“Man’s best friend.” There is a very good reason that people have applied this description to dogs. In living with two dogs – and sometimes three when the one belonging to Amy’s brother is staying with us – I never cease to be amazed at how true this description is.
Dogs want to be with people. Wherever we are sitting, that is where the dogs want to be. And it’s not that they just want to be in the same room. They want to be sitting right next to us, or even leaning up against us. When we go to bed, the dogs have to be there too, sleeping on the beds with the members of the house. Their desire to be with people is remarkable.
However, I am not naïve. There is one setting where the dog’s presence certainly has an ulterior motive. When we are getting dinner ready, the dogs are right there in the kitchen, at our feet. Now admittedly, I use “we” in a rather broad sense here. My contributions are usually limited to cutting up some fruit, making sure the table gets set, and doing whatever else Amy asks me to do. But I digress.
The dogs are right there in the kitchen – right underfoot. They are there looking up expectantly at the counter – ever vigilant; ever alert. They are ready to pounce on any food that falls on the floor. They are there in hopes that we will toss them something to eat. And when we sit down at the table, it is more of the same.
We learn from our Gospel lesson this morning that in two thousand years, not much has changed. Where there are people and food, dogs will be present. However, a difference exists in the connotations that are associated with dogs, and in this difference we learn about a woman’s great faith.
Our text begins by telling us, “And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon.” Jesus has just had a conflict with the Pharisees and scribes about the ritual washing of hands that the Pharisees demanded. Jesus had said to them, “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.’”
There are several occasions in Matthew’s Gospel when after an intense conflict with the Pharisees, Jesus withdraws to another place. Our Lord has a time and a location for his death. He will die at the Passover in Jerusalem, and he won’t allow circumstances to change this.
Jesus went northwest to the area along the Mediterranean Sea. The area around Tyre and Sidon was a Gentile area – it had been the home of Jezebel who married King Ahab of Israel in the Old Testament. 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.’”
We have heard enough of Matthew’s Gospel to know that when he says “and behold,” he is calling our attention to something surprising or important. And everything about this woman is surprising. Matthew calls her a “Canaanite woman” in order to emphasize this.
In his Gospel, Mark calls the woman a “Syrophoenician” which was the accurate term for the first century A.D. “Canaanite” was an archaic term that called to mind the opponents Israel faced when they conquered the promised land. It would be kind of like calling a woman from Alabama a “Confederate woman.” This was an entirely negative description.
Yet this Canaanite woman came out to Jesus and was repeatedly crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” There are three things to note about her statement. First, she called Jesus “Lord.” In fact, she does so three times in our brief text. In Matthew’s Gospel this is the term that believers use to address Jesus.
Second, she called out to Jesus for help – specifically help for her demon oppressed daughter. She cried, ““Have mercy on me, O Lord.” This is the exact same expression that we use when we say “Lord have mercy.”
Finally, she called Jesus, “Son of David.” This was a phrase that identified Jesus as Israel’s Messiah. Matthew began his Gospel by saying, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David.” This Gentile woman – this Canannite woman - confesses exactly who Jesus is, as she asks for help.
You will be hard pressed to find a more heartfelt and correct expression of faith in Jesus. And how did our Lord respond? He ignored her. He didn’t say a word. This didn’t stop the woman from continuing to cry to out Jesus for help. We know this because disciples then said to Jesus, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” As far as they were concerned, the woman was a nuisance because she was making a scene.
Jesus wasn’t answering the woman’s cry for help. And he stated there was a reason for this. He said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Because we know Jesus as the Savior of the world, it is easy to forget that he came as Israel’s Messiah. He was the fulfillment of the promises made to God’s covenant people. He was their Messiah. He wasn’t hers. And he wasn’t yours. You and I have no right to claim Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ. Instead it is only by God’s grace that we have been included among those who can now call Jesus our Christ.
Jesus had ignored the woman. He has just said that he had not come as Messiah for her. But the woman was not deterred. She was not put off. Instead, she approached Jesus, knelt before him and uttered the plea, “Lord, help me.” Surely Jesus would now help her. But instead he replied, “It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.” He called her a dog who was not worthy of his efforts. While we treat dogs like they are beloved members of the family, in that culture – and also today in the Middle East – they did not hold such a position. This was an insult – a slap in the face.
The woman approached Jesus in sincere and true faith. She asked him to help her daughter. And she got nowhere. He ignored her. Next he said she wasn’t his problem. Then he insulted her. We see in her experience the way things sometimes seem to go for us. We face challenges and difficulties. Our family member or friends experience problems. In sincere and true faith we ask Jesus for help. And nothing happens. Things don’t get better. Perhaps they even get worse.
God has said in his Word that he loves us. He has promised to care for us. Yet then, it seems as if God is ignoring us. It looks like God doesn’t care at all. Preaching on this text, Martin Luther 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.”
When this occurs, the temptation is to think that things are in fact as they appear – God doesn’t love or care about us. We are tempted to conclude that God’s Word is not true. And if God has given up on us, shouldn’t we just give up on God? After all, what’s the point?
It would have been very easy for the Canaanite woman to do this. But instead of despairing and giving up, she doubled down on faith. She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.” She admitted that no, she was not a Jew. But then she asserted that Jesus’ love and help were so abundant that even the leftovers of what Jesus had to offer were more than enough to meet her need. She pressed on towards him in faith and asserted that he was the Lord who could help.
Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” Our Lord praised her faith which had proven itself to be great by ignoring appearances and pressing on toward Jesus. As a result, we learn in our text that the daughter was healed instantly.
There are times God is silent in order to draw us closer to him; in order to lead us to stronger faith. Martin Luther said of this text, “But see how Christ drives and pursues faith in His people so that it becomes strong and firm.” In the midst of discomfort God is at work. This is not a foreign concept. We see it in athletics and physical fitness. To get stronger; to get faster; to get in better shape you have to be pushed beyond what you want to do. You have to be made uncomfortable.
The same thing is true in the life of faith. Yet as we think about our text and reflect on the times of silence that we experience, we need to remember why we are able to press on in faith. We can because Jesus Christ is the risen Lord. He is the crucified Lord who demonstrated his boundless love by suffering and dying for our sins. And he is also the One who rose from the dead. As St. Peter wrote, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”
The resurrection of Jesus Christ provides us with the living hope that sustains us. When God seems to be saying “no” and ignoring us, the resurrection of Jesus gives us confidence that God’s Word is true. God promises love and care for his children. These promises are true – as true as the body of Christ who had been buried in a tomb, but now invited his disciples to touch and feel him.
The risen Lord is God’s great “Yes!” that carries us through all challenges and temptations. He is the “Yes!” that enables us to cling to God’s Word, and tell God that we know he has to be true to his promises. Martin Luther said of this: “Our heart thinks there is nothing else but only no, and yet that is untrue. Therefore, it must turn away from this perception 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.” We do not despair. We do not give up hope. We believe and trust in Jesus Christ’s love because the crucified One has risen from the dead.