Matthew 15 and Isaiah 56, each in their own way, have a similar message. The story in Matthew makes me celebrate what a great student of the Torah and the Prophets Jesus actually was. It also reminds me how much he was like you and me. But before getting into the New Testament story, it may be better to get some Old Testament background.
Isaiah is a complex book. It covers nearly 250 years of Israel’s political turmoil. Through the formula “Thus saith the Lord” the prophets declared judgment on Israel, declared the destruction of the instrument of judgment on Israel, and pronounced the end of their exile. When God spoke, you could be sure that the prophet wouldn’t say something like: ‘Well I think…” No, he would say “Thus saith the Lord” and that changed what had gone before.
When Cyrus gave permission for those held in Babylonian captivity to return to the land of promise there was reluctance to begin restoration. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell us of the determination of the Priestly caste to begin work and of their approach to it. They were fearful that if the people did not live up to the Levitical and Deuteronomic standards, God would again punish Israel. While in exile they had developed a form of Judaism with out a Temple or a royal family. At the same time there was a large group of Israelites who were never displaced to Babylon. This was all new and somewhat questionable to those who for generations had stayed on the land. And Jews of the Diaspora considered them second class citizens or less – less pure and more defiled.
Frederich Gaiser, a Lutheran Old Testament professor, points out that while there are many places where scripture reinterprets the tradition, using an old word to say something surprising and new to a new generation, at least one scholar says that what we have in Isaiah 56 is the only case in the Old Testament where one divine word of scripture outright abrogates another. And what makes that all so important is the prophet proceeds it with the formula “Thus saith the Lord”. It actually starts with the third verse:
3Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.”4For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant,5I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.6And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—7these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.8Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.
According to Leviticus no one with “crushed testicles” shall “come near the curtain or approach the altar, because he has a blemish” (Lev 21:16-23). Deuteronomy’s
prohibition is even more severe, denying such “blemished” persons not only the priesthood but any participation in the worshiping community. Through the prophet Isaiah God says a new word: 4For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant,5I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.6
If you explore a bit deeper into some of the transitional sections of Isaiah you will find the reason that this section about eunuchs is included. You wouldn’t think that would be all that many people. Chapter 39 makes the transition from the earlier destruction of Israel by the Assyrians to focus on the coming destruction by the Babylonians. The text prepares us for the Babylonian captivity, the situation to which Isaiah 40 speaks its tender word of comfort. It is here, and only here, that the same word, eunuch, appears. What we learn is that the king of Babylon took steps to destroy Israel’s future. He castrated Hezekiah’s sons, effectively ending the royal line.
And for the foreigners God says: 6And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—7these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
The invitation to foreigners and eunuchs that we just read in Isaiah 56 effectively overturns both tradition and Torah. It went even further and addressed not just those who had been defiled and those who had been imported during the exile of the leadership, listen to this: 8Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.
The restoration program of the priestly establishment insisted on maintaining the laws of purity and holiness—the very laws that excluded those who were blemished. As found in Ezra and Nehemiah their restoration program will be narrow and isolationist. The program of those represented by third Isaiah is broad and universal, ‘welcoming all faithful people to the temple, which will become a ‘house of prayer for all people.
The message is transformative. God speaks a new word and upsets the apple cart forever. The passage concludes: for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.8Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered. That last line – well that’s where we come in, those ‘others’ to be gathered. Unfortunately it is easy to forget what a loving and graceful God we have. It happens with all of us. We prefer the rules and regulations, the exceptions and the exclusions. But don’t take it that it is just you – and don’t be too upset with the Matthew when he shows just how fallible Jesus can be.
How to the New Testament piece of the equation.
Matthew 15:10-28 has two distinct sections– both are important. Just like in Isaiah 56 the first deals with ‘defilement’ and the second with the question of who is fit for the kingdom. “Listen and understand:11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”12Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?”13He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted.14Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.”15But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.”16Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding?17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.19For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.20These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
This first section simply explains that what makes a person unfit for the kingdom isn’t about keeping a bunch of health and safety rules and religious regulations that control your relationship with God. Remember how Isaiah made the point that despite Levitical rules and Deuteronmic regulations you can’t exclude the defiled, alien and outcast people from the grace of God. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t wash your hands or wash contaminants off vegetables or make sure your hamburger is well done. It is the choices you make and how you treat others that expose what’s inside you.
The second section reads like this:
21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.22Just 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.”23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Do you really want a Jesus this human? He comes off arrogant, rude, racist and mean. We’ve tried our best to soften it a bit, first by saying it is a commendation for having great faith and saying that he called her a puppy instead of what Matthew actually says. But the reality is what it is. Some scholars say that the only women who spoke to men in public were prostitutes. Is this what we do to people who are different? Do we make them morally suspect, consider then somehow defiled, alien or outcast? The disciples don’t want to think about such things. They want nothing to do with her, and as Matthew tells his story neither does Jesus. They tell him to send her away. That’s what they said when faced with five thousand hungry people. “Send them away”. This Canaanite woman isn’t going anywhere. She may not be Jewish but evidently she knows who Jesus is and calls out in the language of the Jewish prayer: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.”
Barbara Lundblad says of this passage that Jesus was converted that day to a larger vision of the commonwealth of God. In the voice and face of the outsider Jesus saw and heard a fuller revelation of God. See the connection back to Isaiah 53? And now a question: “If Jesus can change can we?”
Isaiah 56 starts this way. Thus says the Lord: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed.2Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil
Keeping the sabbath was a great deal more than going to Temple. Through Isaiah God said that to those who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast to my covenant, I will give…” Entrance into God’s people is a gift, and with it comes responsibility. Keeping Sabbath is of great importance, more than some legalistic cultic exercise. It is associated with feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and bringing the homeless poor into one’s house. It is about maintaining justice. Keeping sabbath identifies the people of God. It is embarrassingly clear.