Topical Sermon on Matthew 15
by Maylan Schurch
Bellevue Seventh-day Adventist Church 6/27/2020
©2020 by Maylan Schurch
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Please open your Bibles to Matthew chapter 15. Put a bookmark there. Also, if you’d like, you could put some sort of bookmark in Mark chapter 7.
What’s intriguing about these two chapters is that the same two stories are told in each one, back to back, and in the same order.
And that means something. If two different gospel writers put them like that, they’re probably bound together for a reason.
And both stories are about racial prejudice.
Actually, though, racial prejudice goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden.
“Wait a minute,” somebody says. “Back then it was just Adam and Eve. One race is all there was.”
That’s why I wanted you to put bookmarks in both Matthew 15 and Mark 7. Let’s go back for a couple of minutes to Genesis 3. Because yes, back there in Eden there was just one race—until Lucifer the Serpent came along and started lying.
Once he shows up there in Genesis 3, he gets into conversation with Eve. He asks her if God has forbidden every garden tree to her. She says, “Oh, no, not at all. Just that one tree, but we’ll die if we eat from it.”
Watch how Satan cleverly introduces race prejudice, class prejudice:
Genesis 3:4 [NKJV]: Then the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
There it is—race prejudice. Why do I say that? Well, according to Satan, there is the “advantaged” race and the “disadvantaged” race.
God has the advantage of being like a god—because He IS God. That puts Eve at a disadvantage, Satan says, because Eve is not like a god. “But Eve, there’s hope!” he says. “All you needs to do to join the advantaged class is to eat that forbidden fruit, and you will become like a god, knowing both good and evil!”
So there you have what I believe is the beginning of the evil of prejudice. To hear Satan tell it, God was not only wiser and more powerful—but He was also a graspingly selfish God who wanted to keep all the privilege to Himself. According to Satan, God was the first prejudiced, power-hoarding bigot.
And Eve bought the lie. And she gave birth to an entire planet’s population, many of whom have fought like devils themselves with people they were prejudiced against.
And by the time Jesus pressed His sandaled feet on the dirt of this planet, race prejudice was roaring along at full steam. In Matthew 15—with a quick trip to Mark 7—we’re going to look at two back-to-back stories. In the first, Jesus reveals an ugly prejudice, and in the second story, He tests His disciples to see how much they learned from the first story.
Matthew 15:1 – 2 [NKJV]: Then the scribes and Pharisees who were from Jerusalem came to Jesus, saying, “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.”
Here in COVID-19 time, handwashing would be a serious issue. Even my Mom sounded something like a Pharisee when I came in from playing in the barnyard. “Now you go wash your hands,” she would growl, “and use soap.”
Mom wanted me to be sanitary, and the Pharisees criticized the disciples for not being sanitary. But those two “sanitaries” mean totally different things. Mom wanted me to be as germ-free as possible. But the Pharisees believed that the disciples should be as Gentile-free as possible.
Here’s where we sneak over to Mark 7 for a moment. There we’ll get a deeper insight into what the Pharisees are talking about. You see, the gospel of Matthew seems to have been written for Jewish people—and they would have known exactly where all this hand-washing talk was going.
But Mark seems to have been written for people without a deep knowledge of the ins and outs of Judaism. So Mark had to do a bit of explaining.
Mark 7:1 – 3: Then the Pharisees and some of the scribes came together to Him, having come from Jerusalem. Now when they saw some of His disciples eat bread with defiled, that is, with unwashed hands, they found fault. For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands in a special way, holding the tradition of the elders.
Now, watch this. This is where racial prejudice rears its ugly head.
Verses 4 – 5: When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash.
And that’s because down at the marketplace there are probably Gentiles, or even Samaritans, and all of them were ritually unclean. And if a faithful Jew happened to buy or even handle fruit which had been touched by a Gentile–or if he happened to jostle up close to a Gentile–that Jew became unclean, and thus needed to ceremonially wash his hands.
You see, Jesus arrived at a time in Jewish history when there were thousands of rabbi-created laws, dealing with everything from what you can and can’t do on the Sabbath, to everything else anybody would need answers about.
These laws were memorized by the scribes and Pharisees for generations, but about a hundred years after Jesus was on this earth, the Jews figured they’d better write them all down so they wouldn’t be forgotten. So they gathered all those laws into a book they called the Mishnah, and this is it, right here, in English.
And sure enough, on page 778, there begins a section called Yadaim, which is the Hebrew word for “hands.” And it plunges right into a discussion of how much water is needed to ceremonially clean your hands, and what kind of water to use. For example, water that is unfit for cattle to drink can’t be used to ceremonially wash your hands. And on and on.
But the facts are that the Bible itself says nothing about the ordinary person needing to wash his or her hands for this purpose. It was the priests in the temple who were supposed to ceremonially cleanse themselves before serving in the sanctuary.
So along come the disciples, and the Pharisees notice that they’re not ceremonially washing their hands. And that means that the first time they ate a meal with Jesus, the disciples probably got cups of water and went through the ritual, and Jesus must have stopped them. He must have said, “Don’t do that. You don’t have to do that.” So the disciples didn’t do it any more.
