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08.17.14 When Jesus Learned Grace Matthew 15:10-28

by on August 18, 2014

Jesus once asked, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” If the answer is yes, what does such faith look like?

Summary Points

  • What faith doesn’t look like
  • What faith does according to Isaiah
  • What faith doesn’t do according to Jesus
  • How the Canaanite Woman exemplifies the faith Jesus looks for
  • Questions for discussion and reflection

When Jesus returns, what kind of faith will he look for? (Luke 18:8) We can be sure what it doesn’t look like: Pharisaical ritual observance. The Pharisees had just criticized Jesus and his disciples for not washing their hands before eating. (Matthew 15:1-2) When Mark tells the story, he says the Pharisees took pride in washing cups, pots, and vessels. (Mark 7:4) These, they say, are the “traditions of the elders,” and Jesus should follow them.

In the reading from Matthew today, Jesus redefines what it is that defiles. It is not these things that enter our bodies and pass through to the sewers. Rather it is what we do that defiles us. So the question is, What shall we do?

According to Isaiah, those who do certain things will be welcomed by God into the kingdom. These include those who join themselves to the LORD: they seek God’s ways and follow in them. It includes those who minister or serve God, which is to say, they are concerned to live according to God’s values. They also keep the Sabbath, which is very interesting because what we’ll learn in a few verses is that these people are not Jews. So keeping the Sabbath must mean something like attending to spiritual truth in the midst of worldly living. And they will hold fast to the covenant, which must harken back to a covenant that is more universal than the Mosaic one, since again these are not Jews. It could be the covenant with humanity at creation which calls us to good stewardship of the earth.

These are the things God looks for in ancient Israel, and for which Israel is judged when they fail. But God also finds them outside Israel. Isaiah suggests that they are all forms of prayer, for God promises that his house will be “a house of prayer for all the nations.” God says the sacrifices of the nations in keeping with these criteria are acceptable on God’s altars. These criteria are the bases of “being gathered” in God’s kingdom.

According to Jesus, there are indeed things that defile a person, but they are not failing to keep the traditions of the elders. Instead they are the behaviors that manifest the “evil intentions” of the heart. He lists them as: murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, bearing false witness, and slander.

Note that all these are transgressions of justice. They are violations of a person’s divine right to life without fear of being killed, to marriage without fear of intrusion, to ownership without fear of theft, and to having a good name without fear of slander.

People of faith, according to Jesus will pursue this kind of justice, not justice as retribution, but justice as preservation of life as God intends. Wherever God finds these just qualities—among Jews or Gentiles, whether Pharisee or disciple of Jesus—God gathers. When the Son of Man comes, this is what he’s looking for, not religious traditions, but the maintenance of a just society.

The disciples didn’t quite get this. According to Matthew, when a foreign woman seeks Jesus’ help, the disciples want to send her away. It’s much like they wanted to send the crowd of 5000 men away. They didn’t want to feed the hungry, and they don’t want to care for the foreigner. But faith on the earth, that is to say the maintenance of social justice, does seek to feed and care for strangers.

So Jesus engages the Canaanite woman. First he denies her. Then he insults her. But she surprises him with a smart response and he recognizes her faith. Finally, he answers her prayer.

So faith on earth also looks like the preservation of social justice, but it also looks like the Canaanite Woman. She came to Jesus, even when the church said “no.” She pleads with Jesus in the most simple way: “Lord, help me.” Her prayer even takes on the character of an argument. She may very well exemplify the kind of prayer that qualifies in Isaiah’s vision of God’s “house of prayer.” From this perspective, the words from the Psalm come to life: “May God make his face to shine upon us, that his ways may be known upon the earth.”

In Romans 9-11 the faithful Jew Paul is wrestling with the fact that not all faithful Jews followed Jesus. He comes to his conclusion through the great theological truth that, “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” In other words, all of us have the same need for a savior—Jew and Canaanite alike. This is good news for anyone who wants to have faith when the Son of Man returns. God is merciful to all.

So even if one’s faith is small, even if one’s faith has been misguided, even if one has been imprisoned in disobedience, God is merciful. All of us are called to be those who pursue justice and to be those who pray. These, we are assured, will see the salvation of God.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • What are some of the “traditions of the elders” in the church today—those things that some people assert we must do in order to be righteous before God?
  • What are some of the other things that truly defile us, transgressions of justice that make us unrighteous before God?
  • How is maintaining a just society an expression of faith? What are some ways we can do better with this?
  • Have you ever thought about praying like the Canaanite Woman? Can our prayers be so simple, determined, even argumentative? Do you agree that this is an expression of faith?
  • How does God’s merciful disposition to all people imprisoned in disobedience free you to a deeper faith? Do you believe that God is merciful even to you?


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