The faith of the Canaanite woman – an unlikely evangelism text

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Sermon for Reminiscere – Lent 2

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

Let’s say you invited a friend to come to church with you today, a friend who doesn’t have a church of his or her own. Of all the Bible texts you would want your friend to hear, would you have picked the historic Gospel for today in which that Canaanite woman came to Jesus for help for her suffering daughter, and Jesus only helped her after first ignoring her cries for help, then seemingly insulting her ethnicity, then implying that she was worth about as much as a little dog begging for crumbs at the table.  Not your typical come-and-learn-about-Jesus evangelism text, is it? It may be an unlikely evangelism text, but I think it’s perfect, even as Jesus himself is perfect.

Because, what do we learn about Jesus in this Gospel?  We learn that Jesus helps anyone who comes to him for help.  Really?  Anyone?  Yes, anyone.  Even…a woman? Yes. Even…a woman of Canaanite ancestry, a race that had been cursed by God himself?  Yes. So, even a poor man?  Even a rich man?  Even a little baby?  Even an elderly person? Even a Jew or a Gentile? Even a white man or a black man, Hispanic, Arab, German, Asian, Indian?  Even a sinner of the very worst kind? Yes, anyone who comes to him for help. Even me?  Even you? Yes.

The Canaanite woman in our Gospel had a desperate need that only divine intervention could help her with. Her daughter was being tortured by a demon. She heard that Jesus was able to cast out demons by the power of God, and that he was the “Son of David,” as she called him, the promised Messiah for Israel, but not only for Israel.  She heard that this Jesus was willing to help anyone who comes to him for help, whether Jew or Samaritan or otherwise.  And she was convinced by that report that Jesus would help her, too.

And, also important, she knew where to find Jesus.  It’s not that he visited her in her home, or went knocking on her door for an evangelism visit or preached with a megaphone from a street corner.  Not at all.  But what did he do?  He simply entered the region where she lived – the region of Tyre and Sidon, just north of the land of Israel.  He came close enough for her to seek and find him.

And how does he help?  By making it seem for awhile like he is unwilling to help.

Take that, human reason! Our sinful human reason figures we have to make Jesus attractive to people, that we have to sell people on Jesus, or on our church if we want people to come.  And, of course, that means making everything as pleasant and enjoyable as possible, making sure everything is readily understandable to the outsider here in our service, seeing to it that we make Jesus seem as warm and as welcoming as we want him to be.

And yet, that’s not what Jesus himself does, is it?  Oh, sometimes he does.  Sometimes it’s “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest!”  But sometimes, Jesus can seem downright aloof, disinterested, and standoffish, as in our Gospel today, without apologizing for it.

Just as the angel of the Lord in Genesis 32, as if he were Jacob’s enemy, made Jacob wrestle with him all night for that blessing at the end, so Jesus, as if he were her enemy, made the Canaanite woman in the Gospel face three apparent rejections before finally helping her.

First, there she is, crying out after him in the streets, “Have mercy, O Lord, Son of David!” But he doesn’t answer her a word. Now, how to interpret his silence?  There’s more than one way  Here’s how the devil would have had the woman interpret his silence: Jesus is a jerk.  Jesus isn’t the good and kind helper you heard about.  He’s mean.  He doesn’t have time for you. He’s uncaring, or at least, he could care less about you.  Just forget about him and find your own solution to your problem.

But there’s another way to interpret Jesus’ silence.  He hasn’t said, “NO!”  He hasn’t said, “GO AWAY!”  He hasn’t said, “I DON’T HAVE TIME FOR YOU!”  Maybe his silence means, “Don’t stop crying out to him!  Keep wrestling!  Keep going to him for help!”

Then, the second trial the woman had to overcome.  Jesus’ disciples seem to be rather embarrassed with the whole situation.  This foreign woman just keeps calling out after them, and Jesus is doing nothing – neither helping her nor telling her to go away, just letting her make a fool of herself in front of everyone.  It’s awkward.  It’s uncomfortable.  It doesn’t really make Jesus look too good, either.  “Lord, just send her away.”

His response – maybe more to the woman than to them… “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Again, there are two ways to interpret that.  The world would have the woman interpret it this way:  Jesus hasn’t come to help you and he never will, because you’re not the right kind of person.  You have the wrong skin color, the wrong accent, and a reputation as a godless sinner.  Jesus came to help other people, not you.  So stop groveling in front of Jesus. Go find your own solution to your problem.

