Feast: Pentecost 11
Readings: Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28
“Woman, great is your faith!”
In today’s gospel reading we encounter a Canaanite woman—that is, a Gentile, a non-Jewish woman—who confesses great faith in Christ. The main point of this sermon, if I could sum it up in a sentence, is this: the joy of the gospel is for everyone!
Recall with me that in last week’s gospel Jesus sent Peter and the other disciples on ahead of him across the sea. Well today’s reading takes place on the other side, specifically Matthew tells us that Jesus and his disciples came to the region of Tyre and Sidon. Now it’s important to note that this was the land of pagans, not Jews, and in light of Jesus’ own instruction earlier in the gospel to, “go nowhere among the Gentiles,” (10:5) one can imagine a certain discomfort on behalf of the disciples. We’re not in Kansas anymore.
Today’s gospel reading reminds us that the Church is sent out to a world that is broken and calling out for help. To a world that does not yet know the peace and joy that Christ brings. And we’re sent into such places and to such people because the joy of the gospel is for everyone.
So, Jesus leads his disciples on into paganland and no sooner has that happened then a Canaanite woman came out to meet them and started shouting: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
Now, Matthew is the only gospel writer to tell us that this was a Canaanite woman, and he does so as if to highlight the extent to which she was not part of God’s chosen. Indeed, some of the Church Fathers thought this woman to be the “mother of the Gentiles.” Here in paganland the mother of Pagans runs out to meet Jesus and she cries out for help.
And the disciples seeing this woman come to Jesus crying out for mercy rejoice and are glad and point her right-away to their Lord. Only they do not! Rather they urge Jesus to send her away because she’s a bother to them. Their desire was for their own peace and quiet. This woman here does not display that sort of decency and decorum befitting of a good Anglican. Now I’m sure none of us have ever drawn boundaries in an attempt to sort out what type of people would make good Anglicans but if we were tempted to draw such boundaries we’d learn pretty quickly that Jesus has a tendency to confound these sorts of measures.
That the woman is screaming for help is lost in the disciples’ offense that she is screaming at all. Personally, I wish I could look down upon the disciples for their response but I cannot because it is too often my own response.
Being a priest you are sometimes a magnet for needy people. In my previous parish located on the corner of a busy intersection in a very under-resourced neighbourhood in Toronto there was a fairly regular flow of people just walking in looking for help. One guy in particular, every time I saw him I prayed the prayer of Jesus’ disciples, “O Lord, do sendeth him away for he is a bother.” Ears of faith, however, hear in every cry for help what is ultimately a cry for the Lord.
In our reading from Roman’s last week we heard those wonderful words of St. Paul: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved,” (Romans 10:13). If you’re like me perhaps you hear those words and think, everyone? Indeed, the joy of the gospel is for everyone.
What is this woman’s cry? “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” She has come out to Jesus bearing the suffering of her daughter which is her own suffering. Part of the vocation of the Church is to bring the needs of the world before the Lord and to plead for his mercy. The liturgy helps us to do this in, for example, the prayers of the people. I hope our familiarity with these prayers which we offer each week does not dull their significance and meaning—just here we offer up prayers for the whole wide world and for others in particular. So also in the bread and wine of Holy Communion is the stuff of the whole world taken up into Christ’s own self-offering to the Father in heaven.
So the question is: Who are you bringing to the Lord in prayer? Perhaps it is a child or a neighbour or an old friend? Do not give up, do not grow weary in doing good but persevere for the Lord hears your cry. Let us be encouraged to bring others before Christ in prayer with the confidence that he can help.
Jesus’ response is curious. At first he does not say anything. His compassion prevents him from turning here away like the disciples wish and yet he is silent. Next, he expresses the reality of his mission as one sent to a particular people: to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. The text does not specify who he is talking to here, is it the disciples or the woman? In fact, the text almost makes it seem as if he is speaking to himself (Bruner 99).
I think what we see here is Jesus’ commitment to Israel first. Theologians sometimes refer to this sort of thing as the scandal of particularity. Namely, that God chose to redeem the world in particular ways—through the election of Israel and chiefly through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christ knew that he was sent first to Israel and awaited from them a response.
This is precisely what the Apostle Paul has been wrestling with in Romans which we have heard read, almost in the background, these last few weeks. Part of the issue at stake there is that Israel, at least in part, has rejected their Messiah. This has caused some of the Gentile Christians in the Roman church to suppose that God has cast off Israel. But Paul shuts this down in the eleventh chapter, part of which we heard read this morning: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!…for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you [Gentiles] were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their [Israel’s] disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy.” In Paul’s view even Israel’s apparent rejection of their Messiah is caught up in God’s redemptive action for it was their rejection that propelled the Messiah into Gentile territory. Where he now stands. And this woman, the mother of the Gentiles, cries out to the Lord on behalf of all Gentiles (Epiphanius the Latin). Because the joy of the gospel is for everyone.
Then, in what I think is the most moving part of this encounter the woman comes and kneels before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” She knows that she is not a member of the people of Israel. She knows that she is an outsider who does not belong at the table with the children. Yet she had come to the end of her resources, every other option and possibility had been exhausted. All that remained was to throw herself at the Lord’s feet in an act of desperate adoration knowing that even but a few crumbs of Christ’s mercy is enough to sustain her and heal her daughter.
I admire the humility of her faith. We would do well to cultivate such humility ourselves and we have the prayers to help us. Consider the Prayer of Humble Access that comes just before we receive Holy Communion in the Prayer Book liturgy: “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, Trusting in our own righteousness, But in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy So much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, Whose property is always to have mercy…”
Let us not presume upon the mercy of Christ nor think that we have no need of his mercy or that we have somehow merited his mercy ourselves. Let us rather practice humility and cast ourselves each day upon Christ’s mercy: “Lord, help me.” And we will find that Christ does not give us a life time supply of mercy all at once but simply enough for this day, this moment. The crumbs that fall from the table of the heavenly banquet are enough to sustain us today. To quell every temptation, forgive every sin, and heal every wound.
Then, finally, Matthew tells us that Jesus answered her: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. Great is your faith! That is, great is your trust in me. Great is your trust that even the crumbs of my mercy are sufficient for you. Great is your faith that I will turn no one away that calls upon me.
Faith is that one necessary thing, that human response to God’s loving action. Our “yes” to who Jesus is and what he has done for us. Our utter and complete trust and hope in him. And as we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this October we should remember that great Reformational emphasis that it is by faith alone that we are saved. Not by any merit of our own but simply by trusting that who Jesus Christ is and what he has done for us is sufficient to absolve us of our sin and reconcile us to God our Father.
Such faith is the fount from which a life of love and service to our Lord and to others flows. As such, the greatest gift that you can give to the world as a Christian is to take responsibility for your own faith, to nourish it and tend to it. After all, the faith of the woman extends to the benefit of her daughter. Christians are those who have received that which the world has not yet received—faith in Christ—and yet are charged with tending it not for their own sake but for the good of the world. Because no one is excluded from the joy of the gospel.
And so as we come to the table of the Lord in a few moments to receive that bread and wine which is our Lord’s Body and Blood may we like the Canaanite woman cast ourselves upon the mercy of Christ, not only for our own sake but for the good of those who are yet to trust in him, because the joy of the gospel is for everyone. And may we like her find that a crumb of Christ’s mercy is sufficient. Amen.