As we live in our culture, we all have a sense of what is considered to be normal and what is not. Now admittedly, since the 1960’s what is considered “normal” has been stretched greatly by many in our culture. But there are still many things in life in which people would rapidly conclude, “That’s just not normal.” So for instance if I decided today that I wanted to keep an elephant as a pet in my backyard, I doubt that my neighbors would consider that to be normal. Instead they would probably contact the city to see what they could do about it.
Because we know what it is considered normal in our culture, it often doesn’t occur to us that there is any other way to do things. Many of us have dogs, and I am willing to bet that there are many here today who think nothing of it if their dog sleeps on the bed with them at night. For all intents and purposes, the dog is a beloved member of the family. And so there sleeps the dog, curled up at the end of the bed. Or in our house, if Abigail is not at home, her little dog Noel sleeps on our bed right in between Amy and me.
But that is not how it works everywhere. In graduate school I knew a professor who often went to Syria to do research on ancient Christian texts. He reported that when he was in Syria, the people there asked incredulously: “Do people in America actually let the dog sleep on their bed?” In that culture, the dog was considered to be a dirty animal and was held in a much lower regard. To have the dog sleep on your bed was unthinkable.
And when you step back and look at it from a different perspective, we Americans really are kind of crazy when it comes to dogs. Recently our kids were reminded that mom is not omniscient. Since they feed the dogs, if the dog food for Baylor our thirteen year old black lab runs out, mom is not going to know about it unless they tell her.
Since it turned out that the food for Baylor had run out a week ago, it soon became clear that the kids had been feeding Baylor with the food for Noel. This led to a brief lecture about how this wasn’t healthy for the dog. After all there were two different bags of food – one for little young dogs and one for big old dogs.
Now I am sure that what we said is quite true. But when you step back and think about this in comparison to the way majority of dogs are fed in the world, and the way they have been fed through most of history, I have to admit … it is kind of amusing. It is yet another indication of how abundantly we have been blessed … so blessed that we can think about our dogs’ nutrition.
A statement about the feeding of dogs in the first century Palestinian world provides the key moment in our Gospel lesson this morning. The dogs get the scraps from the master’s table. In humble faith, a Canaanite woman asserts that even the least gift from Jesus is far more than enough.
Our text this morning begins with the words, “And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon.” Jesus has just had an intense confrontation with the Pharisees and the scribes about the tradition of the elders – the oral law that the Pharisees had added on top of the Torah God had given to Israel at Mt. Sinai.
Jesus had said to them, “So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” And these weren’t just your local yokel Galilee Pharisees. They were the heavy hitters from Jerusalem who had made the trip all the way north into Galilee in order to take on Jesus.
During Lent we remember that Jesus’ mission was following the Father’s plan. It was not yet time for Jesus to fulfill his ministry through death and so, as on several other occasions in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus withdrew. He went further north to the region of Tyre and Sidon along the Mediterranean coast. This was pagan territory – the land of Jezebel in the Old Testament and her worship of Baal.
Jesus isn’t where you expect him to be. And then, the unexpected happens. We hear in our text, “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.” Now it’s not hard to know when Matthew’s Gospel contains something that is surprising or important. Any time Matthew has, “and behold!” – that is what he is telling the reader.
Jesus is in a place that culturally is about as far removed from Israel and the true faith as you could find. But here of all places a Canaanite woman approaches and begins to cry out, asking Jesus for help. She comes to Jesus and she addresses him as, “O Lord, Son of David.”
Now in Matthew’s Gospel, the only people who call Jesus “Lord” are those who believe in him. And “Son of David” identifies Jesus as the Messiah – the fulfillment of all of God’s promises to Israel about the One who brings salvation for all of creation. After all, the very first verse of the Gospel says, “The book of the origins of Jesus the Christ: the son of David, the son of Abraham.”
