As parents we recognize that eventually, we won’t really be able to know what our children are doing. Up through the high school years we have a pretty good chance. Most of time they are in school. Online tools have made it possible to check the status of their schoolwork any time that we want. We pay the bills and are the parents, so we have every right to look at what has been going with their phones and internet history – at least that’s the way it works in the Surburg house. They come to church with us each Sunday, so we know whether they are going to church or not.
But we also know that someday this won’t be the case. They will go off to college or move out. I know that for me this is coming down the road. But because I am a pastor, I have already started to experience it. A pastor seeks to teach the faith to the children and youth of the congregation. We do this every Sunday in the Divine Service. We do it very directly during catechesis. We do it in the setting of youth activities.
But when youth who go off to college, that’s the end of what I can do and what I can know. I no longer have any real interaction with them. I have no way of knowing whether they are going to church and receiving the Means of Grace. I have no way of knowing how the setting of academia – which in our culture today can be so hostile to being a Christian – is impacting them.
And so I was very pleased this week to receive a message from Rachel Peterson who is attending the University of Nebraska. She sent me an article from the New York Times about the so called “Prosperity Gospel.” I was pleased for three reasons. First, I was glad to see that she was interested in reading about a topic like this. Second, the content of the article and her comments indicated that she was exactly correct about the matter. And third, I was just thrilled she thought of her pastor!
And now, I guess, I have to add a fourth reason I am pleased – namely that the article she sent has helped me with the introduction to this sermon. Kate Bowler, a historian of religion describes the Prosperity Gospel as “the belief that God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith.” In many ways it is a “Christianized” version of “the power of positive thinking.”
“Blessed” is the one word summary that usually expresses this view. Bowler notes that, “It is the humble brag of the stars. #Blessed is the only caption suitable for viral images of alpine vacations and family yachting in barely there bikinis. It says: ‘I totally get it. I am down-to-earth enough to know that this is crazy.’ But it also says: ‘God gave this to me. [Adorable shrug.] Don’t blame me, I’m blessed.”’”
The problem is that “blessed” often starts to turn gift into reward. Bowler observes that it can express pure gratitude: “But it can also imply that it was deserved. ‘Thank you, me. For being the kind of person who gets it right.’”
The reason that Kate Bowler’s article is so fascinating is because she, a historian who just wrote a book on this topic entitled “Blessed,” has been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer and a massive tumor in her belly. She expects to die, and that puts her in a unique position to reflect upon the way that the Prosperity Gospel deals with life in a fallen world. She comments, “The prosperity gospel tries to solve the riddle of human suffering. It is an explanation for the problem of evil. It provides an answer to the question: Why me?” Rather than admitting our inability to understand these things, Bowler concludes, “The prosperity gospel popularized a Christian explanation for why some people make it and some do not. They revolutionized prayer as an instrument for getting God always to say ‘yes.’ It offers people a guarantee: Follow these rules, and God will reward you, heal you, restore you.”
The problem is, what do you do when it doesn’t work? What do you do when the cancer doesn’t go away and the person ends up in Hospice? My mom saw when she was a Hospice nurse and and then director. At times person about to die became very isolated because in facing the certainty of death they were what others considered to be a failure of faith.
Today’s Gospel lesson speaks to this issue. Jesus has just had a confrontation with the Pharisees and scribes. As he does on a couple of occasions in this Gospel, he then withdraws away from the conflict. Jesus is fulfilling a plan. He will die at the right place and time. He will die in Jerusalem at the time of the Passover and he will not allow any circumstances to prevent this.
He goes northwest into the area along the Mediterranean – the area of Tyre and Sidon. This was pagan territory and not a Jewish one. In fact, it was pagan territory with a history. This had been the home of Jezebel, the daughter of the king of Tyre who had been married to King Ahab of Israel in the ninth century B.C. and had promoted the worship of the false god Baal.
Matthew tells us, “And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, ‘Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.’” Matthew uses the archaic and pejorative term “Canaanite” to describe the woman. But coupled with this we hear something very surprising. First she asks Jesus for help and calls him Lord. And second, she addresses him as “Son of David.” She uses a term that identifies Jesus as the Messiah descended from the king of Israel!
