Sermon for the 13th after Pentecost 
(Proper 15)

Text: Matthew 15:21-28
A Canaanite woman who lived in that region came to him. "Son of David!" she cried out. "Have mercy on me, sir! My daughter has a demon and is in a terrible condition." But Jesus did not say a word to her. His disciples came to him and begged him, "Send her away! She is following us and making all this noise!" Then Jesus replied, "I have been sent only to the lost sheep of the people of Israel." At this the woman came and fell at his feet. "Help me, sir!" she said. Jesus answered, "It isnít right to take the childrenís food and throw it to the dogs." "Thatís true, sir," she answered, "but even the dogs eat the leftovers that fall from their mastersí table." So Jesus answered her, "You are a woman of great faith! What you want will be done for you." And at that very moment her daughter was healed.

God's love for losers

For Sparky, school was all but impossible. He failed every subject in the eighth grade. He flunked physics getting a grade of zero. Sparky also flunked Latin, Algebra, and English. He didn't do much better in sports. Although he did manage to make the schoolís golf team, he promptly lost the only important match of the season.

Throughout his youth, Sparky was awkward socially. He was not actually disliked by the other students; itís just that no one cared that much. He was astonished if a classmate ever said hello to him outside of school hours. Sparky didnít ask girls out - he was afraid of being turned down.

Sparky was a loser.

For some reason, God loves losers. The Bible is full of them -
To mention just a few -
the first losers in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve who had everything and then lost it because of their disobedience;
Jacob who lived comfortably in his fatherís house but stole his brothers inheritance and then became a refugee;
the people of Israel who were being fed and led through the wilderness by God himself and yet they turned against him so often;
King David who had the world at his feet, but had to steel his neighbourís wife (killing her husband first) an action that brought David nothing but grief;
Jonah who foolishly tried to run away from God;
even Jesusí disciples who just couldnít grasp what Jesus was on about, no matter how simply he told them.

We heard about the ten lepers last week at our thanksgiving service. The whole of society regarded them as losers because of their disease, but Jesus came near and helped them. They were no longer outcasts, and received healing and a new life, but nine of them were total losers when they failed to return to honour and give thanks to Jesus.

And today we hear about another loser. She was a loser on a number of accounts. She was a Canaanite, one of the original inhabitants of the land of Israel. Canaanites were regarded by the Jews as outsiders and heathens - people who didnít know about God. She was a woman, and here she was making a nuisance of herself, calling out to a rabbi in total disrespect. The disciples regarded her as a loser and tried to shut her up and send her away. In fact, she even dares to argue points of theology with Jesus. A woman never argued with a rabbi.

The woman understood where she stood Ė she knew was at the bottom of the heap. She knew she was beyond help. Nobody cared what happened to her. Why should God now take notice of her? She had nothing to lose - her dignity and pride were gone. She came to Jesus and shouted at him, "Hey you, Son of David! Listen to me and show some mercy! My daughter has a demon and is in a terrible condition. Can you do something about it!"

This woman wasnít begging for herself. Her cry for mercy was also a cry of love. Her child was sick. There are times like that in life when the only thing a parent can do for their child is to pray. That's what this woman did.

And what did Jesus do? He ignored her. He didnít answer a word. He showed no interest in her. His disciples, quick to assume and slow to understand, make the assumption that Jesus wanted to get rid of her, she's a nuisance.

Why did he ignore her, let her go on and make a fool of herself and embarrassing everyone? Was he testing the woman, or testing his disciples? Perhaps it was both. Of course, Jesus had heard her making all this fuss and adds insult to injury by stating, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." In other words, "I didnít come to help outsiders and losers, I have come only for the Jews". This is hardly what we expect of Jesus! We know Jesus talked about his mission to outsiders, and his actions show how much he loved losers. But then, shock of shocks, he refers to her and her people as dogs. What a field day todayís press would have with an incident like this! "Spiritual leader publicly slams Canaanites. Calls for his dismissal".

We know this story has a happy ending. The woman was not insulted. Iím amazed at her thick skin. She doesnít let this "dog" comment get her down. She swallowed her pride and said: "Lord, that's true, but even dogs get the crumbs that fall from their owner's table". Jesus answered, "Dear woman, you really do have a lot of faith, and you'll be given what you want". At that moment, the woman's daughter was healed.

