst today?

·         Are we ever tempted to think we are more holy than the person sitting next to us in the pew?

·         Have we sometimes substituted our understanding of liturgy and proper worship for helping people and standing up for God’s expectation of justice and mercy?

·         Do we ever exclude people here because we consider them “not our kind?”


Today we also hear the story of the faith of the Canaanite Woman in Matthew 15.  This is a fine story for illustrating what Jesus and the Pharisees have been talking about.  A woman has a son who is very sick.  She hears about Jesus and his power to heal.  She also knows that the Jewish people do not want her to approach Jesus or any good Jews, for they consider her unworthy and unclean, according to their laws.  What is she to do?


Bible scholars point out that this was a big question in the early church.  Who should be let in and who should not?  Should everyone coming in have to conform to the traditions and laws and rules?  Was the church open to new ideas and new people and new ways of practicing the faith?  If you read the story of the Canaanite Woman, you’ll see that she doesn’t at first get a great reaction from Jesus.  He talks about being sent only to the House of Israel.  Was he setting up a teaching moment for the disciples and for us?  Perhaps.  This woman, an outsider was so persistent, that finally Jesus concedes and heals her son.  And so lessons are taught about persistence and about inclusiveness for the Church.

Let me conclude with the Resurrection Welcome Statement that we unanimously adopted at the June Congregation Meeting:


Resurrection Lutheran Church is a community of faith that celebrates the gifts of God that empower us to engage in the struggles of life, to care for one another, and to serve Christ in our congregation, our communities, and our world.  In response to Christ’s love for us and for all people, we believe that we are called to reflect Christ’s love by inviting and welcoming all people into our fellowship.  We do this without hesitation and without reservation.  More specifically, we do this without regard to race, ethnicity, culture, age, gender, sexual orientation, ability, educational background, economic circumstance, or any other factor that would otherwise separate God’s people.  We are all God’s children and we can do nothing less.