10th Sunday after Pentecost, August 17, 2014; Year A
Isaiah 56.1-8; Psalm 67; Romans 11.1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15.10-28
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
Grace and peace to you from the One who is merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy,” Jesus teaches his disciples in Matthew, chapter 5, verse 7. Here in chapter 15 of our Gospel reading we meet a woman who cries out to Jesus for mercy on behalf of her daughter, even falls at his feet begging, “Lord, help me…” and Jesus calls her a dog. Of course we know this is not the end of the story, but his initial response to the woman is unsettling and shocking.
I have a love/hate relationship with this story. I dislike it because of how Jesus initially address and treats the woman who is pleading with him for mercy. I hardly know what to do with it. I’m disappointed in the disciples who try and convince Jesus to send her away. Jesus doesn’t send her away like they want him to, but he does ignore the woman and calls her a dog.
No matter how many times I read this story and even with its eventual result of mercy and healing, Jesus’ choice of language still bothers me. Jesus does not do or say what I expect him to in this story, especially in relationship to his teaching about showing mercy.
All kinds of interpretations of this story try to soften Jesus’ language and response. Oh, he was referring to her as a little puppy; Using reverse psychology, he was trying to teach his disciples a lesson; He knew he would help her all along; He was being definitive in his mission to and through Israel, the chosen people…he couldn’t help everyone who came to him.
These are just a few ways people try and deal with Jesus’ harsh language and response to the woman.
Another interpretation I find compelling and interesting, which is one of the ways why I love this story, is that this is possibly a very human moment for Jesus. Still, he is grieving from his cousin, John’s, murder, he has people coming to him for help 24/7, he is criticized often by religious authorities, just the day before he fed thousands of people and healed many, and he just calmed a wind storm on the water after his chosen 12 failed to trust in him, particularly Peter, whom he deemed having little faith.
All this has the potential to get to anyone, even God in the flesh.
We do not know why Jesus goes to the region of the Canaanites. True, it might have been for the purpose of expanding the proclamation of the Kingdom of God; yet, perhaps it was to try and have a break from the incessant on-slot of people. Much to his dismay, his fame and ability to heal had spilled over even to the ears of a person who was not chosen…a lowly foreign woman with a demon-possessed daughter.
Mission-focused to Israel, tired and needing a break, culturally raised to think of Canaanites and women as less than Jews and men, Jesus has a very human moment. A woman is following after him continuingly crying out, begging and shouting for mercy from the One she knew could help her and her daughter. Perhaps annoyed or crabby or tired, who knows, Jesus, fully God and yet fully human, ignores her and calls her a dog when pressed.
Even though this is troubling, I can’t help but be thankful for it. Jesus is real and becomes frustrated with people sometimes. He gets tired and needs breaks. Jesus is God to whom we can all relate in some small way.
There are rare moments in Scripture like this one when we can really see and know that Jesus is truly human, but especially in his death on the cross. We have an incarnate God who becomes human who is susceptible to death, and even has a few crabby moments here and there.
There are many other reasons why I love this story so much. It is a story that shatters the boundaries of gender, social status, religion, and ethnicity. One courageous woman’s great faith drives her past all social norms to the God in the flesh; the One she knows can heal her daughter. Maybe sometimes desperation can lead to faith, either way, her great faith shows forth in her persistence, her trust in Jesus, and her belief that he indeed could help her in her time of need.
This is her great faith. Not walking on water like Peter, not moving mountains, not performing a miracle, but through asking for mercy from Christ who had the power to give it to her.
Only two times in the whole Gospel of Matthew does Jesus name people with great faith: the centurion in chapter 8 and this woman, both of them not of the house of Israel. One is a Roman soldier and the other a foreign woman.
I love this story because the woman is incredibly wise. She does not become offended when Jesus ignores her and she responds to being called a dog brilliantly: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table (Matt. 15.27).”
She does not deny Jesus’ original mission to Israel or even her status as low as a dog in the world, but rather, reminds Jesus that Israel’s purpose as a chosen people was to be a light to the nations. Nations like Canaan.
God’s mercy and love even from the very beginning was intended to overflow to all people of every tribe and nation. Of course we hear this in the Isaiah reading: “…for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
What is so amazing about Jesus’ encounter and conversation with the Canaanite woman is that there is a shift in the Gospels, especially in Matthew and Mark (encounter with the Syrophenician woman) to where Jesus’ mission becomes more and more inclusive of Gentiles, people not of the house of Israel. Then, the very last chapter in Matthew Jesus commissions his disciples to go to all nations and peoples. The Canaanite woman and her daughter are now included in the promise as we are too here today.
This story keeps me on my toes. I think I know Jesus and what is he going to do and then he surprises me. There is always more to learn and know about the One who has died and rose from the dead for you and me.
This is a very messy story, like our lives can be sometimes. Maybe that’s why I love and hate it so much. It’s real. It does not deny suffering in the world and people’s need for a savior. The woman cries out to Jesus for mercy because of the suffering in her family’s life.
All around the world and here in our community, here on this campus, here in our own lives, we hear cries for mercy. Kyrie Eleison we sing often at the beginning of worship, which means, Lord, have mercy. In our prayers: Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer. We name the pain in our lives and in the world and we cry out together to the One who has already given his life for sake of the world.
If you have turned on the television, read the newspaper or talked with anyone lately, you will see and know of some of the terrible realities going on in the world for which we, as people of faith, are implored to ask for mercy from God.
Boko Haram and his ravaging of lands and people in Nigeria…Lord, have mercy. Ebola and the lives it is claiming to death and fear…Lord, have mercy.
The genocide that is happening in Gaza strip…Lord, have mercy.
The making of child soldiers in South Sudan…Lord, have mercy.
The tens of thousands of young people crossing the boarder to escape gang violence in Central America…Lord, have mercy.
Robin William’s suicide and all others who suffer from mental illness…Lord, have mercy.
Unarmed teens being shot dead in the street…Lord, have mercy.
Those who go hungry…Lord, have mercy.
Those with no place to lay their head at night…Lord, have mercy.
Those whose lives are overtaken by addiction…Lord, have mercy.
People battling cancer or chronic illness…Lord, have mercy.
Young girls and boys who are trafficked around the world…Lord, have mercy. Those who think they have no hope in this life…Lord, have mercy.
For what else do we ask for God’s mercy?
We could go on and on. Our cries to God for mercy and our faith, yours and mine, are needed in this world. It is why we pray, “your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” It is why we proclaim the mystery of faith, “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.” This faith sustains us in the awful realities of this world.
Faith is still crying out for mercy even when we may not be able to see results. We, as people of faith, proclaim another reality….that mental illness, war, addiction, violence, even death do not and will not have the last word. We have a merciful God. The way God has determined to be God is through mercy and radical inclusion. You are given mercy; you are included in the promises of God.
When Jesus encountered the woman, his death on the cross had not happened yet, but she insisted on an Easter event (N.T. Wright, “Matthew for Everyone: Part I”…for healing to come to her daughter and God’s salvation to reach all people. Let us continue to ask our merciful God for mercy as Christ encourages us on: “People of Heart River, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
Let us all be Easter, resurrection people like the Canaanite woman, longing and asking for mercy in our lives and our world, trusting and believing that God indeed is making all things new.