Behind a mask of rejection, faith finds a merciful Christ

Sermon for Second Sunday in Lent – Reminiscere

Matthew 15:21-28  +  Genesis 32:22-32  +  1 Thessalonians 4:1-7

A lot of people are put off by the Jesus who is presented to us in today’s Gospel – the one who appeared to act so harshly with that Canaanite woman. They don’t like this Jesus, they don’t even recognize this Jesus.  But friends, there is only one Jesus – the one whom we know in the Gospels, and this Gospel from Matthew 15 has been appointed to be read in Christian churches every single year on this Second Sunday in Lent – with good reason!

“Truly you are a God who hides himself, O God and Savior of Israel!” Those words from the prophet Isaiah proclaim the same truth that our Gospel proclaims today, the same truth that Jacob found as he wrestled with God through the night.  The Fall into Sin, which we considered last week, meant that sinful man no longer gets to deal face to face with the glorious, holy God. Our God hides himself behind a mask of hostility, a mask of rejection.  But as we learn in today’s Gospel, behind a mask of rejection, faith finds a merciful Christ.

This gentle Canaanite woman from the Gentile region of Sidon has a daughter who is, literally, “being badly tormented by a demon.”  She hears about Jesus, hears that he is the Jewish Messiah, hears a good report about him that he is kind and good and merciful to all who call on him for help. So when she hears that he has come into her country, she goes to him looking for help for her daughter, confident that she will find from him that mercy for which he has a reputation.

She calls out to him for help – just as you and I call out to him in our liturgy and in our litany, “Kyrie, eleison!”  “Lord, Son of David, have mercy!”

And the merciful Lord Jesus – acts like he can’t hear her.  He doesn’t answer a word.  And by ignoring her, Jesus implies that he doesn’t care about her, not even enough to acknowledge her existence.  What a trial!  What a hopeless situation – if God doesn’t care about you, if God doesn’t pay attention to your cries for mercy!

But the woman keeps crying out to Jesus for help, crying out to his seemingly deaf ears.  His disciples grow tired of it, uncomfortable with it.  They don’t plead the woman’s case with Jesus, as they might, she is “just an unclean Gentile sinner,” after all. But they can’t ignore her constant crying out.  It bothers them.  It’s terribly awkward. And so they ask the Lord to dismiss her, to send her away.

Finally, Jesus has a reply for the woman, but it isn’t what the woman is hoping for. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”  That’s great news, if you’re an Israelite; devastating news if you’re a Canaanite, like this woman.  Jesus implies that he hasn’t come for her at all, that he won’t be her helper or Savior.  What a trial! What a hopeless situation, if God has only come to help other people, if you don’t qualify for God’s mercy.

Even then, Jesus’ reply doesn’t turn the woman away.  The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.  And his response startles us, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”  Implying that the “children” are the people of Israel, and the “dogs” are the Gentiles, like this desperate woman kneeling at his feet.  Jesus implies that she is not a child of God, but a dog in his house.  What a trial!  What a hopeless situation – to be counted less deserving of God’s help than others!

But right there, the desperate woman sees her opening – a door that Jesus intentionally opened for her.  “Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  “Fine, Jesus!  I have no problem with that.  I’ll happily be counted as a dog begging at the table of the Israelites, because I know that the God of Israel is merciful, and the crumbs of his providence are more than enough to satisfy my needs.”

Now, finally, Jesus lets the woman see with her eyes what her faith saw all along – a merciful Christ who is willing and eager to help.  He rewards her faith, first with words of high praise that no Israelite ever heard from his mouth, at least not recorded in Scripture – “O woman, great is your faith!”  If there was ever any doubt that the Gentiles, too, would become part of Christ’s New Testament Kingdom, that the Gentiles, too, would believe in Christ and be acceptable to God through faith, Jesus removes that doubt here.  He teaches his disciples once again that faith is what makes a person clean, not pedigree.

Then he rewards this woman’s faith with the miracle she was seeking, “Your request is granted.”  And the demon that had been afflicting her daughter was vanquished at that very moment, by the power and mercy of Christ – power that was hidden under weakness, mercy that was hidden behind a mask of rejection. 

