Meditation on Matthew 15:10–28
Pastor Karen Crawford
The Presbyterian Church, Coshocton, Ohio
Aug. 16, 2020
This link is to my video of the message:
It’s hard to believe that we are halfway through the month of August. Have you noticed how the light has changed and the days are growing shorter?
As the last blossoms fade, the work of the gardener isn’t finished. My focus has turned from planting and pruning to mulching, watering, and, yes, weeding.
I am often tempted to be lazy and just let the weeds go. But the old saying is true for weeds: “If you give ‘em an inch, they take a mile.”
It’s hot, I’m busy, I’m too tired. My back hurts. I can come up with lots of excuses not to dig up the weeds properly by the root. And some of them don’t seem half bad in spite of their invasive habit. They sort of grow on you, so to speak. But the plants that you have planted and nurtured from sprout or seed are now fighting for space, water, sun, nutrients, air. They’re in danger! They aren’t as hardy as the weeds. That’s why we call them weeds! They grow big, fast; good luck getting them out of your yard if you procrastinate!
And the trouble with weeds, while you might think you’ve nipped them in the bud, they’re not easily rooted out. Don’t be surprised when they come back. If not in the same place, somewhere else.
The problem of weeds is one that an ancient agricultural society like the one in which Jesus ministered is a familiar one, just as it is to us. Jesus, in Matthew chapter 15, talks about weeds with his disciples when they are afraid of the scribes and Pharisees, the religious leaders of the time. You have to imagine the anxious political climate in which they live. Herod, the ruler of the Jewish people, a puppet of the Empire, has murdered Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, for telling him that it wasn’t lawful for him to take his brother’s wife. He does this in spite of his fear of the crowds who believe John is a prophet.
After John’s death, Jesus goes off to a deserted place to pray, but the crowds of needy people follow him. Though Jesus is weary from ministry and grief, he leads the disciples to miraculously feed 5,000 men plus women and children from a couple loaves and a few fish, bringing glory to God the Father. Afterward, Jesus sends his disciples off in the boat, a storm overtakes them, and Jesus comes to them on the water. He reaches out with his hand to save Peter from drowning when he walks on water to prove his faith, then nearly drowns when he sinks into doubt.
Those in the boat worship Jesus, then, saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God.”
They arrive on shore and word has gone out through the region about Jesus and his miracles. The sick are brought to him, begging to touch “even the fringe of his cloak. And all who touch are healed.”
This is the context for the Pharisees and scribes, at the beginning of chapter 15, who come to this rural rabbi, bringing the authority of the Holy City of Jerusalem with them. They confront him with, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.”
They’re lost in the weeds!! Their traditions have grown like weeds and taken over the beautiful garden God had planted and intended for their lives of faith. Daily rituals that, at first, may have been meant to draw them nearer to God and set them apart as a holy people have distorted their beliefs and practices and led them down a path away from God.
Jesus sees right through their argument, saying, “For the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said, ‘This people honors me with their lips; but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’”
Then he begins to teach the crowd that it isn’t “what goes into the mouth that defiles a person.” With this, he calls into question their obsession with dietary laws and purity traditions like hand washing that satisfy their desire to feel and appear religious, rather than actually living righteously, by the word of God.
Jesus says, “It’s what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” He means the garbage that the Pharisees are teaching, the lies they are saying to protect their power and positions and control the people.
The disciples, remembering what happened to John, approach Jesus, attempting to dissuade him from challenging the Pharisees’ teaching and the traditions of the faith. “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense,” they ask, “when they heard what you said?”
That’s when Jesus uses the parable of the weeds. “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted,” he says.
The plants God didn’t plant—the weeds—are the traditions of human beings and the false doctrine added to God’s Word, leading the people astray and condemning the innocent. The weeds could also be Jesus speaking against those who are teaching the false doctrine to keep the people in submission to them, terrified of making a mistake or offending them. This brings to mind what Jesus will say in Matthew 18:6, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.”
