The big message of today’s reading is that it is what is inside us that matters to God, not the externals.
The Pharisees had taken a religion (the Jewish faith) that was born of God’s sheer unmerited grace to Abraham, with it’s law observance coming out of love, trust and obedience in God and made law-keeping the path to God. They had added to the law too and neglected the main thing – loving God, justice and mercy.
So here Jesus, in one stroke, tells us the ceremonial law is obsolete. It’s not the external observance, the food laws, the washing laws, that matter – it’s what’s in your heart. What comes out of our mouths reveals the state of our heart. It’s what is in our hearts that defiles us, outside of Christ, not whether we eat sausages or wash hands a certain way or not. We need Jesus to change our hearts and from there we are changed. Paul expresses it like this – If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, the old has gone and the new has come. (2 Cor 5:17). The prophet Ezekiel prophesied Jesus would do this “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
Then the rest of the passage is talking about how the people of God is now opened up to the Gentiles. The Canaanite woman, considered by the Pharisees in earshot as a mere dog is declared by Jesus to be of great faith! Note that Ancient Middle Eastern people didn’t consider dogs to be man’s best friend. They weren’t pets, they were pests! Interestingly both Jesus and the woman use the word for puppies – a subtle way of digging at the Pharisees “dogs” in a half-derogatory, half affectionate way.
Next Jesus moves on to another Gentile area to speak to the crowds and heal the sick – causing Gentiles to glorify the God of Israel.
Matthew’s Gospel was aimed, it is said by many commentators, at Jewish believers in Christ. Often, though, he is highly critical of the current state of Judaism, which was rejecting the Messiah, and showing how it is faith in Jesus that changes our hearts and brings both Jews and Gentiles into the new covenant people of God. This passage is the half way house of 10:5 “Do not go among the Gentiles” and 28:19 “Go and make disciples of all nations.” Jesus is widening who the people of God are to God’s original intention to Abraham “Through you all families of the earth will be blessed” Gen 12:1-13.