But there’s another way to interpret Jesus’ words.  Sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel… Well, he didn’t say that I’m not one of the lost sheep of Israel.  Didn’t God say to Abraham that he would make Abraham the father of many nations?  Didn’t the Old Testament prophets speak of the Son of David bringing non-Jews into the house of Israel?  Didn’t Jesus once say, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” So there’s still hope!  I could be one of the lost sheep of Israel, even though I’m Canaanite by blood!

Then there’s the third trial for her faith. That woman came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Those words sound harsh. But here, again, there are two ways of interpreting his words.  The sinful flesh would have the woman interpret them this way:  Jesus just called you a dog!  How rude! You’re better than that! You deserve better than that! As if the Jews are the special children at the table and you, by no fault of your own, have to beg like a dog!  Well, stop begging.  Get up, pick up what’s left of your pride and go home. You should never have come to Jesus for help.

But then there’s that other way of interpreting Jesus’ words, the way of faith that fully admits, I am no better than a dog.  I’m a sinner.  I deserve nothing from God, certainly not a seat at the children’s table. That’s true.  But neither did he actually call me a dog.  He didn’t say I’m not one of the children.  Either way, he’s giving me hope, because if I’m a child, then I get the loaf of bread. And if I’m a dog, then I get the crumbs. And crumbs of God’s grace are more than enough.

Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  What an amazing answer!  The good report she had heard about Jesus sustained her through the attacks of the devil, the world, and her own sinful nature. It sustained her through Jesus’ apparent rejection and kept her eyes firmly fixed on Jesus, who will help anyone who comes to him for help.  It’s as if the words of the Introit were emblazoned on her heart, “Remember, O LORD!  Remember Your tender mercies and Your loving kindnesses, for they are from of old.”

Now, when you hold the Lord’s own tender mercies and loving kindnesses before his eyes and ask him to remember that – now you’ve got him.  Now you’ve caught him – or rather, he’s allowed himself to be caught and he’s committed to giving the help you need.  O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

You see what a great evangelism text this Gospel is?  It tells the truth.  It’s brutally honest about sin, and Jesus and the Christian life. It doesn’t try to paint the Christian life as a glorious journey through the world where prayers are always answered instantaneously for those who “really believe,” and where everyone’s always smiling and happy and bubbly.  See how difficult it was for this woman in the Gospel who “really believed,” who had a great faith!  But it was worth it in the end.  Jesus never once told people what they wanted to hear. But he always told them what they needed to hear, and dealt with them as they needed to be dealt with for their own eternal good.

That’s offensive to those who think they deserve something from God, to those who think they don’t need Jesus’ help, as if they can handle their problems without him, as if everything will be just fine without him, to those who refuse to confess that they are poor, miserable sinners.  But, you see, those people need to be offended by God’s Word, because they’re fooling themselves right now and face God’s bitter judgment with no help from Christ, the Mediator.

But it’s such a comforting Gospel to the ones who come to Jesus for help, because it presents the real Jesus, who says hard things, who is never politically correct, who isn’t trying to sell you a product or take your money, who doesn’t always answer prayer immediately or in the way we might like, who promises that those who follow him will bear a cross of suffering for it, who often appears as an enemy.  And yet, He is the real Jesus who, behind the appearance of hostility, is the best friend you will ever know; who is so good and merciful that he took the sins of the world to the cross and gave his life as a sacrifice, and rose from the dead so that he might give the gifts he won – forgiveness of sins, eternal life and salvation to anyone who comes to him for help.

So what can you tell people?  You can tell them the truth, “You need help. Jesus will help anyone who comes to him for help.”  And then, don’t forget to tell them where exactly they are to come to find Jesus for his help.  Tell them honestly, “You will not find Jesus at work.  You will not find him sitting at home watching TV or hiking in the mountains. You will not even find him in your prayers. You will find Jesus at my church.  You will find him here, in Holy Absolution, in the preaching of the Word of Christ, in the Baptism and the Holy Supper instituted by Christ.  This is where he helps – here, in the congregation of saints, here in his Word and Sacraments. This is where you will find him.  Come and see!”

But be prepared.  Because the Sunday your friend or acquaintance decides to come to church with you just might have for the Gospel reading a Gospel like the one you heard today with Jesus behaving in ways that even Christians might consider unconventional.  That’s OK.  Don’t ever be afraid of the truth.  Stories like the faith of the Canaanite woman may be unlikely evangelism texts, but whenever Jesus’ name is proclaimed in truth, there the Holy Spirit is calling people to faith.  May it be so today, in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

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