The weeds cannot be pulled without facing the root of the problem: the evil in the scribes and Pharisees’ hearts. Jesus says, “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.” Notice the order of the sins. The last two are in the most prominent position of the sentence for emphasis. Lies and slander.
This is what the scribes and Pharisees are doing to Jesus!
Our passage ends with a miraculous healing of a demon-possessed girl. You might think this is some random story, totally unrelated to Christ’s confrontation with the Pharisees over handwashing.
But these events are connected. Here he is, breaking more laws of the religious community by associating with a Canaanite and holding up her mother’s faith as an example! He demonstrates with this healing that if we love God and desire to serve Him, He leads us to occasionally put aside traditionally held beliefs and practices to reach out with acts of compassion, loving and serving our neighbors, including those whom we might be tempted to ignore and walk right by.
Jesus, indeed, seems reluctant to heal this woman’s daughter. She is considered “unclean” in his faith community. She wasn’t born to a Jewish family. “Canaanite” is code for “pagan.” She is one of the “dogs,” Jesus says. And we are shocked that he would refer to another human being this way!
His disciples and others living in his society at the time would not have been shocked. They are all prejudiced against Canaanites, seeing them as unworthy of God’s love, and therefore, relieving them of any responsibility to help them if they are in need.
Jesus tells his disciples what they expect to hear, “I was sent only to the lost sheep in the house of Israel.” But then, he stops and listens to the screaming woman who reveals that she knows who Jesus is. She’s never been to a synagogue or the temple in Jerusalem or listened to a reading of Scripture. She doesn’t follow the dietary laws! But she knows to kneel down before him in humility, addressing him by the word translated Lord with a capital L. “Lord, help me.” She persists in her requests, in spite of his calling her and other Canaanites “dogs.” “Yes, Lord,” she says, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” She calls him her master!
“Woman, great is your faith!” he says. “Let it be done for you as you wish.”
Her daughter is healed instantly!
As we persevere through a pandemic that has gone on much longer than we thought it could and kept us from worshiping together in person, this is a good time to examine our own hearts and think seriously about our ministry—as individuals and as a church of Jesus Christ. What is growing in our gardens? Do we have weeds that need pulling? Is the Heavenly Father uprooting some plants in us that He didn’t plant? Are there rituals, routines, and preferences that have become an obstacle to our faithfulness?
When I find myself worrying about all the details of the worship service that are so comfortable and enjoyable for us, and yet, now must be considered in the light of protecting our health during a pandemic, I hear the Lord speaking words of encouragement to us.
“Don’t make this more complicated or difficult than it needs to be,” I hear Him saying. “Let the past go and let me do a new thing with you. Live as my Son has shown you to live. Stay focused on my greatest commandment.”
In other words, “Don’t let your faith get lost in the weeds. Let your faith be anchored to ME.”
Jesus puts all traditions, routines, and rituals in their proper place when he responds to a lawyer’s question in Matthew 22. Which commandment in the law is the greatest?
Jesus says, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, thank you for your love and for your Word, which continues to reveal to us our humanity and our need to rely on you for everything and trust you to guide us continually. We admit that we have many idols, people and things that, at times, we love more than you, as evidenced by the time and our resources we give to them, in contrast to the time and resources we give to you. We admit that we want to limit our worship to how we want to worship you, forgetting our calling to live lives of worship and obedience every day. We have gotten lost in the weeds, allowed sin to sprout and take root in our hearts and let human doctrines and traditions crowd and damage our faith. Please reveal to us the things that we do and love in the name of religion that might hurt our relationship with you and get in the way of following your greatest and first commandment—to love you with all our heart, soul, and mind and to love our neighbor as ourself. Give us hearts of compassion to see and help our neighbors, including those whom we are tempted to see like the Israelites saw the Canaanites—who seem distinctly “other” to us. We cry out for your Spirit’s transformation, dear Lord. Recreate us into the image of your Son. Amen.