Reading Matthew 15.10-28
Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
You know how it is sometimes – a phrase or a sentence will just stick in your mind.
Well, years ago, Paddy Ashdown was being interviewed on the radio. I can’t remember the context but he was urging British involvement in some initiative or other overseas. I think it must have been during the wars surrounding the break-up of Yugoslavia. And he said these words, or something very similar: because we can’t do everything, it doesn’t mean we should do nothing.
Those words just struck me as being true. I’d go so far as to say that they form one of the basic principles of ethical behaviour. Allow me to park that thought with you for a few moments. I’ll come back to it later.
Today’s gospel reading falls into two very distinct parts: some words from Jesus about the thing that really defiles a person being what is in that person’s heart and not in what they eat or don’t eat; and these words are followed by a story about how Jesus treats a Canaanite women who begs him to heal her sick daughter. She’s a Canaanite, therefore not Jewish.
On the face of it there doesn’t seem to be much connection between the two sections. In a way that’s the point. They illustrate two sides of the coin of Jesus’ ministry and therefore, I think, of our own ministries.
The first section gives us a pure piece of teaching, which is applicable in all places everywhere. It’s true that the teaching is given in the context of some Jewish taboos about food but the basic message is universal.
Outward behaviour is important – murder, adultery, theft, slander and the rest are all forms of outward behaviour and are roundly condemned by Jesus – but it’s the state of a person’s inner self, the heart, that is of much greater importance. After all, it’s the heart that governs inwardly what we do outwardly. It’s the heart that makes us what we really are.
It’s the heart that is our connection to God. If our heart doesn’t connect us to God, then nothing else is ever going to.
This teaching about the heart is essential but it is only a part of Jesus’ teaching. Primarily and more broadly, Jesus has come to tell us the good news of what he calls the kingdom of God.
The kingdom is the reign of God among us and within us. It’s the love that God has for us and the love that we have for God – and the love that flows out from them towards others and towards creation. And the heart is in the midst of all this, playing its essential role.
Jesus comes to us as the instigator and inspirer and embodiment of the kingdom.
Now, I have no doubt that for Jesus the kingdom was a reality that would ultimately embrace Jew and Gentile alike. For him the Gentile was loved by God every bit as much as the Jew – and was as capable of possessing a loving heart towards God as much as the Jew.
We regard Jesus as God’s manifestation in human form but we should never lose sight of the fact that, whatever else he was, he was a human being – with all the limitations that that implies. Even he wasn’t able to reach everyone with the good news all at once. He needed a workable strategy and, not unreasonably, his strategy was to go to the Jews first. And we shouldn’t forget also that the Jews had been prepared by centuries of history and belief to be more receptive to what he had to say and to who he was.
The fact that he couldn’t reach everyone all at once didn’t mean for Jesus that he would therefore try to reach no-one.
And so we find Jesus saying to the Canaanite woman: I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
Now, you’ll find some commentators who will say that in this story Jesus is trying to make a point to his disciples about the consequences of racism. Display racist attitudes and look where it leads – in this case to continuing torment for a child and her family.
Actually, I’m inclined to think that such a view of the story is probably correct but that doesn’t mean that the whole scene is just play-acting by Jesus. When he says ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’, it’s true. He had some dealings with Gentiles – many of them positive – but they were relatively rare compared with his interactions with his fellow Jews. That was where his focus lay.
Jesus had a public ministry of only about 3 years. We don’t know what he would have done, had he had more time, but I think we can say that in those three years he was embodying the principle I mentioned earlier: because we can’t do everything, it does not mean that we should do nothing.
In whatever sphere of life it may be, in politics or in the church or in our individual lives, we are sometimes daunted by the size of the task. Sometimes we may be tempted to give up. The task seems impossible. The tide’s against us. And so on. There’ll always be a reason that will entice us to do nothing. The thought of doing nothing can be very enticing.
But Jesus always persisted in the path that he thought was right despite the size of the task. And in the end his ministry was more fruitful than perhaps even he ever thought possible.
None of us are going to have an effect on the world as great as Jesus. But if our actions, however small, are motivated by genuine concern, genuine compassion, genuine love, who knows what seeds they may sow and what harvest they may reap.
And whatever the results that our actions bring about, doing the thing that is right is always pleasing to God. Doing nothing is not an option.