On Mouths, S**tholes, and What Comes Out of Them
|A Presidential S**thole
Then he 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. (NRSV)
President Trump has done it again. He used the word “s**thole” in a race-charged rant against the people of Haiti, Africa, and other two-thirds world countries. Once again he has exploited our nation’s deepest sin, racism, for his own political advantage, likely sinking a deal on DACA, and distracting from the topic of his own conspiracy to commit treason against this nation during last year's election.
This has been a rough year. The white supremacist rally in Charlottesville last summer, the murder of a young woman who was protesting it, and the ensuing political and social debates have been painful and toxic. It has indeed been painful to be a part of these debates, especially living as I do in North Carolina. It is amazing to me that more than 150 years after the Civil War, we are still wrestling with its meaning and how to interpret it. Sadly on the eve of Martin Luther King day in 2018, we are struggling still to make sense of racism.
This past fall, I had an opportunity to preach on Matthew 15:10-28. It is a text that I think speaks powerfully and profoundly to racism. I thought I’d share it this evening as an opportunity to invite further dialogue.
In the first part of the passage, Jesus and the disciples are having a debate with another Jewish group, the Pharisees. It is an interesting debate related to first century Jewish purity laws. For the society of first century Palestine, many tried to abide by the Torah’s purity guidelines. These laws were in place to help folks to know whether they were in an appropriate state or ritual purity to bring a sacrifice to the Temple in Jerusalem. Among the many groups in first century Palestine, Pharisee, Essenes, the Palestinian Jesus Movement and others, there were serious and substantial debates about what kinds of things defiled a worshipper, and what kinds of ablutions were necessary to purify oneself before coming approaching the altar, or coming into contact with sacrifices meant for the altar, or even coming into contact with the priests who served at the alter in the Temple. Because of the Temple’s presence in the land, the priests who served there, and the calendar of various holy days that were observed at the Temple, the people of Israel were engaging in constant debate about the kinds of foods that were Kosher to eat, the kinds of contact one could have with various kinds of animals and people. Things like eating the wrong kinds of animals (for example shellfish) or touching a carcass of a dead animal, or coming into contact with someone with open sores, skin diseases, etc. could potentially defile a person. Usually this wouldn’t be a problem, as long as you yourself weren’t going up to Temple. But if you were defiled and inadvertently came into contact with a priest of a sacrifice that someone else had set aside for the Temple…that could cause problems! The idea was that God pushed away or brought destruction upon anything that was impure; and hence impure sacrifices brought to God could result in God bringing about national harm upon the people of Israel. Such debates, therefore, among the diverse Jewish groups—and their rabbis—of the first century were certainly not uncommon; and they were deeply important to Israel’s national life and identity.
What is unique here, and it is a trend we find repeated in Matthew, is that Jesus reframes the entire debate. Instead of engaging in the endless debates about what kinds of food might defile a person, hence rendering him ritually unclean, Jesus turns the debate on its head. His claim is that what comes out of a person’s mouth defiles that person. In a sense, Jesus moralizes the entire debate. The connection for Jesus is between what is in the heart and what comes out of the mouth. In other words, what one utters reveals something about one’s moral standing. Jesus says that if one has evil intentions such as murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander, than what proceeds from one’s mouth will reveal it.
As is often the case in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is a strict moralistic teacher. Matthew’s Jesus calls his community to a higher righteousness. Everybody (but maybe especially guys), according to Jesus, if your “locker-room talk” is full of desire, adulterous thoughts, and objectification of women, that may reveal something about where your heart is. If your chats with your friends are full of mean-spirited gossip that slanders others or puts them in a dark light, that may reveal something about your heart. If your conversations with your spouse or your coworkers is centered around how to take advantage of another person’s or group’s weakness to marginalize others, that may well reveal something about where your heart is. Such is also true with racism, racist comments, spreading such memes on the internet, or passing on the racially charged email that you think is just too funny.
Most of us who have reached a certain maturity, however, have probably learned to control our tongues when it comes to making overtly sexist, or racist comments. Even if we think such things, we probably have learned to control what comes out of our mouths. This isn’t much healthier! Just because we have learned to repress certain language and thoughts, that doesn’t mean we don’t operate with those scripts subconsciously on a daily basis. Many of us wrestle with this. This is why we sometimes find it humorous when we hear certain comedians “say it like it is,” and use raunchy or race-filled language in their standup acts. This is why some folks voted for Donald Trump, because he was a politician who, in their eyes, avoided politically correct statements and “said it like it is,” without caring about political or social consequences. However, neither of these options is what Jesus is calling for with regard to language and racism. He isn’t calling us to be politically correct, all the while hiding the racism and anger that is in our hearts. Likewise, he would not at all approve of “saying it like it is,” because such language simply perpetuates biases, sanctions violence, and lowers the morality of the social discourse all around. “Saying it like it is” is simply a return to our basest, most violent, and worst impulses. It should not even be considered an option.
