Well bred

     or the bread that makes well?

Week of Sunday August 17 - Pentecost
Gospel: Matthew 15:(10-20) 21-28

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said,2‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat arton.' <<Bread is left out in the NRSV  3He answered them, ‘And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4For God said,  “Honour your father and your mother,” and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” 5But you say that whoever tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God”,  then that person need not honour the father.  6So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word  of God. 7You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said: 
8 “This people honours me with their lips,
   but their hearts are far from me; 
9 in vain do they worship me,
   teaching human precepts as doctrines.” ’

10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, ‘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 offence when they heard what you said?’ 13He answered, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14Let them alone; << aphete: forgive they are blind guides of the blind. <<of the blind not in all manuscripts.  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.’

21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region <<horion = boundaries came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter <<note that her child will be compared unfavourably to the children of Israel 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 <<cf Matthew (18:12-14)  of the house of Israel.’ <<To contrast with Canaanites 25But she came and knelt << in Matthew, to kneel is to worship; eg like the magi before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ 26He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s arton <<specifically bread, not any kind of food and throw it to the dogs.’ <<Jews racially abused Gentiles by calling them 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.

Chapter 15 begins and ends with bread. It begins with the boundaries of the well bred which are exclusive and sickening. It ends with the bread which makes well.

As in all cultures, the boundaries are in place. John the Baptist was killed for challenging the boundaries and exclusions of the well bred. The irony, of course, is that the well bred of the palace were not well bred at all! They simply held the power to define who was in and who was out. When John challenged their breeding, they had him killed. Boundaries are an exercise of power.

Jesus destroys these boundaries with an act of godly power. Everyone is fed in the wilderness; being in favour with the palace is irrelevant. God does not live in palaces. God feeds the people in the wilderness— on the road— as God always has. (Exodus 16) There was bread left over.

But all cultures and all social systems have their boundaries: 5000 men were fed, and 12 (kophinos) distinctively Jewish baskets were left over. These are the numbers of Jewisness.

But by the end of Chapter 15 Jesus' own boundaries are so dissolved- his horizons so enlarged- that he reworks his great sign of the messianic feast of the kingdom. This time, 4000 men are fed. The number appears to be smaller, but is greater: four is a gentile number, like 'the four corners of the earth.' The seven baskets (spyris) are common baskets used by everyone at the time. In the tradition, seven is a gentile number: 70 nations, 70 missionaries, seven deacons to the Gentiles. (See Crotty Good News in Mark (Fontana 1975) pp 77)

Jesus also steps across gender boundaries in this chapter: Woman great is your faith! Petty says it is the only time in Matthew's gospel that anyone is called "great". Yet even Matthew only counts the men! There are always boundaries to cross— to transgress. As soon as we tell the good news of the kingdom we need an upstart outsider woman to break in and further enlarge the boundaries. 

As soon as we tell the good news of the kingdom we need an upstart outsider woman to break in and further enlarge the boundaries.


The loaves in Matthew 14:17 and 19 (the word is used 3 times in that verse) are all artous. The sound of artos, bread, echoes through the passages.
Chapter 15 begins with bread. For some reason it is translated out of the English, but the Greek specifically says the disciples do not wash their hands when they eat arton (bread.) And the children's food which has crumbs spilt under the table is arton. When Jesus repents and allows the woman to have bread her daughter is healed instantly. How much does the inclusive nature of the bread of the Eucharist make us well.

Tyre and Sidon are outside of Israel,' across the border.' Jesus goes to the district of Tyre and Sidon and is met by a woman who is described as being horion ekeinwn, from "the same boundaries." And the boundaries are then further defined in terms of the oldest of the hostilities of Jesus' people: she was a Canaanite.

People did not use the descriptor "Canaanite" so much in Jesus' time. Petty says

Matthew deliberately resurrects that word in order to underline the outsider status of the woman--not only is she a woman, not only a foreigner, not only unclean, but an ancient enemy besides!

