Sunday, August 17, 2008

Matt.15.21-28, Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 17, 2008

And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out 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.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread 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, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15:21-28, ESV)

Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

“Great is your faith!” That’s what Jesus says about this Canaanite woman. It’s pretty amazing, considering that at first he doesn’t even listen to her. There she is crying out again and again, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” Have mercy on me… Have mercy on me… But [Jesus] didn’t answer her a word. Nothing at all. Not a peep… not a whisper… nothing at all. In fact, you might infer from the way that Matthew, the Gospel writer puts it, that Jesus flat out ignored her. But she’s persistent in her plea for help, so much so, that the disciples get tired of it. “Get rid of her. Tell her to go home. Remind her that she’s not worthy. Send her away, for she is crying out after us. If it doesn’t bother you, Jesus, we’re telling you now that she bugging the heck out of us.

It’s pretty clear what the disciples though of her. She was and outsider. Not a member of Club Jesus. She was outside the loop. A dirty beggar looking for a free handout. One of those folks that just take what you give for free and abuse it. If she gets a handout today, I’ll bet you’d find her buying cigarettes or beer tomorrow. She doesn’t even know how to keep quiet in church. Her kids were probably ill behaved, too. Can’t you see the looks she must have been getting? You know the ones. They say, “Hey, can’t you keep quiet, I can’t hear what Jesus is saying… to me. I can’t concentrate on Jesus with all your bellyaching.” Well, the disciples were just being human. They are reacting just as you and I react all the time. We are very careful in helping, or as the woman was asking, “showing mercy.” We like to hold back until we see a sign that the help we offer will be received correctly. We like to hold back until we see a sign that it will be received by a person who is worthy of our help. We hold back our real welcome until “unacceptable” behavior changes. After all we don’t want to be taken advantage of. We don’t want to be enable rotten behavior. But most of all we don’t want to act in any way that would give anyone the impression that we don’t value money. After all there’s nothing worse than wasting money on people who don’t deserve help. There is no greater sin than being over generous.

Well, maybe the disciples were taking their queue from Jesus. After all, he didn’t say anything to her. He didn’t encourage her. He didn’t rebuke her and tell her to be quiet. Nothing. So, the disciples must have thought that he was agreeing with the way they felt. They must have thought that all Jesus needed was a little nudging to get rid of the annoyance, so that they could all get back to the important business at hand… so that everything could get back to normal… without rude interruption. “Send her away…” they said to Jesus.

[Jesus] answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Those words might have set the disciples faces to grins. They might have even been thinking about turning to the woman and giving her the brush off. For once, something Jesus said seemed to agree with the way they were thinking. Instead of the phrase, “you of little faith…” Instead of feeling lost and confused, Jesus seemed to agree with what they thought. For once they were right, they thought. There was no place for this woman in their crowd. There was no place for this “non-jewish” woman among them. Her problems were hers to deal with. They had more important things to do. But the woman wasn’t about to cooperate. She took one last stab a Jesus’ attention. She pushed through the disciples to get to Jesus and fell at his feet, shouting, “Lord, help me!”

The next words Jesus speaks just don’t feel right. It’s not the kind of response to a hurting person that we expect from Jesus. We might scratch our heads in wonder, because the words seem callous… almost rude. It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. How could the man who let people touch the tassels of his robe to be healed say such a thing to a needy person? How could the man who restored a man’s withered hand begrudge this woman what she sought? How could the one who said, Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28, ESV) Turn this woman away.

But the woman’s response is also just as unexpected. Her response is really at the heart of what’s going on here. Her response opens up her heart and shows us what’s inside. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” At first look you might think that she’s disagreeing with what Jesus says. Especially the way it’s usually translated. “Yes, Lord, yet…” or “Yes, Lord, but…” But she’s what she’s saying is really more like “Of course not, Lord, the dogs get their own food from the scraps that fall from the table. The children are taken care of but so are the dogs. Each in a way that is appropriate. Think about the dog lover who drops food to the floor for the dog. The dogs aren’t neglected. They receive what’s left over from the table.

So what’s so great about what she says? What’s so profound? What’s so exceptional about the faith she expresses here? Well, this woman, this outsider, this gentile, is absolutely convinced that Jesus has something for her. She is sure that Jesus isn’t just for the disciples. She is sure that Jesus will help her. She shows it in her persistence. She shows it in her words. Her faith isn’t in her ability to speak to Jesus. It isn’t in the disciples. She has faith in Jesus. He is the one, the only one, who can save. Great faith is great not because of the one with faith but because of the object of that faith. She sees Jesus clearly as one who can and will help. She sees Jesus for who he really is… just as she spoke earlier, “O Lord, Son of David…” words that say she recognizes Jesus as the promised Savior of the Jews, but also as her promised Savior. The author of Hebrews says it like this, Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1, ESV)

“O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. Jesus heals the daughter. But don’t think of what Jesus does as a reward for the woman’s “Great faith.” It is nothing less than she expects from Jesus. Jesus heals because he is gracious. Jesus heals because he has mercy. Jesus heals to show that faith in him is well placed. He speaks his words of praise to her for the sake of the others who were listening. The disciples would have sent her away, like we might have done, too. It was Peter who rightly spoke that he wouldn’t leave Jesus because he had the words of eternal life. Yet, he expected this woman to be forced away. Faith held her there, faith in God through Jesus Christ. She would not be sent away.

I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?

My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. (Psalm 121:1-2, ESV)

Jesus demonstrates his exceptional mercy in action. He demonstrated it through the healing of the woman’s daughter… but he demonstrated it even more clearly at the cross. It was because his cries for mercy there went unanswered that God hears our cries for mercy now. God, the Father, turned his back on his only begotten son on the cross. It is the rejection that we should experience. It is the punishment that should be ours for disregarding the law of God. It is the punishment we earn for our unwillingness to give help where help is needed simply because we think it won’t be appreciated, or properly received. We should be sent away, outsiders from God, no better than that woman from Canaan. But, we too, know what she knew. Jesus is for us. Because of Jesus death and resurrection, we are gathered to God. It isn’t because we are worthy, quite the contrary we are wholly unworthy. It’s because we have faith in Jesus to be for us exactly what he promises to be, and to do for us exactly what he promise to do.

Martin Luther once said, “Faith clings to the Word in the heart and does not doubt the Word.” What he means is this:

I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers. On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ. This is most certainly true. (Luther’s Small Catechism, The Creed)

That’s the great faith that Jesus is talking about. The faith that the Canaanite woman had, believing that Jesus was for her. That’s what we believe too. Jesus for me, Jesus for you. Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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