Imagine this scenario. It is around 10:30 a.m. and the Wednesday morning Bible class is about to start. As people are getting their coffee and visiting, a man enters the door on the east end of the building near the Conference Room where the study meets.
I am standing near the door to the Conference Room and this person says to me, “Pastor, can I talk to you? I need some help.” However, I don’t respond to the man. In fact, I ignore him like he isn’t even there.
So the man says again, a little louder, “Pastor, can I talk to you? I need some help.” Now the congregation members who are there are beginning to get a little uncomfortable. They say, “Pastor, there’s a man here who wants to talk to you.” But rather than going over and talking to the man, I instead say out loud, “As pastor, I am only here to serve congregation members.”
Then the man comes up to me and says more urgently, “Pastor, I really need to talk to you. I need some help.” And this time I say to the man, “It wouldn’t be right to take what belongs to the church and to give it to scum off the street.”
I am pretty sure that if this happened you would be appalled at my behavior. I certainly hope you would be. You would think that this was completely inappropriate and unacceptable behavior by your pastor.
And yet … this is precisely what Jesus Christ does in our Gospel lesson today to a Canaanite women who is seeking help for her daughter. I would argue that it is one of the most surprising things that Jesus does in the Gospels. It seems so out of character – so unlike the Lord we know as the caring, loving and compassionate Savior.
But what we see in our Gospel lesson today is part of how God deals with us. We may not like it, but at times God hides his yes under a no. At times we do not see a yes, except for the one he has spoken to us in his word of the Gospel. And in those times, the Canaanite woman’s persistent faith teaches us that we must cling to Jesus Christ as he has revealed himself in God’s Word.
Just before the beginning of our text, Jesus has been engaged in a dispute with the Pharisees about their tradition of the elders – in particular about the fact that his disciples don’t carry out the washings that the Pharisees said were necessary.
As he does on several occasions, Jesus now withdraws from the conflict. His mission that leads to the cross has a timing that follows the Father’s will. Jesus will not have anyone seek to disrupt this plan. And so we hear in our text, “Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon.” Jesus went northwest to an area that was along the Mediterranean Sea. He went into an area that was historically a pagan one. This had been the home of Queen Jezebel in the Old Testament – a pagan woman who promoted the worship of Baal in Israel during the days of the prophet Elijah.
While he was there, something unexpected happened. Matthew let us know this is the case by using his phrase, “and behold.” We hear, “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 calls her a “Canaanite woman.” This was really an anachronistic term – nobody called people there Canaanites anymore. But he uses this word because it carries with it all the associations of the pagan past that opposed Israel.
She is a Canaanite woman, and yet, she says, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” She asks for Jesus’ help as she says “Have mercy, O Lord” – the same thing we say in the Kyrie at the beginning of the service. She calls Jesus “Lord” – something that in Matthew’s Gospel we have come to associate with people who believe in Jesus. And then, the kicker is that she calls him “Son of David.” She addresses him using a term that refers to Israel’s Messiah.
You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who gets it more correct. She seeks out Jesus. She begs for help. She calls him Lord. She calls him Son of David. This is a remarkable statement of faith! And all of this from a Canaanite woman who didn’t live in any of the lands of Israel!
How did this woman learn about Jesus? We aren’t told. But one thing is clear: Someone spoke the Gospel to her. Someone told her about Jesus the Lord who was Israel’s Messiah and how he was bringing God’s reign by healing the sick and casting out demons. She hear this word, and she believed it. She believed and her faith set her into action. She sought out Jesus and she called out to him in faith for help.
This amazing example of faith comes to Jesus. And what does he do? He ignores her. He didn’t answer her a word. Yet the woman was not driven away by this. Instead she kept crying out to Jesus, so much so that the disciples came to Jesus and apparently asked him to just give her what she wanted so that she would go away. However, Jesus didn’t do this. Rather he said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” His answer was to say that yes, he was the Son of David - Israel’s Messiah - and so this pagan woman was not his concern.
Put off yet again, the woman didn’t go away. Instead she drew even closer to Jesus. She humbly kneeled before him with the urgent plea, “Lord, help me.” This was clearly faith on display. Surely Jesus would now help the woman’s daughter! But no, instead he delivers the most offensive statement yet. He said, “It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.” He calls the woman a dog. He calls her something that in this culture was about as derogatory as you could get.
In the Gospel lesson we see faith as it receives nothing except the answer, No. Everything the woman experiences says that she is ignored. It all says that she is rejected. She has heard the Gospel. She has heard the word about Jesus – who he is and how he helps people. She believes it. Yet everything she encounters says that he doesn’t care at all.
At times, this is our experience too. God’s Word says that he loves you. It says that he has given his Son to die on the cross for you, and that he has risen from the dead. It says that through baptism you are now a forgiven child of God.
And yet … it sure doesn’t seem like God loves you. Instead, you find yourself struggling with a chronic and debilitating condition that saps you of energy and joy. Instead, you find yourself bearing the daily weight of anxiety and depression. Instead, you experience regular challenges in your relationships with a spouse or family member or at work.
There are times when we seem to receive nothing except the answer No from God. There are times when the experience of our life seem to say that God does not care. And the temptation is to conclude that no, he does not. The temptation is to complain against God or get angry at God. Finally, the temptation is to turn away from God. When Martin Luther wrote a sermon on this text he said, “It is a very hard blow when God appears to be so stern and angry and hides His grace so very deeply. This is well-known by those who feel and experience it in their hearts and think that He will not do what He has said and will let His Word be false.”
The Canaanite woman experienced this. Jesus called her a dog. Yet then we hear her response to Jesus in our text. She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.” He called her a dog. Fine. Her faith in Jesus remained confident that even if he treated her like a dog, he would still be able to give her all that she needed. And then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And we learn that her daughter was healed instantly.
Martin Luther said of this text that, “This was written for all our comfort and instruction, so that we may know how deeply God hides his grace from us, so that we would not consider him according to our feeling and thinking but strictly according to His Word.” Why does God act this way? Luther answered, “But see how Christ drives and pursues faith in His people so that it becomes strong and firm.”
God leads us away from ourselves – our thoughts, our feelings, our perception - and towards him. He leads us toward what he has revealed in his Word. He leads us toward the One who stands at the center of his Word – Jesus Christ. For it is in Jesus that God has revealed the great Yes that overcomes every No we may encounter in life. In the crucified and risen Lord, God has revealed his loving heart to you. He has done something that allows no doubt to remain about his care for you.
God has revealed this Word – this Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ – to you. Our calling as Christians is to set our faith on this Word, and this Word alone no matter what happens in life. Luther said, “Our heart thinks there is nothing else but only no, and yet this is untrue. Therefore it must turn away from this feeling and with a firm faith in God’s Word grasp and hold onto the deep, secret yes under and above the no, as this woman does.”
This Yes is Jesus Christ – his incarnation, death and resurrection for you. This Yes has given you forgiveness. It gives you God’s love. It gives you salvation and eternal life. Like the Canaanite woman, faith clings to this Yes from God, because when we have Jesus we have the only answer that we will ever need.