Clearly, I did not know what I was getting myself into. When I received the call to Good Shepherd more than eight and a half years ago, I didn’t know anything about Marion. I knew there was a federal supermax prison there. In fact that was a comment that was made on multiple occasions by members at Zion, Lyons: “You know there is a prison there, right?” – as if the prison sat right in the middle of the town. As it turns out, it took me seven years before I ever saw the thing.
I also didn’t know anything about southern Illinois. I knew that Southern Illinois University was in Carbondale; that they were named after some weird Egyptian dog; and that their basketball team was good and played tough defense – well they used to be.
What I didn’t know was that this is rabid St. Louis Cardinals country. And even if I had of realized it, I still would not have known what that really meant. Growing up as a Cubs fan I certainly didn’t like the Cardinals. I knew they were the Cubs’ rivals. I was happy to see them lose – I certainly had a case of schadenfreude when a blown call helped the Kansas City Royals beat them in the World Series. But beyond that I didn’t really give them another thought. I certainly didn’t think much of it when I learned that someone was a Cardinals fan. It was just no big deal.
The very puzzling thing I have discovered during my time in southern Illinois is that this is clearly not the way it is for Cardinals fans. Rather they seem to be fixated on the Cubs. Let someone know that you root for the Cubs, and you’ll never hear the end of it as people say things like, “Oh, he’s a Cubs fan.” The very word “Cubs” comes off the lips with disdain. Given the disparity between the success of the two teams, I have never understood this. I can only explain it as a case of Wrigley Field envy.
In our Gospel lesson today Matthew tells us, “And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out.” To give you a sense of how those words would have struck a Jew, try out this substitute: “And behold, a Cubs fan from the region came out.” It will give you a sense of the disdain a Jew would have felt for someone described as a Canaanite, and also for the surprise experienced due to Jesus’ praise of her at the end of our text.
Our text this morning begins by saying, “And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon.”
Our Lord had just had a confrontation with the Pharisees and scribes about what was religiously unclean and defiled a person. Several times in Matthew’s Gospel, after this kind of confrontation, Jesus withdraws. Our Lord has a timetable and a location for his passion and will not let anyone disrupt this.
Jesus withdraws north of Israel into the area of Tyre and Sidon. This was pagan territory – Tyre had been the home of that Baal promoter Jezebel during the days of the prophet Elijah. It is unexpected to find someone seeking out Jesus here. Matthew notes this by saying “behold!” and then heightens the surprise by using an “old school” for the woman as he calls her a “Canaanite.”
The woman was crying out, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” “Have mercy on me!” was a call for help – just as it is in the liturgy. But soon there are two surprises. First the woman calls Jesus “Lord,” and in Matthew’s Gospel only those who approach Jesus in faith call him this. And then the woman addresses Jesus as “son of David.” This phrase identifies Jesus as Israel’s Messiah. It is an insightful and profound statement on the lips … of a Canaanite woman.
In Matthew’s Gospel you could hardly ask for a more perfect form of address directed toward Jesus: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David.” But Jesus didn’t even respond to her. He didn’t say one word. The woman kept crying out to Jesus and the disciples became annoyed. They said, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” Apparently they wanted Jesus to heal the girl so that the woman would be quiet and just go away. However, Jesus didn’t do this. Instead, he answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He said the Canaanite woman wasn’t his problem.
However the Canaanite woman wasn’t done. Instead, she intensified her request. She came and kneeled, or even prostrated herself, before Jesus. She again called him “Lord” as she begged, “Lord, help me.” And in response Jesus said, “It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.” He said it wouldn’t be right to bother with her. He called her a dog.
You will be hard pressed to find someone in the Bible who is more brusquely dismissed and rejected by God, than the Canaanite woman in this text. She approaches Jesus with words that say all of the right things … and she gets nothing. In fact she gets less than nothing because he calls her a dog.
At this point, it’s helpful to stop and take stock of the Canaanite woman’s options. She certainly could have become discouraged and given up. After all, two entreaties had gotten her nowhere and Jesus’ response to her was going from bad to worse. She also could have become angry at Jesus and left. After all, not only was Jesus ignoring her request but his responses were getting more and more offensive. First he completely ignored her. Then he insulted her by calling her a dog.
This experience is not unique to the Canaanite woman. You know it too. It happens when there is a diagnosis of cancer or depression or diabetes. It happens when you get demoted, or lose a job, or decide that you can’t stay there anymore and need to find a new job. It happens when there are strife and problems in your family.
Our first reaction is that God is being silent – that God is ignoring us. After all, why would he allow this to happen? And then if things don’t get better soon – or if they even get worse – we feel like God is just piling on. We feel like he is calling us a dog. This breeds anger and resentment at God. Perhaps it even makes us doubt why we bother with God at all.
The Canaanite woman did not react in any of these ways. We hear in our text that she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.” The Canaanite woman did not try to make assertions about “her rights.” She didn’t get angry and offended with Jesus. She didn’t get upset and walk away.
Instead in faith she clung to the fact that the gracious abundance of Jesus was more than sufficient to meet her needs. In faith she believed and trusted in Jesus Christ. In faith she trusted that through his power the crumbs would provide all that she needed.
We learn in our text that Jesus then answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was then healed instantly. In an emphatic way Jesus praised the great faith of the woman. He praised her for clinging to him in the midst of silence and apparent rejection.
The mystery of our text is how a woman living in the pagan territory of Tyre and Sidon had heard about Jesus in a way that led her to approach him with the words, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David.” The text doesn’t say, and so we will never know. But we do know that you have all the more reason to approach Jesus in faith than she did.
You know the whole story – the story that we are following during this portion of the church year. You know the whole story about the incarnation – that Jesus Christ is true God and true man. You know about his death on the cross that we are preparing during Lent to remember. And then you also know about his resurrection from the dead. You know that Christ died on the cross to redeem you from sin, and then on the third day he defeated death as he rose from the dead. Christ has died, and Christ has risen from the dead! You know that in faith you approach the Lord, crucified and risen for you.
The example of the Canaanite woman has been included in Scripture by the Spirit in order to provide a model and encouragement to us. It calls us to a firm faith that trusts Jesus and keeps coming back to him. We may have specific concerns we want him to address. We may have our own ideas about how we think things should work out. It may in fact be that the Lord answers in this way. But more than this we approach Jesus in faith knowing that because of his death and resurrection for he will not fail to provide us with forgiveness and life. He will not fail to keep us as a child of God. He will not fail to support us in that faith through his Spirit as he brings us through the challenges that we face.
In our text the Canaanite women makes a bold statement when she responds to Jesus: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.” She is so confident in Jesus’ grace and power that she believes even that which seems to be nothing will meet her needs.
In a few moments, we are invited to approach the Lord’s altar with the same faith. We go to receive a sip of wine and a crumb – a bite of dry bread. Yet we go because of who Jesus is and what he has promised about it. We go in faith because we know that there we receive the true body and blood of the risen Lord. And through this body and blood given and shed for you, Jesus Christ gives you forgiveness and strength to continue in faith. Through this divine food the Holy Spirit feeds and nourishes the new man within you so that you can walk in faith. Crumbs from the table? It may not look like all that much. But the Canaanite woman in our text is right. Because they are crumbs from this Lord they provide everything that we need.