The Jigsaw Puzzle Gospel

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“The Jigsaw Puzzle Gospel”

Rev. Stephen Milton

August 20, 2023

Lawrence Park Community Church

Do you like jigsaw puzzles? Last weekend, I was at a friend’s cottage, and she was working on a jigsaw puzzle that had a thousand pieces. She had this cool board that she used to sort the puzzle pieces into categories – dark blue goes in this section, light colours go in this area, highly patterned pieces go into this divider. This makes it easier to find a piece as you are doing the puzzle. Some people start with the borders, others just start with obvious clumps that seem to go together. They find this process of sorting through the pieces very calming, mindful even, and it is a great way to spend a rainy afternoon.

Each of the gospels was like a jigsaw puzzle for the people who wrote them. The gospels were written decades after Jesus died. So, the gospel writers started with all sorts of stories that people remembered about what Jesus said or did. The stories weren’t all in order since Jesus travelled around a lot. People remembered what Jesus did in their town, but they didn’t know what he did in the next town. Often, decades later, no one could remember what order the events happened in, because they honestly didn’t know. Some people wrote down some of his sayings, the ones that really popped. The stories, the healings, the sayings – they were all like puzzle pieces lying in no particular order on a table. It was pretty obvious when Christ’s ministry began, and when it ended. Those borders were obvious. But the exact order that things happened in between, that was not clear at all to the gospel writers.

Today’s scripture reading seems to be about two separate episodes that just happened in that order. But the gospel writer may not have known about what order these events occurred. So, instead, it looks like he placed them in this order to make a spiritual point. 

The first story is pretty simple. The Pharisees complain that Jesus’ followers are eating in an unclean way because they don’t wash their hands first. This is 2000 years ago, so people don’t know about germs. The Pharisees are not complaining about a health issue, but about a ritual one. Temple rules say the priests should wash before they eat meat leftover from the sacrifices in the temple. They should wash off any impurity on their hands before they can be pure enough to eat.[1] But the Pharisees felt that to be a good Jew outside of the temple, those temple rules should apply to everyone. So, they are saying to Jesus, why don’t your disciples follow the strictest ritual rules? Jesus famously rejects this idea and says instead, it isn’t what goes into your mouth that you should worry about spiritually. You should worry about the words and thoughts that come out of your mouth. The thoughts of murder, of adultery, of slander. That’s what will defile you, that’s what threatens your spiritual state and endangers others.

This tension between the rules and our spiritual state still comes up in our day. Up until a few decades ago, most people came to church dressed quite formally. In the 1960s, it wasn’t unusual for ushers to be dressed in morning suits. Women came to church in fancy dresses, and men arrived in suits. In that time, if someone were to walk into church wearing jeans and a casual shirt, that could have caused quite a stir. Ushers may have encouraged them to sit at the back or in the balcony. All the people who bothered to put on uncomfortable clothes to honour the Lord would have been quite put out by what seemed like a sign of disrespect. What Christ is saying in today’s scripture is that that kind of disapproval is misplaced. Don’t worry about how someone looks – what matters is whether they harbour evil thoughts and intentions, whether they mean harm to others. That would be a real spiritual problem. 

Or, to put it another way, it is much easier to change your clothes than to change your mind. 

So, the first story in this chapter is about spiritual priorities. What makes an individual unclean? But that raises another question: what about whole cultures who are considered unclean? What does Jesus have to say about them if he’s changing the way we think of what makes us unclean? So, to address that question, Matthew chooses a story about Jesus visiting a city of Gentiles. That’s the next jigsaw puzzle piece. 

He tells the story of that time that Jesus and the disciples went to the Gentile cities of Tyre and Sidon, by the Mediterranean coast. We’re not told why he is here. Perhaps Jesus came here for a break from the Jews, who tended to mob him, asking for teachings and healings. All Gentiles were considered unclean, by definition. They ate the wrong foods, prayed to the wrong gods. They were all unclean. So, the question is whether Jesus will think about them differently, too.

When Jesus arrives, a woman approaches him, calling out loudly. “Heal my daughter!” Apparently, she knows about Christ’s reputation as a healer. Jesus ignores her at first. But she persists. And so, he tells her that he’s come for the children of Israel, not to share this spiritual bread with dogs. Dogs – that’s his way of describing the Gentiles. This gives you an idea of what Jews thought of them. Back them dogs were village parasites, not beloved pets as they are now. They were scavengers, who would eat anything, and they were considered unclean.[2] So, Jesus is saying to this woman, you’d ask any healer to help you, you don’t know me or what I am about. 

