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St Matthew 15:21-28

Pastor Dean M. Bell

Pentecost 9, Proper 15, series A
Unknown Location  

Sun, Aug 14, 2011 

+In Nomine Iesu+

+In Nomine Iesu+

Pentecost 9

St Matthew 15:21-28

14 August 2011

Sometimes it's good to compare what we find in one week's gospel reading with what we find the next week.  This morning we'll do a bit of that and see what happens.


Last week the gospel centered round Jesus walking on the water.  We were told that while the disciples were rowing across the Sea of Galilee Jesus had gone off to pray.  Late in the night - in the fourth watch - He came to them, walking upon the water.  The fourth watch is that period between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m.  It's a time of twilight.  Twilight is a hard time for people's vision.  Eyes have a hard time focusing during twilight.  Neither fully light, nor fully dark, things become indistinct.  Thus, when Jesus comes walking toward the disciples, they think they're seeing a ghost.  Eyes are of little help.  It is ears that must be depended upon.  "Take heart; it is I.  Do not be afraid."  Jesus' speaking makes all the difference.  The sound of His voice made clear what eyes were unable to establish.


By contrast, this morning's text is all about hearing.  Simply seeing Jesus really won't do this Canaanite woman much good.  She wants to hear something - she needs to hear something.  She wants to hear a promise from Jesus.  Her first statement lays out the problem and establishes why she believes Jesus can help.  "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon."  There's the whole thing in a nutshell.  She seeks mercy for her demon-possessed daughter.  Somehow she has heard about Jesus.  Somehow she knows the promises of the Old Testament - promises concerning the Son of David that include gentiles like her.  Somehow she has put it all together.  And somehow she has come to believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah who will mediate God's promises to and for the world.


It strikes us as utterly amazing.  Peter heard a promise from Jesus without even asking for one.  But, what this woman most needs from Jesus isn't forthcoming at all - even when she begs.  Needing to hear Jesus' promise, she hears only silence.  Is she defeated?  Is it hopeless?  Does she give up?  No, even though Jesus seems to be of no help.  Finally Jesus speaks to her.  "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."  Now the woman's assault on Jesus is pared to its barest essentials.  She sinks to the ground before Jesus in supplication.  "Lord, help me."  No explanations.  No rambling monologue.  No defense of herself.  No excuse as to why she's come.  Just the first-century equivalent of the Kyrie that we pray every Sunday.  "Lord, have mercy upon us."


What has happened?  This woman has heard something in Jesus' words that has given her hope.  Yes, she is grasping at straws, but that's what straws are for.  They are the battered reeds that God will not break off, the smoldering wicks that He will not put out.  Jesus has made a statement.  "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."  Those words sound as if they leave this Canaanite woman out.  But, the woman has also 'heard' what Jesus hasn't said.  He hasn't said, "And you're not one of them, so beat it!" The woman takes the lack of a definite "no" from Jesus and turns it into a "yes."  Mom says to her kids, "Don't wander too far, it's soon time for supper," and the kids say, "Well, she didn't say we couldn't go anywhere."  Mom meant, "Stay put," but the kids heard, "Here we go."


Now something new is added.  Jesus keeps talking to the woman.  That gives her more hope even if what Jesus says seems less than positive.  "It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs."  Did you notice Jesus' play on words?  His reference to "children" isn't hard to figure out.  Those are the Israelites.  But who are the dogs?  Think for a moment.  "Canaanite" - "canine."  Sound a lot alike, don't they?  Nowadays such talk would be cause for taking offense.  "He called me a dog!" Did He?  Maybe.  But the woman accepts the statement and turns it to her advantage.  "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."  She doesn't demand a seat at the table.  She doesn't even mind being called a dog.  She's content with the crumbs - the leftovers - of God's mercy.  Interesting, isn't it, that when 5000 were fed there were twelve baskets full left over.  There was more at the end than at the beginning - lots more.  And in the meantime everyone had been satisfied.  Crumbs are enough.  And the crumbs will never run out.


Now, let's compare.  Last week Peter began walking to Jesus on the water.  Peter - one of the disciples.  Really, Peter the chief of the disciples.  He heard Jesus say "come" and off he went.  Then he looked round and saw the wind and became frightened.  And in his fright he began to sink.  And what does Jesus say to him?  "O you of little faith, why did you doubt?" Peter trusted his eyes more than his ears.


This week we see a gentile woman.  Even more, she's a Canaanite.  A citizen of that nation that historically was an enemy of Israel.  Her pleas for mercy are first met with deafening silence.  Then she hears what many would consider to be a 'no' wrapped in a racial slur.  Ample reason to storm off in a huff.  But, no.  This woman persists.  And what is Jesus' verdict concerning her?  "O woman, great is your faith!" Amazing.  The Israelite - Peter, the 'rock' - is brought low.  And the Canaanite woman - the dog - is exalted.


What are we to make of all this?  Is God fair?  That's an odd question, isn't it?  St Paul wonders aloud about that question in Romans 9.  "Does not the potter have a right over the clay. . .?" Or, as we might say it, "can't the creator be allowed to do as He wishes with His creation?" The answer is yes.  St Paul says it this way: "So then He has mercy on whomever He wills, and He hardens whomever He wills."  To be blunt, God will do as He wishes, and He doesn't owe us an explanation!


So, what do we do?  What about us gentiles - us Canaanites - us dogs?  Where do we fit in this text?  Way back in the Old Testament the prophet Hosea recorded this promise from God for us outsiders.  "I will call those who were not My people, 'My people,' and her who was not beloved, 'beloved.' And it shall be that in the place where it was said to them, 'You are not My people,' there they shall be called sons of the living God."  That's you, my friends.  "Sons of the living God."


How do you know?  Because God has given you something to believe in.  He has baptized you, thus making you His own.  And along with that He has made promises to you.  Listen to St Paul again.  "But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.  Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.  For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life."  That's Romans 5.


Now you can begin to see why God brings you to His Church Sunday after Sunday.  Like Peter we are prone to doubt.  Satan directs our attention to the storms of life and we become uncertain.  "Can Jesus really help me in my situation?  Does He really want to help me in my situation.  Does God even care about my situation?" There's the doubt - the unbelief - of Peter.  There's doubt, stirred up and served hot by Satan.  But then Jesus turns the tables on unbelief.  Those who deserve to be only outsiders - us - those Jesus brings in.  No longer a 'dog' who must tremble under the table of the Lord, you are given places of honor.  And crumbs turn into banquets of bread and wine - a continuous banquet of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Jesus - spoken into your ears and poured into your mouth for your forgiveness and eternal life.


St John said it all, dear friends, when he penned these words: "See how great a love the Father has bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God, and such we are."  Indeed.  "Such we are," by the mercy of God who hears our plea even before our words are fully formed.  Hears our plea for mercy and removes our doubt.  The decision has been rendered, dear friends, and the 'ears' have it.  Thanks be to God!


+Soli Deo Gloria+

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