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.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
For religious people, it’s much easier to pretend that it’s what goes into the mouth that defiles a person than it is to accept that we are defiled by what comes out of the mouth. Think of all the rules and regulations that Christians have at times placed on the kinds of food that we eat or what we drink, etc. These rules then become subtle codes that mark us out as the good kind of people from the not-so-good kind of people. But more generally, Christ’s metaphor about what goes into the mouth can apply to anything we participate in or partake of. And it’s easier to think this way because it actually saves us from the difficult work of discernment and the moral life. Because if avoiding defilement is just a matter of avoiding certain things or not engaging in certain activities, then as long as we just follow the rules, we automatically get to assure ourselves of our purity and righteousness.
But if those things themselves are not what defile us, then the simple act of abstaining from them doesn’t necessarily make us good. Because if it’s actually out of the heart that defilement comes, then it becomes entirely possible to follow all of the rules and keep yourself from all the “bad” stuff and still be defiled. Jesus is reminding us that the corrupted heart is fully capable of checking all the boxes of supposed purity. Which is probably why the Pharisees take offense at what he is saying. They are exceedingly devout Jews -- definitely closest to Jesus in their discipline in comparison to some of the other groups we read of in the New Testament -- but Christ is calling them out for misplacing the source of purity and defilement. His point is that it’s too easy to put your confidence in your outward adherence to a set of rules, such as the “tradition of the elders” to wash one’s hands before eating. And besides, to locate the source of one’s purity in such rules isn’t even true. There is simply no thing that we encounter in the world that is created by God that is evil in and of itself. Everything in creation was created from the infinite love of God and so is marked by that original, divine goodness. If it exists, it is good and it’s good that it’s here. Of course, there are lots of things in the world that are not fit for human consumption -- poisonous mushrooms and such -- but it’s simply impossible that a created thing could by itself morally defile a person.
But again, if it is from the heart that defilement comes, then the challenge becomes exponentially more difficult. No longer can we sit comfortably with our outward obedience alone while we neglect our inner desires, thoughts, motivations, and choices. The heart, in other words. To consider the heart is to consider the way we go about consuming things; that is what is morally significant, not the things themselves. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person…. Note that these evil intentions along with the list of sins that Jesus mentions are all defined by a misuse of things, particularly of other people. It’s not a simple question of abstaining vs. consuming -- using things vs. not using things -- but rather of proper use vs. improper use. Treating them as they deserve to be treated vs. perverting or violating them. So again, we can’t determine our purity or our defilement simply by comparing what we choose to partake of to what we choose to abstain from. There is no way to determine that without attending to the heart.
After this teaching from Christ to the disciples, our Gospel lesson this morning then extends this idea of consumption into the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman. See how both sections deal with the issue of purity and of what we consume. To the disciples, Jesus insists that it is the heart that is the source of purity or defilement, not what we partake or or participate in. But when the Canaanite woman begs for mercy and for Christ to heal her daughter who is possessed by a demon, he seems at first glance to reverse his teaching and become focused on what we eat all of the sudden. I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, he says, and it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. Jesus puts the Canaanite woman to a test; he momentarily declines her plea by stating that his healing acts of mercy are only for “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” His teaching and his many signs and wonders are the “food” that belong only to the “children” -- that is, his fellow people of Israel; not the Canaanites who are outside the covenant that binds Israel together as the people of God. It would inappropriate, to say the least, for Jesus to minister to someone such as her.
Or so it would seem, for though Jesus first responds with how it’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs, when the woman counters that even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table. It is then that Jesus exclaims, Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish. The Canaanite woman has revealed to us the other side of Christ’s teaching about purity and defilement; about what goes into the mouth vs. what comes out of the heart. In explaining his parable to the disciples, Jesus speaks only about defilement: For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But by identifying the heart as the source of the sin that defiles us, the flips side is that it is also from the heart that the purity of faith comes when it is given by God. If Christ was first concerned with the negative side of this teaching, the Canaanite woman has displayed the positive side. Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table. She is content for whatever Christ deigns to give her, in whatever form. And Jesus not only celebrates her faith and grants her request, he moreover affirms that there are not, in fact, any social divisions that separate those who are entitled to receive the gifts of Christ from those who are excluded from such gifts. Being a child of Israel or a Canaanite woman is no longer what determines one’s access to the ministry of Christ. Which is good news for us, since we, like the Canaanite woman, are Gentiles.
In any case, when Jesus comes into the world, his teaching, his acts of ministry, even his very body, become a part of this world that was created by God. Through the Incarnation, his divine goodness becomes united to this world of good things. And this means that the ministry of Christ necessarily has a total and universal scope. Having brought the life of God down to earth, Jesus removes every obstruction or barrier that humans build to reserve certain things for the right kind of people. The life of Christ can’t help but be scattered over the whole world as the “crumbs from the master’s table.” For as Jesus says in St. John’s Gospel, "I am the living bread that came down from heaven... and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." Jesus puts the life of God directly in front of every fellow human being whom he encounters and calls only for their faith. So it was indeed from the heart that the Canaanite woman shouted out for mercy and healing; she had no preconceived notions about her eligibility or entitlement to receive the “food” of Christ’s ministry. She brought only her desperate need for the healing that only Christ could give her and her daughter. And in this desperation Christ saw her faith, the purity of her heart.
Jesus puts us religious people to the same test today. On what do we base our access to God? Is our confidence founded on the security we think we have as those who are socially identified as Christians? Do we determine our purity based off of certain codes of membership that distinguish us from those who we consider defiled? Or are we able to see through all of that to the basic need we have for what only Christ can give? A need that unites us and equates us with every other human being. In order to answer those questions, put yourself in the place of the Canaanite woman, mindful of the fact that purity of heart is found in humility of heart, for a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. In fact, God will let it be done for you as you wish! Amen.