But this woman says something that surprises Jesus. She says that even dogs eat crumbs from their master’s table. She has taken Christ’s words and spun them back as spiritual insight. She can see that Jesus serves God, the Master. She may even see that Jesus is God in human form. For that insight, Jesus grants her wish, and the daughter is healed. Once again, the story uses ideas about eating to get across a spiritual message about who’s clean and unclean. This woman is inherently unclean because she is not a Jew. But, in the previous story, Jesus said that what makes a person spiritually suspect is not what they eat or their customs, but what they think. And here she shows the other side of that coin – she is carrying positive, loving, spiritually insightful thoughts, and for that reason she rises above her cultural definition as an unclean person.[3]

Now our gospel writer Matthew, who suppressed her name, has a big problem. If the quality of our thoughts is what defines us as clean or unclean, how do you police that? None of us know what’s going on in each other’s hearts and minds. That’s invisible, so what should we do to keep people in the clean and unclean categories?

To answer that question, Matthew provides one more story, which s is not in the lectionary reading today. But it should be, because it is the punchline to this whole question of clean and unclean. The story that comes next is one we all know – the feeding of the four thousand with a few fishes and loaves. It happens at the top of a mountain, far from the sea of Galilee. The people have been there for three days, and Jesus wants them to be fed before they go home, lest they collapse on the way. So, he multiplies a few fishes and loaves to feed them all.

Now, remember that this chapter started with a few disciples eating without washing their hands. Now we have thousands of people in the bush doing that. There’s no mention of water, so by the Pharisees standards, this a huge unclean meal.  The lesson seems pretty clear: care of a person’s health and wellbeing trumps religious decorum.

But there’s another problem. We know that Christ has already said that what matters most is intention of your heart. But if that’s what counts, then why does Jesus feed all these people?? There could be hundreds of hard-hearted people here, people who dream of committing adultery, murder, theft, people who slander others. What about all those people with unclean thoughts? And there could easily be some Gentiles here, what about those unclean people? Christ doesn’t get hung up on that, either. He feeds them all. Like he said to the disciples, those hurtful thoughts are your challenge, something you have to deal with in your spiritual growth. Others should not use them to deny you food or services. We should be like God, who delivers life-saving rain on the just and the unjust alike. Christ dines with sinners all the time, and he knows their thoughts. His goal is to help people, not to keep the jigsaw puzzle pieces separate.

And that’s something we need to keep in mind our day and age. It is so easy to keep the pieces apart and never bring them together to complete the puzzle. We may think we are doing ourselves a favour by refusing to talk or associate with people who hold very different views from our own. In the US, recently a Christian won a case in the Supreme Court. She ran a wedding website, and she didn’t want to do business with same sex couples. That would be against her religious values she said. As though their presence on her website would make her spiritually unclean somehow. Like the Pharisees, she wanted to keep all the jigsaw puzzle pieces separate so she could remain pure. The Court ruled in her favour.[4]

This idea that we can be made unclean by another person’s ideas is all over the place now. On the left, people often use political correctness to shun people who they disagree with, as though right-wing ideas are dangerously contagious. Similarly, on the Right, in  states like Florida and Texas, [5] children’s books are banned from schools and libraries because the mention of homosexuality might cause a straight kid to become gay.[6] People of all kinds are acting as though ideas they disagree with could make them unclean if they come too close. We want to keep the puzzle pieces in their separate categories in the name of personal purity. It appears that the Pharisee’s approach is back.

But that’s not Christianity. Jesus fed everyone, no questions asked. He saw a wonderful picture of humanity in all its variety on that mountaintop. People in every stage of spiritual understanding. There were people who were loving. They got fed. There were people with malice in their hearts. They got fed. There may have been some gentiles among them. They got fed. Faced by a crowd of people with hearts of all kinds, he fed them all, knowing that this feast might teach them more than any sermon. He made it clear to them and to us, that God doesn’t keep the jigsaw puzzle pieces in separate piles but brings them all together. The beauty of humanity’s puzzle is when it all comes together. It isn’t a complete puzzle until all the pieces are touching, pieces that are very different from each other. That’s the picture God wants to see. An image of people being fed, helping one another; one that feeds, one that heals, one that will keep us from collapsing on our way home. And that is a blessing.






[2] Huub van de Sandt, ‘Do Not Give What Is Holy to the Dogs' (Did 9:5D and Matt 7:6A): The Eucharistic Food of the Didache in Its Jewish Purity Setting” Vigiliae Christianae, Aug. 2002, Vol. 56, No. 3 (Aug. 2002), p 231ff.

[3] DONALD SENIOR, “Between Two Worlds: Gentiles and Jewish Christians in Matthew's Gospel,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, January 1999, Vol. 61, No. 1 (January 1999), pp. 12.

[4] Jess Bravin, “Supreme Court Rules Web Designer Can Refuse Work on Same-Sex Wedding Announcements,” Wall Street Journal, June 30, 2023


[6] HANNAH NATANSON, “Objection to sexual, LGBTQ content propels spike in book challenges,” Washington Post, JUNE 9, 2023.