The Text: Matthew 15:10-28
I don’t know about today, but in the past this saying was used by parents to encourage their children to wash well in the bath or shower. The saying implied that a clean body somehow brought us closer to God.
Like most sayings, there’s a grain of truth in that. When it comes to matters of God, cleanliness is important, although not necessarily whether have dirt behind our ears or not. It has more to do with spiritual or moral cleanliness.
You may not have had much teaching on cleanliness. In part, I think, it’s because “cleanliness” is seen as an Old Testament concept. Since Christians no longer need to obey all the Old Testament purity laws (found, for example, in Leviticus), many think cleanliness is redundant or has been superseded. This understanding, however, would be like “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”. Spiritual cleanliness is still at the heart of how we relate to God, and today’s gospel reading gives us the opportunity to explore its implications.
Before we can talk about cleanliness, we need to understand the concept of “holiness”. Holiness is a property of God. It is His good, creative, life-giving power. Holiness is often likened to the sun which gives out light and heat to sustain life on earth.
Diametrically opposed to God’s holiness is evil, including sin, death and demonic powers. These are naturally likened to darkness. The two cannot coexist: God’s holiness will always destroy evil just as light will banish the dark. Darkness cannot exist where light shines.
In between these two realms (of light & dark, holiness & evil) is the natural realm, which we inhabit. In this realm we can be “clean” or “unclean”. People who are clean need not fear God’s holiness. They can approach Him and, in so doing, become holy themselves.
The opposite is also true: clean or holy people who come in contact with evil become unclean; they become defiled. Unclean people can no longer approach God; His holiness would destroy them just as it destroys all evil.
In the Old Testament, God gave the people of Israel a “purity code” to help them remain clean. He taught them to avoid things that would defile them. For example, certain foods, contact with death or disease, and sinful actions – we read this in Leviticus 5:2-3 “‘If anyone becomes aware that they are guilty—if they unwittingly touch anything ceremonially unclean (whether the carcass of an unclean animal, wild or domestic, or of any unclean creature that moves along the ground) and they are unaware that they have become unclean, but then they come to realize their guilt; or if they touch human uncleanness (anything that would make them unclean) even though they are unaware of it, but then they learn of it and realize their guilt.
He gave them ways to restore their cleanliness if it was lost, through ritual washings and sacrifices.
God did this because He loved His people and wanted a relationship with them. He wanted to meet with them in person without destroying them with His holiness; first in the tabernacle, and later in the temple. He wanted them to be holy too.
For this reason, God also gave the people of Israel the land of Canaan where they could live in purity and build a permanent dwelling place for God to meet with all peoples. This meant it was necessary to displace the people there, including the Canaanites, who were involved in worshipping false gods and in evil practices such as child sacrifice.
God also forbade the Israelites to intermarry with the Canaanites, in case they succumb to their idolatry and so become unclean (read more in Exodus 23:23-33). It’s important to note that God didn’t do this because Israel was a particularly worthy people; already clean and holy. Rather, God chose to make a covenant with Israel. God made the people clean and holy, and their responsibility was simply to keep on living in ways God knew was good for them. It was a relationship based on trust. The Israelites were to trust that God would care for them as He had promised, and that His commands were good.
Sadly, the people of Israel failed to trust God fully. They failed to obey God’s commandments. They were unable to remain clean and holy. They intermarried with the Canaanites and other tribes opposed to God, and defiled themselves and the land with their practices. And so, God allowed Israel to be taken into exile for a time.
Upon return to the land new challenges arose against God’s plans for Israel. Groups such as the Pharisees were formed. By all accounts the Pharisees had an honest desire to obey God’s commands and follow His plan to keep themselves and the land pure. But rather than just trusting that God’s commands were sufficient, they added layers of tradition to “help” people.
This is what was behind Jesus’ scathing criticism of the Pharisees. They had come to Jesus asking why His disciples didn’t observe their tradition of ritual handwashing before the meal. The Pharisees claimed that by not washing, the disciples were making themselves unclean.
Jesus responded with the words we read at the start of the sermon. Firstly, He rejected the Pharisees’ rituals as merely human traditions and not commands from God. Secondly, Jesus explained that even God-ordained rituals didn’t make people clean in and of themselves, but that the reason for which the rituals were done was critical. It wouldn’t matter that everything on the outside was observed perfectly if the heart inside was rotten. For it is out of the heart that uncleanness truly comes: evil thoughts lead to evil speech and actions, and all three defile a person.
On the other hand, a heart which is clean will make the whole person clean before God. How do we get a heart like that? A truly clean heart is purely a gift from God, received in faith. And, what’s more, God extended this promise not only to Israel, but to all peoples who trust in Him – as we heard in our Old Testament reading from Isaiah 56.