These amazing words come out of this Canaanite woman’s mouth! And how does Jesus respond? He doesn’t. He said nothing. The woman kept crying out to Jesus until finally the disciples came to Jesus and began to urge him, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” It seems clear they were asking Jesus to give her what she wanted so that she would just go away. But Jesus didn’t do it. He didn’t even speak to her. Instead, he said to the disciples, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Jesus said that he wasn’t sent to deal with the Canaanite woman – a descendant of Israel’s enemies. But the woman did not give up. Instead, she intensified her efforts. She approached, knelt on her knees before him and said, “Lord, help me!” And how did Jesus respond? He said, “It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.” He said he wasn’t going to help her. In fact, he called her a dog.
There are times when we feel like this woman. We find ourselves on our knees, asking God for help. We ask for help and we don’t get any. Instead it seems like God is calling us a dog, because things get worse instead of better. We can encounter this when we or a loved one is struggling with mental illness such as anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder. We can encounter this when the circumstances of life at work or school are bringing failure rather than success. We can encounter this when a loved one or a friend does not believe in Jesus Christ, and all of our efforts to share the faith are going nowhere.
In the midst of experiences like this, the temptation is to think we have been abandoned by God. The temptation is to take issue with God – to get angry at God.
But that is not what the Canaanite woman did. Jesus said to her, “It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.” The woman didn’t try to argue with Jesus. She didn’t get angry. Instead she expressed the confidence that Jesus’ grace and mercy were so abundant that even the scraps – the leftovers – would be more than sufficient for her needs. She clung to Jesus in faith, confident that he was all she needed.
And then we hear in our text, “Then Jesus answered her, ‘O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.” Our Lord acknowledged and praised her faith, and healed her daughter at that very moment.
In spite of everything, the Canaanite woman persisted in faith toward Jesus. She believed in who he was and what he was doing. She didn’t respond like the Jerusalem Pharisees at the beginning of the chapter. They came to Jesus and got upset because the Lord wasn’t doing things in the way they wanted. Instead, this Gentile woman would not let anything shake her from Jesus no matter what Jesus did. She believed in him.
In our Gospel lesson we see that God was doing things in his own way. Jesus makes, what on the surface, seems like a very puzzling statement: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Yet these words remind us that Jesus the Christ was Israel’s Messiah. He was the fulfillment of all of God’s promises to Abraham and David. He was in fact Israel reduced to One, as he fulfilled all the God had spoken for and about Israel.
Yet God’s mission for Israel was never only about Israel. Instead, just as God had promised that in Abraham’s seed all nations would be blessed, so Israel was to be a light to the nations. And so during Lent we follow Jesus the Christ to the cross of Good Friday. By his death he fulfilled Israel’s role as the servant. He was the suffering Servant who gave his life as a ransom for many – as a ransom for you. And then on Easter he began the resurrection of the Last Day as he rose from the dead and defeated death.
This is the Jesus whom you now know. You know him to be the crucified and risen Lord – crucified for you and raised for you. You know him to be the fulfillment of God’s entire saving plan that began in the first Gospel promise of Genesis 3:15 that we heard last week about the seed of the woman who would defeat the devil.
And because you know this you can cling to him in faith no matter what may be happening; no matter what things may look like. In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ you have seen the proof that God’s grace, love and mercy in Christ is so abundant that even his scraps give you all you need for forgiveness and continuing life in the faith.
You know that it is so abundant that even what looks like mere scraps is in fact the precious bread of life. For in the Sacrament of the Altar our Lord gives you what appears to be a very paltry meal. He gives you a bite of bread and a sip of wine. But because of the crucified and risen One’s word, when he does this he gives you his life giving body and blood. He gives you the medicine of immortality that provides the forgiveness of sins and guarantees the defeat of death.
During this pilgrimage of life in a fallen world, there will be times when God seems to be silent. There will be times when we call out to God, and in the hardships that continue to unfold it seems like God is calling us a dog. But in the experience and example of the Canaanite woman we see that faith is not deterred by these things. Instead we hold firmly to Christ in faith because we know him to be the One who died and rose again for us. We know him to the One who gives so abundantly in his love and grace that what seems to be mere scraps provides more than we will ever need to walk in faith as we look forward to his return on the Last Day.