The question remains, "Why did Jesus put this woman through all this?" He could have stepped in and healed her daughter without any of this fuss like he had done so many times before. The woman was a Canaanite and Jesus was the Jewish messiah who was sent to the Jews first. The Gentiles were meant to hear the good news later. But was that reason enough to meet the woman's request with unfriendly silence and then call her a  dog?

A number of reasons have been suggested why Jesus acted the way he did.
1. Jesus couldnít have possibly behaved like this. There must be more to the story than we have been told. Besides, Jesus spoke firmly, even harshly, on other occasions so why not to this woman?
2. Jesus didnít mean what he said about the woman being a "dog". What he meant was a "puppy" or a "lap dog". It might sound harsh to modern ears but it was a term of endearment.
3. Jesus was a man of his day in his attitude towards women and non-Jews.
4. Jesus was tired. The woman got on the disciplesí nerves so itís possible she aggravated Jesus. He was a human and experienced the same feelings as we do.

There maybe something in each of these explanations. Matthew, however, compared to the other Gospel writers wants to tell us something special about Jesus. What can we learn from this very public incident involving a screaming woman and a name-calling Jesus?

Matthewís version of this story highlights just this Ė this woman had exceptional faith in Jesus.

The woman wasnít stupid. She knew that her behaviour was out of line, that her shouting made all the people look at her with disapproving glances. She was no fool and I am sure it was hard for her, in fact it was a courageous thing to do, to act in such a way that would draw upon herself public scorn. It must have been disheartening when Jesus didnít say a word and then proclaimed that his mission didnít include her. It must have been a hurtful setback when the disciples wanted to be rid of her and Jesus referred to her as a dog.

But in spite of everything, her trust in Jesus never wavered. Not long before this event, Matthew tells us about Jesusí visit to Nazareth (13:53-58). People he knew, Godís chosen people, refused to believe in him and we are told, "Because the people did not have any faith, Jesus did not work many miracles there". What a contrast this womanís faith is!
She didnít care what other people thought of her.
She knew she didnít have any right to expect anything from the Jewish Messiah.
She had made a nuisance of herself, and her reputation was in tatters.
She accepted being called a dog,
but at the same time she sincerely believed that his love would find something somewhere in his heart to help her daughter.

"Even dogs get the crumbs that fall from their owner's table". That's all she wanted - the crumbs. She wasn't out for palaces and power, but for the crumbs. For her, the crumbs were her daughter's health and sanity. This woman is a real lesson in humility, suffering, patience, persistence and trusting in Jesus, even when you donít get what you want first off. Jesus canít ignore exceptional faith such as this.

Matthew also wants us to see again the amazing love of Jesus. While everyone was seething because of the womanís actions, Jesusí loved her.

Before I go any further, let me finish the story about Sparky. Sparky was good at drawing. After completing high school, he sent some samples of his artwork to Walt Disney Studios. He was rejected once again. Another loss for the loser. So Sparky (his real name was Charles Schultz) decided to write his own autobiography in cartoons. He vividly described his childhood - a little boy loser and chronic underachiever. He created "Peanuts" the comic strip and the little cartoon character whose kite would never fly and who never succeeded in kicking a football.

There are people who regard themselves as loser. There are probably people sitting here in this church whose opinion of themselves and their abilities is so low a worm would have difficulty getting down that far. Maybe there are times when you feel more depressed and despondent than other times and you feel that everything is going wrong for you.

Even when you feel like a loser, God sees you as a winner. At your baptism he adopted you as his own dearly loved child and promised to help you and walk with you all your days on this earth. This is a richness and a worth that can be found nowhere else on this planet. You belong to God and are one of his precious children Ė he even sent Jesus to die for you. He died for losers in order to give them a renewed look at life.

Look how the Canaanite woman was blessed. This isnít only a story about great faith (only a few can demonstrate such a remarkable faith). It is also a story about Jesusí love Ė his grace toward someone whom everyone else regarded as a loser, even herself. In the Gospels, it is always those without hope who display the most hope, those without anything left to give who get the most. In the Bible, it is the losers who receive God's special attention.

Before God, we are all Canaanites. We all need God's grace and it is because of that grace that we have forgiveness and eternal. We have no natural claim on God. He is only interested in us because of his grace and love. As it says in the Catechism:
"God does all this only because he is my kind and loving father;
I certainly do not deserve it.
All I can do is thank, praise, serve, and obey God."

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
18
th August, 2002
E-mail: gerhardy65@hotmail.com 

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