Tough Words from Coach Jesus
Sermon #196 St. James the Less #103 8/16/20
[Jesus called the crowd to him and said to them, “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.” Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”] Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28
As many of you know I grew up playing baseball, and I didn’t just play it, I lived and breathed it. One of the great values of playing a sport is learning a lot about yourself—seeing how far you can push yourself as you try to reach a common goal with teammates.
But it’s also a great place to learn more about human behavior. We all react differently to challenging circumstances, but in sports you can’t just rely on yourself or even your teammates—to really succeed you need a great coach. And I personally had a number of coaches in my life, going from tee ball all the way through college.
Over those twenty years I saw a number of different approaches to coaching. Some were lighthearted and wanted to make sure that we played hard but have fun. Others were very disciplined and serious, and you dare not make a noise on the bus ride home after a loss.
I’ve had coaches that were kind but were terrible at teaching us the ends-and-outs of the game. I’ve also had coaches who have put the fear of God in me. They would yell and scream every time we made a mistake, and if it was practice we’d end up running from foul pole to foul pole as punishment.
You might have had some similar experiences with different leadership methods whether it be with coaches while you were growing up or teachers or even today with bosses.
The best coaches in my life were those who could be hard on me and demand more of me, but I knew that they got onto me because they cared and saw potential in me.
I could handle coaches yelling at me if I knew that they cared about me, but I had a lot of teammates who couldn’t handle being yelled at. It felt too personal, and they would get their feelings hurt and would shut down. Shockingly, my college coach had to change his approach because many of the guys would’ve rather quit than get yelled at. So he soften up…and surprise, surprise, we lost more games.
Coaches are meant to hold their players accountable, teach them as much as they can about the game and push them if needed. That’s a coach’s main job after all.
Jesus the Coach
Today like a good baseball coach Jesus has some challenging words for people who approach him and we see two very different reactions. These tough words are directed at two different groups—there are the Pharisees at the beginning of our passage representing Team Israel and later in the story we meet a Canaanite woman representing Team Pagan Outsider.
This morning I want us to look closely at their reaction to Jesus’ words.
Now on the surface it would appear that if anyone was going to listen to Jesus it would be the Pharisees because they are on the same team, but Jesus has some tough words for them about the kosher food laws that they loved to practice.
He tells them what defiles a person is not what they eat, but what comes out of their heart. That sounds great and all, but he is minimizing the importance of the food laws that distinguishes the Jews from all the other nations of the world. It seems like Jesus is correcting or superseding the Law of Moses, which is not what a coach for Team Israel should ever do. Never ever contradict Moses, he’s a Hall of Famer.
It’s not surprising that the Pharisees walk off offended. Jesus has minimized a major part of their faith. They don’t trust that he really cares for Team Israel, or worse, that he has the wrong intentions. They don’t even know who made him a coach on this team! They constantly ask him by whose authority is he teaching these radical ideas.
And so, as many perturbed people do, they walk off in a huff. They don’t want to sit down with Jesus and have him explain his side, they don’t ask how they can change—instead they storm home angry and confused.
Not a good day for Team Israel.
A few verses later we are told that Jesus and his disciples come in contact with a Canaanite, pagan woman whose daughter has been tormented by a demon. They have been making their way north, away from familiar Jewish territory towards the port cities of Tyre and Sidon.
If you look closely, you’ll notice that this story has the same structure as the one we just looked at with the Pharisees. Jesus says something controversial, and then the person has the opportunity to react to his harsh statement.
This time instead of talking about food and defilement, Jesus challenges the woman by saying that his primary purpose is to first come for the lost sheep of Israel. Jesus knew his mission was primarily to minister to the people of Israel and through that nation the whole world would be blessed. Remember, God told Abraham that through him all nations would be blessed.
This woman is not a part of Team Israel, and yet she recognizes his authority somehow. She calls him by his correct title, she says, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” She is already one step up from the Pharisees who would never call Jesus that.
His disciples tell him to send her away, and though Jesus doesn’t know what to do with her at first, he lets her plead her case.
