Case in Point
In our time together, as I’ve mentioned, you will no doubt hear a lot about my 7 year old nephew Sam (and my on-the-way niece, due next month!). Sam’s one of the great joys of my life, for sure. Sam is getting to be quite grown up. He and I have “fun day” outings together pretty regularly, and we often head to Destiny USA. We see a movie, or go mini-golfing there, or play in the arcade, and eat at Johnny Rockets, but we always hit the Carousel. Sam’s a little guy for his age, so I help him onto the horse of his choice, and then stand next to him while he rides the Carousel. At least, that’s what we did. The last time I took him to the Carousel, he let me ride with him the first time, but for the second time, he said to me, so sweetly, “Aunt Beth, why don’t you go stand down there so you can wave to me when I go by.” Sweet kid was trying to gently say, “Aunt Beth, I don’t need you to stand next to me anymore!” I actually felt myself tearing up a little bit, to hit this “milestone” of sorts. But as requested, I went and watched and waved from the sidelines. It made me nervous, though, to have him even that far away from me in a busy mall. I had to count for myself the number of seconds he was out of my sight on every go-around of the carousel. Six seconds. I could handle that, right?
I know I’m overprotective of Sam. I know my brother and sister-in-law want me to take good care of him, but they probably don’t realize the poor kid only gets to be out of my sight once I put him to bed when I babysit. I want to protect him from everything. I know, though, that since what I really want is for him to be happy and to enjoy life, I can’t protect him from everything, or I’ll still be standing next to him on the carousel when he’s sixteen. Somehow I don’t think that will go over so well. I know I’m not alone, though. Many of us remember childhoods where we were more free to go off and play by ourselves outside for hours on end, with our parents perhaps only vaguely knowing that we were in the neighborhood somewhere.
Are things really so much worse now, so much less safe? Are we smarter now than we were then? Safer? Or just more protective? It’s an interesting question, actually, that some of my pastors friends and I were discussing a few weeks ago. My friend Richelle read a news story about a playground in Wales called The Land. (1) It looks kind of like a junk yard. It’s meant to. There’s a lot of broken things there, dirty things, even a fire burning. There are some adult staff who hang out at The Land. But they only intervene in children’s play if absolutely necessary. So far, children have gotten some scraped knees, but otherwise fare pretty well. The author of the article had a hard time watching his five-year old son try some crazy things on this unique playground, but he was just fine. In the author’s research, he’s discovered that conditions in the world aren’t really more dangerous for children. Abductions, for example – our attention was captured by the abduction and return of two Amish girls this week. The number of abductions by strangers has stayed pretty stable over the years, actually. The only increase has been in abductions by family members, likely a result of increased custody issues when parental relationships end. And we’re more litigious. If a child gets hurt on a playground, someone will probably sue. But is the world more dangerous for children? It doesn’t seem so.
Believe it or not, I had all this on my mind as a read our gospel lesson for this week. Our reading from Matthew continues on a bit after our passage from last week. Last week we saw Jesus walk on water to meet the disciples as they crossed the sea of Galilee. And I mentioned that when they landed on shore, people came from all around to be healed by Jesus. Just before today’s passage opens Jesus is being questioned by some scribes and Pharisees. Scribes and Pharisees tend to get a bad rap as the bad guys of the Bible, because they spend so much time arguing with Jesus, and because Jesus has some pretty harsh words for them. But at their best, the scribes and Pharisees were those who tried to interpret the writings of the law of Moses and figure out how best to uphold the commandments handed down from generation to generation. They were the religious leaders of the day. In a church context, they would be the regular attenders, people who were on committees or teaching Sunday School or always showing up to help at events. Kind of like most of us. They had confronted Jesus, asking why he and his disciples didn’t uphold some of the rituals of cleanliness practices by the religious elders. Jesus responds to them saying, “Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake or your tradition? … For the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God!” And then, finally, in that context, we get to today’s text:
Jesus calls the crowd together and says, “Listen: It isn’t what goes into the mouth that makes someone unclean, but what comes out of the mouth.” When the disciples are confused by this, he further clarifies: What goes in – like foods that would have been considered unclean, or things eaten without the benefit of special hand-washings or other cleanliness rituals – all that ends up in the sewer eventually, Jesus says bluntly. But what comes out of the mouth – what comes from our hearts – when evil intentions are in our hearts – that is what can truly make us unclean.