And as I say, this was clearly a racist ritual. This ritual said, “Even though the Bible doesn’t say so, I am just naturally holier than you are. You are just naturally unclean, and I need to wash my hands to sanitize myself from contacting you.”
So let’s see what Jesus has to say about the Pharisees’ complaint. They’d asked Him why His disciples were transgressing the commandments of the elders—the rabbis of past generations.
Matthew 15:3 – 6: He answered and said to them, “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? For God commanded, saying, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God”—then he need not honor his father or mother.’ Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition.
Then Jesus calls out to the crowd and tells them to gather around.
Verses 10 – 11: When He had called the multitude to Himself, He said to them, “Hear and understand: Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.”
And a few verses later He clarifies what He means by that.
Verses 19 – 20: For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man.”
He’s saying, “Look. Brushing up against a Samaritan, or buying a piece of fruit touched by a Gentile, has nothing to do with spiritual defilement. It’s not what goes into you that hurts you spiritually—it’s what comes out of you!”
And as you probably know, Jesus broke the rabbis’ rules many times in this way. He accepted invitations to eat with tax collectors and other people the Pharisees called “sinners.” He allowed a repentant prostitute to gratefully wash His feet at a banquet.
So after Jesus said what He said to the Pharisees in this chapter, His disciples crowded around Him with a lot of questions.
And Jesus does His best to explain.
And then He does something which seems like what a teacher would do. Back when I was a college English teacher, I would once in a while teach a class in public speaking.
I would give the students all kinds of theory—teach them how important it was to organize their material, keep their eyes on the audience, speak up so that the last row of people could hear, use props if necessary, and so on.
But the day came when each of those students had to get up in front of class and give their speech. At that point, it was just them and their audience. I would generally sit at the back of the room, and I would always stay quiet, and not even take notes on how they were doing, so it wouldn’t make them nervous. But I would later give them a grade on the speech.
As I say, both Matthew 15 and Mark 7 contain two stories. They’re back to back, and in the same order, each time.
And I think that they’re in the same order because one naturally follows the other. In the first story, Jesus teaches about prejudice and how wrong it is. And in the second story, He tests the disciples to see what they’ve learned.
Let’s watch Him do this.
Verses 21 – 23: Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.” But He answered her not a word . . . .
So what’s going on here? Is Jesus cold, callous, cruel? Well, was I cold, callous and cruel as I went to the back of the room to just sit there and watch my speech students give their talks?
Not at all. And neither was Jesus. He had successfully weaned His disciples off ceremonial handwashing, and now He wanted to see if they would automatically take the next step—to realize (as Peter would later learn and then repeat to Cornelius–in Acts 10:28), “God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.”
Would they understand this, on their own? Could they see this foreign woman as someone who was just as worthy as they were of Jesus’ friendship?
So, Jesus answered her not a word. He just waited.
And finally the disciples speak up. And oh, how much Jesus must have been longing for them to make the right noises here, say the right thing. But watch what happens.
Verse 23: . . . . And His disciples came and urged Him, saying . . . .
You can almost hear Jesus thinking, Come on, guys, say the right thing. Say the right thing.
Verse 23: And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.”
And then Jesus makes another comment. And maybe this is one more challenge to the more tender-hearted of the disciples. John? You’ve got a soft heart. Will you defend this woman? Andrew? What about you? You’re always introducing people to Me. Can you be the one to break through this racial wall?
We can imagine Jesus saying this next comment thoughtfully—maybe loud enough for the woman to hear, maybe not. But certainly for His disciples to hear.
Verse 24: But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Any takers? Any rebuke from His disciples? No one says anything.
Okay, what about the woman? How will she respond to these stern, fastidious men, who simply want her gone?
Verse 25: Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, help me!”
So, what about this woman? He’s going to give her still one more challenge. How is she going to respond to it? Maybe Jesus is pinning His faith on how back in verse 22 she confidently called Him “Son of David.” Maybe this test is, truly, about how much she believes that. If she thinks that Jesus is the Son of David, she believes that He is the promised Messiah.
But how firmly does she believe? How strong will her faith remain after His next words?
Verse 26: But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.”
What a racist thing to say, right? How’s she going to respond?
The Bible talks about winking, but it never says anything about Jesus winking. Maybe there was just the barest twinkle in His eye, which encouraged her. Maybe there was just the tiniest smile-quirk at one corner of His mouth, which she might have spotted.
So, my sister. I have just spoken of you as a little dog. Shocking, right? What comeback do you have to that?”
Sure enough, she has a comeback.
Verse 27: And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”
And maybe—and I hope it’s more than a maybe—Jesus bursts out in a roar of relieved, delighted laughter.
Verse 28: Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
No more talk of little dogs! He calls her a woman, and addresses her directly. And in the Greek He calls her faith a “mega” faith. And now she knows for sure something she probably has suspected all along—the Jewish Son of David is her Messiah too!
Sixty years later, one of those disciples who watched this scene unfold took pen to papyrus and wrote:
After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9 – 10)