2nd Sunday in Lent (Reminiscere)
March 1st/2nd, 2015
Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
The Atkins Diet. The South Beach Diet. The 17 Day Diet. The Flexitarian Diet. Cleanses and Detox Regimens. There is no shortage of information and suggestion out there about the best way to lose weight, eat healthy, and feel better. Stores like Whole Foods exist solely so that people can have a place to buy all natural, non-processed foods. The dangerous effects of pesticides and preservatives fill blogs and discussion boards across the internet. School lunch programs are being redesigned to require healthier meals for the students. There seems to be more discussion than ever about the different ways that the food we put into our bodies affects us, either positively or negatively.
Jesus had a similar discussion with the Pharisees regarding what type of food was good for you and what wasn’t. Except they weren’t discussing the pros and cons of artificial sweeteners, they were discussing the levitical codes of the Mosaic Covenant handed down on Mount Sinai. In fact, this section of Matthew seems to focus on food. Chapter 14 records Jesus feeding well over 5000 people with 5 loaves of bread and two small fish. From such meager supplies Jesus produces an abundance of food that filled the hungry Israelite bellies along with 12 baskets of scraps that were left over. Shortly thereafter, in the beginning of Chapter 15, Matthew records a complaint from the Pharisees that Jesus’s disciples did not wash according to the laws of Moses, and therefore were defiling the food they were eating, which would in turn make them unclean. Jesus responds saying that it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of it. Later in Chapter 15, Matthew records the time Jesus miraculously fed a crowd of over 4000 by turning seven loaves of bread and two small fish into enough food to satisfy the crowd and fill seven baskets with left over scraps. The point is, the events read today are part of a larger section of Matthew which deals quite a bit with food, with what goes into our bodies.
That might help us make some sense of this otherwise uncomfortable exchange between Jesus and the Canaanite woman. Having just challenged the Pharisees concerning clean and unclean foods, Jesus leaves what is generally considered Israelite territory and heads instead to Tyre and Sidon, regions that have been pagan lands for centuries. While there, a woman relentlessly follows him and his disciples, nipping at their heels, pestering and badgering him to heal her demon possessed daughter. Unlike the Pharisees of Israel, she has not come to challenge or test Jesus, but simply to receive healing from him. When she won’t leave him alone, the disciples ask him to just give her what she wants so that she will go away and they can have some peace. But Jesus says that he is the fulfillment of the covenant God made with Abraham. He is the promised Messiah of Israel, not of the Canaanites. He then speaks of food again, saying that he has come to bring the bread of life to the children of Israel, and that it would not be right to take that bread and give it to others. After all, God’s covenant was with Abraham and was passed down through circumcision to Abraham’s descendants. It was not a covenant with the whole world. It was a covenant with Israel. The Israelites were the ones who were expected to keep the civil and ceremonial laws, and they, not the Gentiles, were the ones who face penalties for breaking them. The Israelites were the ones who were entrusted with guarding and protecting the scriptures and the promises of the Messiah, and they, not the Gentiles, faced the wrath of the Prophets if they failed. Now that Israel’s Messiah was here, why should he take the Israelites’ reward and give it to someone to whom it is not promised, and to whom it does not belong, especially an unclean Canaanite?
Jesus’ words are as blunt as they are jarring. Yet they are also true. He was sent to the lost sheep of Israel. That’s why he was born in Bethlehem, an Israelite village. That’s why he was crucified outside Jerusalem, the center of the Israelite world. Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s Scriptures. And as unnatural as this may sound to our New Testament ears, and as uncomfortable as it may make us in our age of cultural diversity and tolerance, somehow it all made perfect sense to this Canaanite woman. She doesn’t get angry with Jesus. She doesn’t get offended at being called a dog. She doesn’t leave in a huff and accuse him of racial bigotry. She agrees with him! “Yes, Lord, you’re right,” she says. “It would be inappropriate to take the food from the children and give it to the dogs. I know I’m not one of your people. I know I’m unclean, no better than a dog who scavenges through the garbage for food to survive. Give the food to your people as you were sent to do, and I’ll be the dog, for I know that when the children eat there are always scraps that fall to the dogs, and the scraps are good enough for me. I just want something.”
What a tremendous statement of faith! What a model of faith for us to emulate! For while we may not often give it much thought, the reality remains that we too are not the lost sheep of the nation of Israel. I would be genuinely surprised if anyone here could trace his or her family tree back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Rather, everyone in this room today almost certainly falls into the category of Gentile. Not only are we Gentiles by birth, we are unclean by the way we live. No one here today deserves to be fed the food from the Master’s table. We are each of us unclean, and the things that come out of our mouths prove it. We speak the pride of our hearts every time we ridicule those we deem idiotic. We speak the hatred of our hearts every time we insult the appearance of another person. We speak the lust of our hearts with each dirty joke or crass comment. We speak the greed of our hearts when we tell ourselves that we need our disposable income for the latest iPhone or the newest car more than the church needs our money to support the work of God in this place. Not only are we Gentile by birth, we are unclean, and our thoughts, words, and deeds make that so abundantly clear each and every day we walk this earth. The things coming out of our mouths prove it.
But let us not forget the larger narrative, for this section is about food, about the things that go into our mouths. Don’t forget that the conversation about the scraps of food that fall from the Master’s table is sandwiched between two different miraculous feedings. In each case, Jesus fed the Israelites who had gathered to hear him speak. In each case, the Israelites ate their fill. And in each case, there was an abundance left over. In the first case, there were twelve baskets left, in the second case seven. In either case, God’s provision was so abundant that there was too much for just the Israelites. In both cases, there was an abundance of scraps left over. The faith of the Canaanite woman rejoiced in those scraps; our faith does the same. As the Apostle Paul wrote, salvation came first to the Jews, then to the Gentiles. We, like the Canaanite woman, are those Gentiles, and while we may have been saved second, we are still saved. Salvation has come to us in the scraps provided by the abundance with which God blessed Israel, and through them the whole world.
We are blessed today to gather together around these scraps. In a few moments we will feast on these scraps, a morsel of bread so small that it would hardly fill the belly of a goldfish, much less a grown adult. We will drink a sip of wine so small that it almost evaporates off the tongue before it can be swallowed. Like a dog under the chair of a toddler, faith eagerly devours whatever scraps it can. And the great gift of faith is that through these scraps Christ now lives in us. Through these scraps of bread and wine, through the small splash baptismal water, through the seemingly innocuous proclamation of God’s Word, we are now adopted into the family of God. We who are Gentiles by birth are now fellow heirs to the promise of God. We who were once far off have been brought near, all because we ate the scraps that fell from the Masters table. Now that we have been brought into God’s family through these scraps, we await with joy our seat at the Master’s table at the marriage feast of the Lamb in his kingdom that has no end.
Until that day, we rejoice that Israel’s Messiah came with such abundance that there is now more than enough for all who believe. Let us, with the Canaanite woman, devour the scraps that fall from the Master’s table, for these are the scraps that make us clean.
 Romans 1:17
 Ephesians 3:6
 Ephesians 2:11-13