Silently he listens to her, and then he says that Team Israel has priority, they have a seat at the table. If he expands his ministry to all the nations, he may never be able to do what he has come here to do. The work of redemption and salvation may be sidetracked if he goes on a miracle healing tour around the Mediterranean.
He goes as far as saying it’s not right to give to others what Israel must be given first, just like giving small bites of a delicious dinner to a dog that won’t understand its significance. A dog may enjoy a nice piece of steak but the dog won’t know how valuable that steak really is.
Yes, Jesus compares this woman, and the other pagan nations, to a dog.
Now, that is a harsh statement to a desperate mother seeking help for her child. The woman has to choose how she’ll respond. She has been directly challenged by the only man who can heal her daughter. Is she going to get mad at what Jesus says—like the Pharisees and walk away, or is she going to hold her ground and respond?
As we know, she responds, and we must note that she uses her wit and a deep faith in Jesus to hold her ground and get his attention. She recognizes that the word Jesus uses for “dog” means a house dog, a family pet.
She picks up on that subtly and says “Yes, you may call me a dog but at least I’m within the walls of the house, I’m a dog that’s a part of the family, and being fed from the family’s table.” She’s an optimist for sure, because even with such a tough statement she finds shards of hope.
One commentator put it like this, “Whatever Jesus’ prior sentences meant—and [the woman] is not sure what they meant—she is sure of this: Jesus is moving, almost perceptively, toward her. She and her daughter are, at least (like house dogs themselves) ‘in the house.’ She refuses to look at the shadow side of Jesus’ remarks. Instead, she grasps at what he did not say in what he did say—he did not say, Go away, and he did not say, No. [and this is the kicker] Faith is holding on to Jesus for dear life, like a drowning person to a life raft, believing that Jesus is good even when his words do not seem to be.” (102).
Like a tough old coach, Jesus says some rough things, but he hasn’t sent her away, and much to her credit she takes what she gets and uses it for all it’s worth. And with her comeback, Jesus realizes that she is sincere and not just looking for a drive-thru miracle. Her faith is genuine.
This story is utterly remarkable, and not because Jesus called someone a dog. It takes not only an Canaanite pagan, outside of the land of Israel to see who Jesus really is, but on top of all that, it’s a woman who makes this bold statement of faith!
The religious elite walk away from Jesus offended, while a woman with very few rights, who had no business talking to a Jewish rabbi to begin with, walks away with her daughter healed and her faith confirmed.
So what are we to make of all of this?
It likely challenges our notion of a sweet and caring Jesus who loves everyone no matter what. In fact, Jesus can be tough, and he can say things that might hurt our feelings.
It shows us that Jesus is not afraid of challenging people. He doesn’t just help us up when we fall, but he is also the one who pushes us. He’s continually calling us and pushing us forward towards him whether we realize it or not.
The key to interpreting Jesus’ challenging words in our life is through the lens of faith.
Dale Bruner says that we may ask “When Jesus seems against us, who can be for us? [But look to this woman who] does not believe Jesus is against her, even though a less sensitive hearer could believe this…Faith is refusing to believe the Lord can be bad to faith” (105).
In our own life we are confronted with challenging moments: health concerns, financial difficulty, and relationship issues are just three examples of different stressors in our life.
Those concerns are amplified today as the pandemic continues to affect every aspect of our life. It has completely changed how we live and work and socialize, and for many families, on top of all that they are now having to help their kids get a virtual education.
It would be natural to question God. It might even be acceptable to be angry at him. But if you hear nothing else today hear this, “Faith [means] holding on to Jesus for dear life, like a drowning person to a life raft, believing that Jesus is good even when his words do not seem to be.” (102).
Even when our situation looks grim, even when it looks like Jesus is far from being the loving comforter we expect of him, we are called to hold on to him for dear life. Psalm 100 sums up this kind of faith:
"Know this: The LORD himself is God; he himself has made us, and we are his; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving; go into his courts with praise; give thanks to him and call upon his Name.
For the LORD is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his faithfulness endures from age to age."
11th Sunday after Pentecost. Proper 15. Year A. Mt 15:10-28. Bruner’s Matthew Vol. 2.