A sermon delivered by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, Farmville Baptist Church, Farmville, Va., on August 14, 2011.
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 15:21-28; Romans 11:1-2, 29-32
Who deserves God’s mercy? This is a question that is addressed in today’s scripture lessons. In our Gospel lesson from Matthew, we see a religious and social outcast—a Canaanite woman—approaching Jesus and his disciples. In Jesus’ day, respectable women did not just come up and approach a group of men, if you know what I mean. Even worse, she was a Canaanite—one of the traditional enemies of the Jews. But worst of all, she was a Canaanite woman who didn’t know how to shut up! When she saw Jesus, she started shouting and yelling and creating a commotion: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David. My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession. Have mercy on me! Lord!” Here we find a woman beside herself, throwing caution into the wind, making a fool of herself on behalf of her sick daughter, urgently pleading to the Lord Jesus for mercy and help.
And Jesus said . . . nothing. “He did not answer a word,” the scriptures recorded.
Getting no response, she continued: “Have mercy on me, Lord! Please help my daughter!”
By this point, the disciples had had enough. They went to Jesus and said, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
And Jesus answered—perhaps to the disciples, perhaps to the pleading woman, perhaps to himself, perhaps to no one in particular: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Jesus was basically saying that his ministry was to the Jews and not to the Gentiles.
But before the disciples could send her away, the woman worked her way through the group and approached this man she calls Lord. Here we find a woman who had no leg to stand on—in terms of her nationality, her morality, her religion, or her gender—literally falling on her knees in a posture of worship to beg: “Lord, help me!”
To this humbled woman, Jesus replies, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
OUCH! What has come over Jesus, you may ask? Boy, is he off his game today! This is not the Jesus that I know, the one who speaks a pastoral word, who touches the untouchable, who socializes with the outcasts. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus shows mercy to tax collectors and sinners, he heals the sick, he feeds the multitudes. This is the one time in this Gospel that Jesus seems reluctant to meet a need, and he ends up calling a poor, worried woman a “dog.” This is a real insult, in our day and in Jesus’ day, and interpreters have spilled a lot of ink trying to explain away this statement by Jesus. Some say he was testing her, some say he was teaching her humility, some say he was still coming to terms with the idea of ministering to both Jews and Gentiles. However, in my mind, none of these explanations can smooth out Jesus’s harsh tones.
So let’s call a spade a spade and admit that what Jesus said was harsh. Jesus could have been more diplomatic by saying, “Well, charity begins at home, and it’s not fair to meet the needs of those outside our family of faith, when there are so many children within our own family that need the food.” But he doesn’t. He calls the woman a dog. Matthew’s original readers would certainly have understood it as an insult. Jews considered dogs to be scavengers and unclean. Most references to dogs in the Bible are negative. But instead of being offended by Jesus’ saying like we are today, Matthew’s original Jewish readers would have heartily agreed with Jesus’ sentiment. “You go, Jesus! Preach it! It ISN’T fair to take food from us God’s chosen children, and waste it on them Gentile dogs. God doesn’t hear the prayers of Gentiles!”
Poor woman. What was she to do? Have you ever been so desperate for what you need that you’re willing to face harsh opposition? Have you ever been so desperate for healing that you’re willing to make a fool of yourself only to find God seemingly silent and unresponsive? Have you ever felt that your own minister or fellow congregants have turned you away or neglected your needs? Pastor Todd Weir writes: “That’s why it is so hard when our feelings get hurt at church. We expect to experience the sacred grace of God when we come to church or approach a minister, but if we are hurt or overlooked or insulted for the moment, then it affects our core spirit…. This is what disturbs us in this Gospel lesson. How could Jesus compare anyone to a dog or say a thing like that? This story hits us in a place of fear that maybe God finds us to be really annoying and unacceptable. We don’t belong; we’re just unclean dogs who don’t deserve the children’s food.”
Hear Jesus’s words again: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” It is undeniably disturbing. But the great thing about this Canaanite woman is that she seems unfazed by Jesus’ words. No does not slink away in dejection. She does not get mad and trade insults. No matter how she interpreted Jesus’ words, she understood even more the power of God’s mercy. This lowly woman who was not even supposed to talk to man, much less argue with one, continues in her quest. She replies to Jesus, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She had such faith in God’s mercy that she knew a crumb from the master’s table would suffice.
Her words stop Jesus in his tracks, and he responds, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed instantly. This is the only place I can find in the Gospel of Matthew where someone won a theological argument with Jesus. He tied the wisest biblical scholars in knots, but this woman had the best of Jesus! It is almost as though Jesus could not stop himself from responding to faith wherever he found it, whether among Jews OR Gentiles. Do you remember earlier in the story, when Jesus compares the woman to a dog? We modern folk take offense, but Jesus’s disciples had no problem with it. Now here, at the end of the story, things are flipped a little. When Jesus grants the woman’s request, we modern readers breathe a sigh of relief and say, “Whew! Atta boy! That’s the Jesus I know and love!” Yet Matthew’s Jewish readers probably got really disturbed at this point and exclaimed, “WHAT?! A Gentile, Canaanite WOMAN, having great faith?! Has Jesus lost his mind?” It was hard for Jews to comprehend that God would show mercy toward Gentiles.
In our Epistle lesson today, the tables were turned. Paul was addressing Gentile Christians in Rome who were having a hard time comprehending that God would show mercy toward the Jews who had rejected Jesus. In one short generation, the first Gentile Christians moved from a position of gratitude that they had been welcomed into the family of God to a position of thinking poorly of Jews, God’s originally chosen children. That’s why Paul reminded them, “Are you forgetting that I myself was born a Jew? Even though Jews may have rejected Jesus, God will not reject them. You may see them as disobedient, but at one time, you also were just as disobedient. And just as God was merciful toward you in your disobedience, God will also be merciful toward others in their disobedience. For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.”
In our condemnation of others, how quickly we forget that we too were recipients of God’s mercy! Because of sin, we all were in God’s “dog house.” Because of God’s mercy, we are now God’s children. But God is still working to overcome our prejudice against the present-day “dogs” of our society. Perhaps they are Jews. Perhaps they are the Muslims in our community. Perhaps they are people of another race. Perhaps they are the gays and the lesbians. Perhaps they are the poor who are unemployed or on welfare. Perhaps they are undocumented immigrants. Perhaps they are you and me. We are quick to condemn others; but sometimes we’re just as quick to condemn ourselves. Remember Romans 8:1: Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. None of us, no matter what our race, our religion, our moral status, our economic level, none of us are beyond the mercy of God. Someone once said: Grace is what God gives us when we don’t deserve, and mercy is when God doesn’t give us what we do deserve.
Paul reminds us that we are all disobedient. All have sinned, and we all deserve death. We are all in need of God’s mercy. And God is ready to show His mercy to all. For God’s gifts and God’s call are irrevocable. We may be outcasts, we may have been labeled unworthy, and it may seem that God himself is unwilling to hear our cries. But the good news is this, if we approach Him in faith, if we assume the posture of that Canaanite woman – dropping to our knees, yet approaching the Lord in confidence, our Lord will welcome us to the table, not as a dog to receive crumbs, but as a child to partake of the Bread of Life. And on this Communion Sunday, our Lord shows his mercy to all by offering this table and inviting all his followers to come and eat. Amen.
Leadership coach and church consultant at MichaelKCheuk.com. He is a Good Faith Media governing board member, who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.