Three times the faith of this Canaanite woman was challenged, run through the wringer, tested and tried.  Three times it seemed like Jesus wasn’t the merciful Savior she had heard about. But behind a mask of rejection, faith finds a merciful Christ.

This Gospel teaches us about both humility and faith.  If that Canaanite woman had had even an ounce of pride in herself, she wouldn’t have put up with the apparent rejection on the part of Jesus.  And I wonder, would you have “put up with” such treatment?  Would you have left in a huff because you thought you deserved better?  Or would you have left in despair because you lost hope in Jesus’ help?  Or, even now, do you sit there in judgment of the Son of God for his treatment of this woman?  Oh, how sin has corrupted mankind, that man should sit in judgment over his Creator or pretend to be more righteous than God himself!

You see, it was only in humility – in this recognition of total unworthiness in herself, that this woman was able to stay and look behind the mask of rejection that she saw in Christ.  What was it that kept her there? What was it that kept giving her hope?  Ah, yes, Jesus ignored her cries at first, but he didn’t send her away, even at his disciples’ urging. Yes, he implied that he had only come for Israel, that he had not come for her, a Gentile, but then, look where this took place, in the region of Tyre and Sidon, this woman’s home country! It was Jesus himself who left Israelite territory to come into this Gentile region.  Why would he do that if he had only come for Israel? Yes, Jesus implied that this woman was less deserving of his help than the people of Israel, but that’s the thing about mercy.  Mercy is never given to people who deserve it.  Mercy, by definition, is only and always given to people because of how pathetic they are, not because of how deserving they are.  So if this woman is like a pathetic dog begging at the table, then she is just the one who will be shown mercy by a merciful Christ – a thousand times more than the Jewish Pharisees who wouldn’t recognize humility even if they saw it before their very eyes, hanging on a cross.

That Canaanite woman couldn’t rely on her worthiness. She couldn’t rely on appearances or feelings, or guesses about the heart of Jesus.  All she had to rely on was this Word she had heard about the mercy of Christ. To that she clung, in spite of everything. For that, her faith was rewarded.

What that Gentile woman was privileged to see was a glimpse of God’s plan to extend his mercy out from Israel into the entire world.  Very soon Jesus would send his disciples to preach repentance and faith in Christ for the forgiveness of sins to all nations – that was God’s real plan and intention.  But for a few more months that plan had to be kept hidden behind a mask of rejection and suffering, behind the mask of ministry to the Jews only, so that when the Jews finally rejected Jesus and put him up on a cross, they had no absolutely no excuse.  They killed the one who loved them and came for them.  But behind that mask of scorn and shame was hidden the innocent, glorious Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. 

Even when Jesus rose from the dead, he only revealed himself to those who had seen behind the mask before his death, to those who believed his Word.  From the rest, his glory is still hidden for the moment. His good purposes are still hidden behind a mask of rejection and suffering.  He still hides himself behind that mask.  But soon, he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.  Then the time for masks will be over.

For now, God remains the hidden God.  What you see is a world falling apart.  What you see is sin running rampant, and even in yourselves as Christians, what you see is a constant struggle between the Old Adam and the New Self.  What you see more often than not is God’s rejection – in prayers that seem to go unanswered, in suffering that seems to know no end, in hardship and trial and painful self-denial.

So you see how beautifully our Gospel today shines in the midst of all that?  The way Jesus dealt with that Canaanite woman is the way God often deals with his children on earth.  We live under the cross.  But in the Gospel we learn to look past appearances and to stop relying on our feelings.  We learn what it looks like to approach the Son of God in true humility as sinners, and we learn to cling to the Word we have heard about Christ, to cling to the Word alone that assures us that the very body and blood of Jesus Christ are hidden under bread and wine for the forgiveness of sins of all who eat and drink.  And there in the Word of Christ we find that the cross itself is only a mask, that behind the mask of rejection is the true face of God – who is compassionate and merciful and forgives sins to those who believe in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

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