Finally, God has delivered on His promise through Jesus Christ, as we saw in the story about the Canaanite woman when He cleansed her daughter of an unclean spirit. In Jesus, who is the “new temple”, God has come close to all people; not just to the people of Israel in Jerusalem. In Jesus, God brings cleansing to both Jew and Gentile, so that none of us need fear that His holiness will destroy us. In Jesus, we can all become clean and holy so that we can enter into God’s presence.
How does this happen in practice today? How does Jesus continue to make us clean? The main way He does this is here in worship, particularly when enacted through the liturgy of worship. Although liturgy is seen by some Christians as a redundant “tradition”, it has been carefully shaped by the church, based on God’s Word, over millennia, to help us receive God’s life-giving gifts.
Our liturgy is not the only way to worship, but it’s a good way. It leads us through an encounter with God so we can approach Him as clean people who want to be made holy by His presence. We start the service in the Name of God Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the name into which we were baptised. This “invocation” reminds us that in baptism we were washed clean and made members of God’s holy people. In baptism, Jesus took our sin on himself and gave us His holiness in exchange, and He also gave us His Holy Spirit to start changing our hearts to trust in His promises.
Next we have a time of confession and forgiveness. We need this because we are not yet fully holy. We still make ourselves unclean in thought, word and deed. We still murder and commit adultery in our hearts, we still steal, and we still lie and slander others with our mouths. And so, before we can approach God, we need to be cleansed again, lest His holiness destroy us.
Confession and forgiveness is also an opportunity to give up to God sins that others have committed against us and that make us unclean through no fault of our own. At this time in the service we can forgive other people and ask God to forgive them. Forgiveness in itself is a real blessing, as God takes away our emotional and spiritual dirt, leaving us clean and pure. But He wants to give us even more in worship. Once made clean, we can then enjoy time with God. We can pray to Him and praise Him, thank Him for the good gifts He has already given us and ask for anything else we might need.
Throughout the service, we also listen to God. In the liturgy itself and in the readings, hymns and sermon we hear God speaking to us. As we receive God’s Word we continue to be made clean and holy. The prayer used at the start of the sermon is not a “magical formula” or pious wish. It is an echo of Jesus’ own prayer in John 17:17 that God the Father would sanctify His disciples (make them holy) through His Word.
The high point of the service with Holy Communion comes when we celebrate a feast with God. At the Lord’s Table Jesus Himself serves us with His holy and precious body and blood. For those who are properly prepared – members of God’s people, made clean through His Word – this meal further blesses us by ushering us into the Holy of Holies; into the presence of God the Father Himself.
But those who are not yet members of God’s family, or do not repent of their sins, are asked to refrain from eating at this table. We do this not because we want to be exclusive, or because we think we are better than them, but because we want to protect them. We understand the danger of an unclean person coming into the presence of a holy God, and have responsibility to warn them of the danger.
Finally, we are sent out by God with His blessing. Like the people of Israel, God doesn’t make us clean and holy just for our own sakes, but for the sake of other people – all of them. We are to be examples to the world, and heralds of God’s goodness so that all people may come to know Him and share in His holiness.
To do so we are to speak up against human “traditions” that continue to make people “unclean” today, even though doing so is unpopular. For example, we speak up for the right-to-life of the unborn, and against calls that the aged or sick have a right-to-death. We speak up for the goodness of marriage between man and woman, and the blessings of reserving sex for the marital relationship. We speak against the trend towards fake news and call it out for what it is: lying. We encourage people to instead speak the truth, for the building up of others. We reject hate speech, particularly based on race or gender. We are to accept people who are different from us, and love them as Jesus loved and accepted all people, including the Canaanite woman; including us Gentiles.
But note that love and acceptance don’t mean we have to agree with people on everything. Love is not contingent on affirming attitudes or actions which are harmful and make people unclean before God. Cleanliness is not arbitrary or negotiable, the church hasn’t simply made up its rituals on a whim, and so sometimes we will offend people when God’s Word clashes with human “traditions”.
But as we speak these truths, we need to do so carefully, remembering that outward actions do not make for a clean heart. We all need Christ to make us clean on the inside, so that we can also be clean on the outside. Only Jesus’ transformation of our hearts allows us to speak and act cleanly too. And we can only ever receive this cleanliness as a gift. As the Canaanite woman herself testified, we are no more deserving than dogs who feed off their master’s crumbs.
Yet the wonderful news, for us and for all people, is that God’s “crumbs” are more than enough. Even the leftovers of God’s generosity can make us clean and holy and give us eternal life with Him. But the best news of all is that God hasn’t contented Himself with leaving us as dirty dogs and feeding us crumbs. Instead, through Jesus, He has made us clean and made us part of His family. God calls us His children and feeds us not with scraps, but with the bread of life.
What a wonderful gift for us to enjoy, and to share with anyone who will listen!