The enmities are ancient. Noah said

Cursed be Canaan;
lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.... (Gen 9:25-27)

God says to Abraham

"And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God" (Gen 17:8). They were part of the people the Israelites were commanded by God to annihilate (Dt 20:17), which Joshua carried out partially as the people of Israel took over their land and cities. (Stoffregen)

Canaanites were not well bred. They were dogs. (15:26) The very identity of Israel rests in its distinction from Canaanites.

The Well Bred Eat Right
It is legendary that the upper class in England had a plethora of cutlery on the table so that one's breeding might be confirmed by one's knowledge— or confusion— of which implement to use, and when. It is said that a visitor to the Queen's table decided to settle his uncertainty over how to properly eat cherries by watching Her Majesty, and dutifully swallowed all the stones, only to find that she has hers pitted beforehand.

Matthew constructs an extended pun on food and eating. Food laws were a sign of one's ritual purity before God. Keeping the laws enabled right relationship with God. But Jesus saw that people honoured God "with their lips"— food laws and proffessions of faith— but not their hearts. Whilst eating with well washed hands they would still let their mother and father starve by also washing their hands of their God given responsibilities to honour parents. As so often, God was used to justify abuse and hypocrisy.

Defilement meant separation from God; being in the wrong relationship with respect to God. Defilement, he said, is not caused by what goes into you, but by what comes out: 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.’ (Matthew 15:18-20)

He is scathing toward those who 'worry about the cutlery' of life.

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.’ 

There's surely a message here for us when we get precious about the church kitchen!

A Masterchef Meltdown?
Then Jesus crosses the border to be confronted by his own preaching shouted back at him through the words of the woman.

At first he is paralysed. She says all the right things: Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David! There's more understanding and trust here than in much of Israel. Yet she shouts, demanding attention, breaking all the rules of male female behaviour. So he ignores her. (While the disciples disappear out the back door of the church.)

Petty says that "[i]n the honor/shame culture of that time, acknowledging the woman would also acknowledge that she had some kind of claim on you." Nothing has changed. We 'fail to see' the charity collector sitting outside the supermarket as we cross in front of her. Just as we 'don't notice' the drunk on the pavement as we step around him.

And if the woman should rattle her can, and refuse to be ignored, and suggest that rather than buying more food than we need, we help the poor, then we rationalise our way out of the situation: they are undeserving, they'll spend it on booze drink.  We even abuse her...

And Jesus did the same.

I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel, has no hint of apology or regret in it. It is pure racism that restricts God's healing and God's bread to one group of people. It shifts the boundaries of the well bred from the powerful of the palace to the ethnically pure. He may as well have said

Blessed by the LORD my God be Shem [ancestor of the "S(h)emites"]
and let Canaan be his slave.
May God make space for Japheth,
and let him live in the tents of Shem;
and let Canaan be his slave." Genesis 9:25-27 (Stoffregen)

She takes him at his word. She kneels before him in subjection. Kneeling in Matthew means worship.

It is not good to take the bread of the children of God and throw it to the dogs, bitch.

NRSV softens this. Not fair!? The Greek says not good. He plainly says is not good to help someone being crushed by evil because help is restricted to a chosen few.  It's the same logic that lets us bomb schools. Mercy and compassion is only for the chosen ones and you are not among them, you are not well bred.

We cannot hide from this. We must not water down the offence with claims that he engages in banter, or talk of puppies, or that he tests her faith. A fully human Jesus suffers racist preconceptions and cultural blinkers just like the rest of us. And like the rest of us, a fully human Jesus  will one day have a shouting woman, or refugee, or disabled person try and tear them off him.

How will he respond?

Yes Lord... She is still knelt before him! She is the one man standing before the tanks. She is the powerless mother of the disappeared, the Christians praying in the politician's office.  She has no power but the truth: yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table.

Are you truly Master, or are you a well bred pretender who has no food to spare?

He is fully human because like us he has limitations. He has to learn. His horizons need to be expanded. He is truly human— sinless— because, unlike us, when he sees how he has been fenced in, he does not shore up his defences. He lets the Spirit of God fill him with compassion. He gives bread to those who need it, not only those who are on "the inside." Jesus simply repents. Will we do the same?

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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