We know that the report about Jesus had gone out into all of the area surrounding Galilee and Judea. So we can understand that she had heard about his miracles. But how had she learned that Jesus is the Davidic Messiah and concluded that somehow this Jesus had meaning for her? We aren’t told. Clearly someone had carried the word of the Gospel into the region of Tyre and Sidon and spoken it to the woman.
“Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David” – you really could not find a more perfect statement addressing Jesus. And how did Jesus respond to this plea by a mother on behalf of her daughter? He didn’t. He didn’t say anything. He ignored her.
This is the part of our text that should sound familiar. Because at some point, every Christian has the experience when they are calling out to God for help and there seems to be no answer. There are problems of physical or mental health; there are problems in our marriage or family; there a financial or employment problems. There are problems, and so we ask God for help. And nothing happens. Or things actually get worse.
In fact, that is precisely what happens in our text. Ignored by Jesus, the woman kept crying out to him. We know this because the disciples became so annoyed that they came to Jesus and were asking him, "Send her away, for she is crying out after us." Instead, Jesus replied that she just wasn’t his problem. He said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Jesus was the Christ, Israel’s Messiah.
Ignored and rejected as one who didn’t count for Jesus’ mission, the woman didn’t quit. Instead, the woman came right up to Jesus, knelt before him and said, “Lord, help me!” She humbled herself before Jesus and begged for his help. But Jesus said, “It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus’ reply was to call her a dog. And while modern Americans treat our dogs like special members of the family, in first century Palestine – and still in Middle Eastern culture today – this was not the case.
When we feel that God is ignoring us, we react. We get frustrated with God. We get angry with God. We despair that God does not care. We are tempted to give up on the whole God thing.
The Canaanite women did not stumble in this sin. She just kept looking to Jesus. She was convinced that he could help and the even the smallest help from him was more than sufficient to meet her need. She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." She had a faith that refused to turn away from Jesus.
Finally Jesus responded, "O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire." And Matthew tells us that her daughter was healed instantly.
Now perhaps adherents of the Prosperity Gospel would say: “See, she finally got it right! That’s why Jesus cast out the demon and healed her daughter. You can have the same thing!” The problem with this is that Jesus says the Christian life brings the cross and even death. In the very next chapter he says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” This is not “your best life now.”
Instead, today’s Gospel lesson teaches us that the Christian life is one of persistent faith in Jesus. It is a faith that refuses to be turned away and clings to the Lord – like the Canaanite woman bowing down before Jesus and uttering the simple words: “Lord, help me!”
Faith does this, not because we think that we if just hold out long enough we will finally get the answer we want. Instead faith does this because of what God has already done in Jesus Christ. As a pastor, there are many times when I deal with situations in the lives of congregation members that have been produced by the fact we are fallen people living in a fallen world. I can provide no answer to the question: “Why me?” I can’t answer the question: “What’s going to happen? When will things get better?
Instead the only “answer” I have is to speak the Gospel. The only answer is to hold up before people the fact that God sent his Son into this world in the incarnation in order to suffer and die on the cross in our place. He received God’s judgment against our sin. And then on the third day he rose from the dead.” That is God’s answer. That is the proof and guarantee of God’s love and care for you. And the thing we can never forget is that God’s most powerful saving action for us occurred on a cross. It occurred in a way on Good Friday that did not look like God was anywhere to be found. And yet … it was the moment when he was most powerfully present for us.
Because we have seen God do this, we can continue to believe and trust that God does love us and will care for us. And this faith is far more than just the power of positive thinking. Instead it is the living hope of the resurrection. The crucified One emerged from the tomb as the risen Lord. In baptism we have received a share in Jesus death, and have received the guarantee that we will be raised too. The Holy Spirit within us – the Spirit who will transform our body on the Last Day to be like that of the risen Jesus – is the down payment of our resurrection. The body and blood of the risen Lord received into our mouth in the Sacrament of the Altar is the assurance that our bodies will be raised, for Jesus said: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
There are times when it seems that Jesus is treating us like the Canaanite woman in our text. Yet the woman demonstrates how faith reacts to this. It continues to cling to Jesus; to call upon him. It does so because we know who Jesus is and what he has done for us. We know that he is the crucified and risen Lord who already now has given us forgiveness and salvation. And we know that he is the One who will raise us from the dead on the Last Day.