Sermon for Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Aug. 17, 2014
St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis, Texas
Sermon Text: Matthew 15:21-28
Sermon Theme: “And That’s a Fact!”
(Sources: Emphasis Online Commentary; Emphasis Online Illustrations; Believer’s Bible Commentary; original ideas; Anderson’s Cycle A Preaching Workbook; Harpers Bible Dictionary)
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, seriously stated once, “Christ cannot possibly have been a Jew. I don’t have to prove that scientifically. It is a fact.”
Of course it was not a fact; Jesus was indeed a Jew. Stating that something is true because you say it is true is a gross fallacy in reasoning. To say that the Jesus we see in our sermon text is not the real Jesus would be such a fallacy.
That’s why our sermon text for this morning is one of those texts which many pastors and Bible study groups want to avoid. On the surface, in the text Jesus sounds pretty harsh and very unlike the gentle Savior we know and love. Can it be? Jesus insulted the Canaanite woman, humiliated her, and caused her mental anguish before He finally granted her request! Not like Jesus at all, is it?
When the Canaanite woman comes to Jesus and asks Him to help her daughter who is severely oppressed by a demon, our text says, “He did not answer her a word.” Then the disciples beg Jesus to send her away because she is crying out at them. He says to her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” She keeps begging for His help, and he answers, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Sounds like He is calling her a dog, doesn’t it? These seem like pretty cruel things to say, even though He does finally decide to help her. Let’s look at the facts.
First, let’s look at the backdrop for this. Keep in mind that Jesus has been pursued by the crowds, has preached, healed and helped in many ways. He and His disciples were tired, and they withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon in Phoenicia for rest, — that might be far enough away to get some rest. As far as we know, this was the first time in our Lord’s ministry that He went outside of Jewish territory, but of course that didn’t stop people from coming to Him.
The Canaanites were pagans, even worshipping gods who required human sacrifice, and they were enemies of the Jews. These were the descendants of the Canaanites Joshua had defeated and pretty much annihilated. Not only was the woman a foreigner, she was the worst kind, — a Canaanite. She was a woman, she was without a man, and she had a demon-possessed daughter. On a scale of bad news, she was even lower than the Samaritan woman Jesus later befriended at the well.
It was God’s will that Joshua conquer and destroy most of the Canaanites. The Jews were God’s chosen people. That’s a fact. When the woman first approached Jesus, she said, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David . . .” The title, “Son of David,” was the term Jews used to refer to the Messiah, whether He was still to come or whether He was Jesus. Jews believed that a Gentile, that is, a non-Jew, had no right whatsoever to address the Messiah in such a way, — because only they were the chosen people.
William Barclay says the significance of this text is that it “foreshadows the going out of the gospel to the whole world; it shows us the beginning of the end of all the barriers.”
OK, so what do we do with the seemingly un-Christ-like things Jesus does and says?
Well, I suppose that one way you could interpret this story is that Jesus was joshing with the woman, — but wait, — while the woman’s daughter is tormented by demon possession, Jesus is joking? And calling her a dog is said in jest? No way!
Another approach to interpreting the story might be that Jesus changed His mind, that He had a reason for being reticent. But Jesus isn’t wishy-washy. Our Lord of Lords and King of Kings isn’t going to struggle with “Am I going to help her, or am I not going to help her.” No, that doesn’t fly either.
The most logical approach is that Jesus is testing her faith, as she did prove in the end that she had great faith. You remember He showed his astuteness when encountering another foreign woman, the Samaritan woman at the well. When He said to her in John 4, “Go, call your husband and come back,” and she replied, “I have no husband,” He knew before He said it that she had no husband and was in fact a woman of bad reputation. No doubt He was testing the Samaritan woman to see if she would lie to Him.
When the Canaanite woman first asks the Lord to help her, our text says, “But He did not answer her a word.” She is persistent and asks again. Folks interpret this scene with “She wouldn’t take no for an answer.” But that is not the case. He never said “no” to her! What she chose was not to take silence for an answer, so she persisted and received what she needed. There is not one instance in any of the gospels where Jesus did not respond positively to a cry for mercy, even though that response may not have been immediate. He never said “no.” This tells us that we should never be embarrassed to repeat our cries for mercy to the Lord.
Both in the Parable of the Persistent Widow and the Parable of the Persistent Friend at Midnight, Jesus showed “persistence” as not only a virtue but a very important one. The Canaanite woman’s faith enabled her to be persistent, although Jesus’ first answer was silence.
Sometimes God seems deaf to our pleas for help. We hear only an echo of our cry for mercy rather than an answer, it seems. When this happens, we ought not give up but keep on storming the gates of heaven. God responds to the entreaties of those who continue to seek his mercy. This is not to say that God will always give us what we ask, but that He will help those who approach Him with a persistent faith.
The second time the woman asks for help, she does not address Jesus as “Son of David,” the Jews-only term for the Messiah, but says simply, “Lord.” His answer again sounds harsh, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” The Greek word for dogs here is something like “little dogs,” or the small household dogs that sit under the table waiting for scraps of food (and that is made clear in another gospel account of this incident). So, it’s not quite as strong of a term as it sounds.
“Her reply was magnificent,” says William MacDonald. “She agreed with His description completely. Taking the place of an unworthy Gentile, she cast herself on His mercy, love, and grace. She said, in effect, ‘You are right! I am only one of the little dogs under the table. But I notice that crumbs sometimes fall from the table to the floor. Won’t You let me have some crumbs? I am not worthy that You should heal my daughter, but I beseech You to do it for one of Your undeserving creatures.’”
His reply to her is: “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire,” and her daughter was healed instantly.
She was speaking the facts, just as He spoke the facts. And the beautiful thing about her humility and Christ’s ultimate response is that this is the beginning of something hitherto unheard of, — the revelation that, because of Jesus, God’s salvation is extended to all who believe, Gentile and Jew alike, that God “so loved the world He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” And that’s a fact! Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.