So what are we to do? One thing the Scripture helps us to recognize is that these racist scripts are real, powerful, and pervasive. They are part of what it means to be broken and flawed human beings, and are unavoidable for all of us.
This is made powerfully clear in the second part of today’s Gospel reading. The Canaanite Syro-Phoenician woman sees Jesus and his disciples and calls out to him, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David, my daughter is tormented by a demon.” Instead of responding positively to her, Jesus doesn’t respond at all to her plea. One could almost label this sermon, “Nevertheless she persisted,” because she apparently keeps shouting at the disciples for help, so much so that the disciples come to Jesus for help, asking him to send her away. Instead of being sent away, though, she persists and comes and bows down before Jesus, saying, “Lord, help me.”
This time, Jesus does answer her. But it isn’t what we would expect from Jesus. Here you have to understand that the Syro-Phoenician Canaanite woman was a Gentile, and likely would have been looked down upon by many in the Jewish culture. You have to understand that in the culture of ritual purity that permeated Israelite society, Gentiles were either excluded altogether or put at the margins. Certainly a woman whose daughter was believed to be demon possessed would have been someone to avoid, if one were to maintain one’s ritual purity.
So instead of granting her request, Jesus tells her, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Now, as I was thinking about this sermon, I was intending to spend a great deal of time dissertating to you about how dogs are viewed in the Bible. Suffice it to say that dogs did not have as privileged a place in first century Jewish society as our own. Calling a person a dog was not a compliment. Indeed, by calling this woman a dog, Jesus may himself be letting slip a racial slur.
Jesus was the incarnate LORD, fully human, fully divine. What his response shows, I think, is that in the incarnation, Jesus too participates with us in our very human foibles. Yes, racist scripts are formidable parts of our human experience. They are formed in us at a very early age and dwell in our subsconscience in ways that we cannot deny. As a white male born in the South, I know I carry them, at least subconsciously. So do many of you. It is not something intentional. It is not something I want to bear. Oftentimes it is something of which I am unaware.
I am reminded of an episode with my saintly grandfather, whom I remember as the most pious, loving, and open person I have ever met. We used to spend several weeks each summer at the New Jersey shore with my grandparents, uncles and aunts, and cousins. One time, I distinctly remember one of my cousins meeting a nice third generation Italian-American boy on the boardwalk. When he came calling later that evening to pick her up to go to the boardwalk for an evening full of fun, my grandfather had a fit with my aunt. How could she allow her daughter to see (sorry friends!) a “wop?” Folks, it was in the 1980s when this happened. None of us understood what had just happened or where our grandfather had picked up this language. My grandfather, who at that time was in his 80s was voicing a script he had learned as a German Protestant who immigrated as a little boy with his family to Philadelphia. The prejudices and scripts that were prevalent in the 1910’s and 1920’s of inner city Philadelphia no longer made any sense to those of us who were two generations removed. What it shows, though, is how deeply ingrained in our subconscious such scripts can be. We may be acting on them or even verbalizing them, without being aware of them.
The Syro-phoenicain woman in our Gospel story persists, though. She doesn’t let herself be so easily dismissed. She retorts to Jesus, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” It is a clever retort. By taking on the role of the “dog,” the woman is throwing Jesus’ words back at him. Maybe she revealed to him that in that moment the words of his mouth did indeed come from the heart of his incarnate humanity, a heart that he as Lord is meant to perfect and indeed overcome. He responds to the woman by telling her that her faith is great and that her daughter will be healed—and she is, instantly.
The message for us today is I think two-fold. Even though we may wrestle with subconscious racist scripts, or other kinds of toxic reactions that are sinful, damaging to our community, and corrosive of our faith, we can and must, like the Syrophoenician woman, persist in bringing them to the Lord. Secondly, the incarnate Lord is come to perfect human flesh. That perfection has already begun with the resurrection and will be fulfilled for each one of us when we are resurrected together with the LORD in the Parousia. Meanwhile, though, we can persist on the path of sanctification. The Lord will heal us, as he healed the Syro-phoenician woman’s daughter. But as you know, our sanctification may not be immediate. It may take some time. But we are being invited again and again to receive God’s grace in our lives, we are invited again and again to live in community with our brothers and sisters. Dr. King’s dream for our nation, I fear, will not be fully realized even in my generation. But nevertheless, we must all persist. We must look deep in ourselves to see where we are still perpetrators of racist scripts and harmful ideologies that tear our nation and our world apart. All of are in one way or another guilty of at times not minding what comes out of our mouths. The hope is that we too can be healed as we participate in the incarnation on the way towards perfection.