Sunday, March 23, 2014

...Like A Gentile Or Tax Collector (part 5)

In the eleventh chapter of Matthew, the author offers up some more useful information for the premise of this study when we reporting Jesus’ criticisms of a number of cities.  He pronounces woe to cities such as Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, which were all cities of the Galilee region, for their lack of repentance (their lack of repentance was seen in the fact that they were not joining up with Jesus’ new exodus movement) though they had witnessed “many of His miracles” (11:20b).  In contrast, Jesus mentions three Gentile cities---Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom---that He seems to believe would have responded differently to His call, had they been given the same opportunity.  His statement of “For if the miracles done among you had been done in Sodom, it would have continued to this day” (11:23b), along with “But I tell you, it will be more bearable for region of Sodom on the day of judgment than for you!” (11:24) would almost certainly have weighed heavily on the minds of His hearers. 

Such pronouncements by Jesus, among His Jewish hearers, would probably have called to mind the story of Jonah and the repentance of Assyria; and indeed, one is not disappointed in that regard, finding Matthew making reference to that very story in chapter twelve of His narrative.  There, in response to the demand for a sign, Jesus references the sign of Jonah and goes on to say “The people of Nineveh,” which was the capital city of a Gentile nation that had been responsible for the oppression of Israel (thoughts of Rome and its then current oppression of Israel lurks in the background here), “will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented when Jonah preached to them” (12:41).      

Following up on the record of Jesus’ earlier statements about Tyre and Sidon, a reader is unsurprised at what is found upon reaching the fifteenth chapter of Matthew.  Unsurprisingly, based on what He had previously said, “Jesus went to the region of Tyre and Sidon” (15:21b).  This follows from Matthew’s presentation of Jesus’ opinions about that which constitutes true defilement.  In that day, dietary restrictions and ceremonial washings were quite important, and there was much concern about becoming defiled through that which was eaten.  In addition to that, and though it goes unmentioned (it would be well known by both Jesus’ and Matthew’s audiences), it was held to be a veritable certainty that a Jew would be defiled by entering the home of a Gentile or by passing through Gentile territory. 

Jesus however, in broadly addressing the issue of that which defiles, says “Listen and understand.  What defiles a person is not what goes into the mouth; it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles a person” (15:10b-11).  When pressed on this assertion, He adds “Don’t you understand that whatever goes into the mouth enters into the stomach and then passes out into the sewer?  But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these things defile a person.  For out of the heart come evil ideas, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.  These are the things that defile a person; it is not eating with unwashed hands that defiles a person” (15:17-20). 

Having presented these words of Jesus, Matthew gives substance to Jesus’ words about that which truly defiles by moving the Jesus story on to Gentile ground.  While there, he reports that “A Canaanite woman from that area came and cried out, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David!  My daughter is horribly demon-possessed!’” (15:22)  Amazingly, this is a Gentile woman calling out to Jesus and using a messianic title in the process.  Interestingly, these words spring from this woman’s mouth in the very wake of Jesus’ disciples asking Him “Do you know that when the Pharisees heard this saying (about what defiles) they were offended?” (15:12b)  Presumably, the Pharisees had given voice to this offense---it had come out of their collective mouth.  Thus, the presumed words of the Pharisees and the reported words of the Canaanite woman, following hard on what Jesus has said about that which defiles, present quite the provocative contrast. 

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