Cleanliness and Godliness

A Reflection for Proper 15, Year A.

Homily prepared for Red Door Healing Service, Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church August 18, 2017

Matthew 15: 10-28

Jesus called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just 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.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.


One of the first classes that I took in seminary assigned us to read a book, Unclean, by Richard Beck.  This was a really fascinating read for me because it brought together psychological research about our cognition and behavior…what we think, and what we do…and considered this through the lens of faith.  One of the studies Beck talks about is an experiment conducted by psychologists Zhong and Liljenquist around our associations between physical cleanliness and moral purity.* In the study, the experimental group and the control group were both asked to recall a time when they experienced a moral failure.  To put it more bluntly, they were basically asked to think of some time they felt guilty about what they did or as we might say…to think of some sin they had committed, or a time they fell short of their own moral code.  Then, both groups were asked to voluntarily assist one of the graduate assistants with some tasks.  In other words, they first had to think of a bad thing that they felt defiled them, then they were asked to engage in a good thing, voluntary helping, presumably acting with greater morality.  Now, if you know how behavioral experiments work, one group is usually given some condition which is different than the other.  So, in the experimental group, the participants were given hand wipes.  That’s it.  In between thinking of their moral failure and being invited into positive moral action, they could physically cleanse their hands.  Any guesses as to what happened?

Well, it turns out that those who cleaned their hands physically were much less likely to agree to voluntarily help others.  Only 41% of those who used a wipe to cleanse their hands were likely to volunteer, whereas 74% of those in the control condition volunteered to help.   This held true in multiple repetitions and across groups of people.  It seems that we human beings psychologically associate our physical actions to make ourselves clean as having some moral value, protecting us from our failures and giving us a sense that we are morally cleansed just from the physical act of cleaning our hands.

OK, all this is fascinating, but you may be wondering, what does this have to do with our Gospel reading for today?  I think if we understand this very human association we make between physical behaviors and moral virtue, we can understand Jesus’ teachings…and even his own actions in this portion of the Gospel…a bit better.

When we enter into this portion of scripture, Jesus is in the midst of challenging some very common assumptions among the crowds, wrapped in with their religious and customary practices of the day.  There are many purity codes within religions…in this case, the Jewish religion as this was Jesus’ own context.  These codes and behavioral prohibitions existed for important reasons…to keep the community healthy, strong, and working smoothly.  There is nothing inherently wrong or bad about these codes of conduct.  The lists of behaviors and requirements of action were a part of the culture of this particular people at this particular time.  And it’s no different for us…our personal beliefs, our families, our communities, our religious faith, our culture often give us rules that in a particular context and time may be helpful to keeping the community well.  Jesus didn’t approach the crowd to say, “do whatever you want and toss the rules out the window!” Instead, Jesus was teaching within this rule-following crowd that it isn’t the specific lists of actions and behaviors which defile us…for example, eating the wrong thing, not washing one’s hands or being physically contaminated by something considered impure…but, instead, it is the intentions of the heart from which our actions emerge, “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and that is what defiles.”

How much easier is it to cleanse our hands than it is to cleanse our hearts?

Think about that from the perspective of that psychology study.  We all hold onto thoughts and experiences where we know we weren’t exactly pure.  Let’s just be real about that.  Do we really think that a handi-wipe is going to assuage our guilt?  While it isn’t logical, apparently, we do.  It gives us a superficial sense of our worthiness and moral superiority to engage in an action that makes us feel physically clean.  Does this cleanse our hearts?  Of course not.  It just makes us feel better about ourselves.  But the inner intention of the heart…which in the face of actions we regret is often our own selfishness…is allowed to thrive.  Those who conducted that study also asked the two groups follow up questions about their feelings and found that the act of physical cleansing was associated with people feeling less guilty and ended up with people who were generally unhelpful feeling morally justified for not helping.   The moral guilt of the control group, on the other hand, prompted them to reconsider their motives and act in more helpful and altruistic ways.  The state of the heart (in this case, helpfulness and altruism toward another person) had a direct impact on people’s desire to actually help.  But, for some, their self-assurance through physical self-cleansing got in the way.

This, I think, is what Jesus is teaching: sometimes our self-assurance in our own attempts at cleanliness can keep us from experiencing Godliness…what is truly holy.

What follows in this Gospel is a chunk of scripture that I wrestle with, as do many others.  I want to think of Jesus as perfect; I want his divinity to suggest perfection and blamelessness in the face of all that this human life offers.  This story reminds us that Jesus is fully divine and fully a human being, living in a society that like ours where some classes and people are privileged over others.  His encounter is with someone who is socially outcast not on her own merits, but because she is a Canaanite.  And, let’s just call it: she is also a woman.  There were strict codes about how much contact and of what kind someone could have with those who were considered outsiders…defiled…impure.  Both Jesus and his disciples were just going along with the social norms: keeping distance, even reminding the woman of her lesser social standing.  This section really is just as awful as it sounds.  I’ve wondered, as I’ve sat with it this week, if its there because it is so embarrassingly human that we feel the need to minimize and dehumanize other groups of people.  Do I even need to draw the inference that this mirrors plenty of the hate-speak and oppressive talk that we hear today?  Perhaps its inclusion in the canon of the scriptures serves as an awakening moment that none of us…not even Jesus…are immune to the effects of minimizing others in an attempt to reinforce our own goodness.

But in today’s Gospel, something different happens.  This human being…a Canaanite woman…recognizes Jesus as “Son of David” which is shorthand for her acknowledgement of Jesus as Messiah.  She sees the holy within, not the collusion with the social sin that defiles.  When holy meets holy, healing happens.

Healing, it turns out, is inner grace.  Healing rests with God: to heal our brokenness, to realign ourselves with an inner design in the image and likeness of God.  God’s grace is not a handi-wipe offering superficial physical self-cleaning.  God’s grace purifies the soul, and changes all of what comes out of us to reflect actions of healing love.

No matter where you find yourselves in this story…attempting to get all the behaviors just right so that you can feel clean; moving in circles minimizing others to make yourself feel better; socially outcast; reaching out for healing; eating the crumbs of the table others have left for the dogs…it is the inner core of divine healing and grace which presents another way entirely. That holiness can reside in the hearts of people in all of those social spaces, from the high and mighty to those living at the margins.  Holy recognizes holy, and it is in that space that true healing happens.

*Beck, Richard (2011).  Unclean: Meditations on purity, hospitality, and morality.  Eugene, OR: Cascade Books.


Photo by Nheyob (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

About harasprice

Professor of Social Work and Priest in The Episcopal Church, parent, teacher, learner, writer, advocate, and grateful traveller along this journey through life
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