Immediately after this, Jesus travels to the district of Tyre and Sidon where he meets a Canaanite woman. This isn’t surprising – the region Jesus travels to – for no specific reason named in the scripture – would be where many Gentiles – non-Jews – lived. He could only expect to run into Canaanites and others that Jews would normally avoid. There was great animosity between different religious and ethnic groups, and Jesus’ actions could make him ritually unclean. The woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter who is being tortured by the presence of a demon in her life. Jesus says, “I was sent to the lost sheep of Israel.” But she persists, “Lord, help me.” He says, “It isn’t fair to take the children’s food and give it to dogs.” And she persists even still, “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the masters’ table.” Jesus tells her her faith is great, and he’ll do as she wishes. And her daughter is healed instantly!
This passage is often hard to read. No matter how we twist it, it seems like Jesus compares this woman to a dog begging at a table, and like he’s really reluctant to extend healing to her child. But context, and what comes before and after a passage, is always so important in our understanding of the scripture. Jesus was just telling us that it is what is in our hearts, not the external stuff, that makes us clean or unclean, defiled or set right before God. And then he immediately goes to a place where he’s likely to encounter someone who every faithful Jew would consider unclean, defiled, outside of the limits of God’s grace and promises. And with a quick exchange, he extends grace and healing to her and says that her faith, the faith of a Canaanite woman, is great. What’s more, if you search the gospels for times where Jesus tells someone that their faith is great or their faith has made them well, the majority of these encounters are with a person who would be considered unclean in some way by the law. It’s a pattern. And it’s a pattern, and a specific scenario here that illustrates the case in the point: It’s the stuff inside, in our hearts, that makes us clean or unclean, not the stuff outside.
So what does that all mean for us? Believe it or not, all this is why I was thinking about playgrounds. The article I read said something like: if statistics show that things aren’t really anymore unsafe than they used to be for our children, we must conclude that we’ve let our fears conquer us. Between the 24-hour instant news cycle and viral sharing on social media and our litigious culture, we’ve become afraid, and we’ve let our fears overtake us. And so we make protection and safety major priorities. It’s really even part of our national ethos, isn’t it? Desiring safety above almost everything else.
Sometimes, I think this is how we operate in the world as Christians, too. We’ve gotten confused about our purpose in the world, and we’ve somehow concluded that the best way to be “Good Christians” is to protect ourselves from bad influences, from the awful, crazy world around us. And so we spend our time trying to eliminate bad influences around us – especially the influence of people that might be bad influences – or we end up withdrawing from the world altogether. We isolate ourselves. We spend time with other Christians – which isn’t all bad, for sure – but when we only want to hang around with people who think like us and dress like us and behave like us and believe like us because it makes us feel safe and comfortable, we’re in a bit of trouble.
Jesus says our efforts are futile! It isn’t that external stuff that corrupts our souls! It’s what’s inside of us that has that potential! It’s what inside of us that needs tending and nurturing. And if Jesus says that loving God and loving one another is the best way to tend our souls, to make sure that what comes out from hearts is good, then protecting ourselves from the messiness of interacting with people who are different from us, who we don’t understand, who don’t live like we live – that’s the exact opposite of what Jesus wants for us. Jesus isn’t particularly interested in us playing it safe. That’s sure not the example he sets for us. Instead, he’s crossing boundaries and bending rules and breaking down walls and talking to the people on the fringes and reaching across cultures and traditions and religions and practices and saying: here, in the place you’ve least expected, is where I’ve found great faith. Ultimately, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were so threatened by Jesus’ boundary-crossing, rule-breaking ways that they sought to put him to death. He threatened the safe, comfortable way of life they were trying to substitute for deep faith.
This week, I encourage you to think about how much of your time each day you spend with people who are basically just like you. And how much of your time do you spend worrying about being safe and comfortable? How many people will you have conversations with in a typical week that are from a different faith tradition than you are? Or have a different color skin than you do? Or are from a different economic class? How many boundaries do you cross in a typical week? How safe is your playground? Jesus says we can work to surround ourselves with the most perfect, sterling, pristine conditions – and it will all just still be what’s on the outside. What’s in your heart? That’s what Jesus is interested in. Where have you found great faith? That’s what Jesus wants to know. Enough playing it safe. What’s in your heart?