A great irony of our time is that we have more forms of communication than anyone has had in the history of the world. These means of communications are faster than anyone else has experienced. And at the same time, we have a greater ability to ignore communication directed to us.
The number of means by which we can communicate today is hard to believe. There is the phone, and since we all have cell phones, it is always there to be used. There are email and texting. There are the messenger components of Facebook, and Twitter. There are Facetime, Skype, and Zoom. These ways of communicating are basically instantaneous, and some of them even allow you to see the person with whom you are communicating.
And yet, the nature of the communications also means that people have the ability to ignore and avoid your communication if they want to do. To illustrate my point, let me compare the experience of my grandfathers when they were pastors with my own. When they called someone on the phone, the phone rang and people answered the phone. They did so because they didn’t know who was calling.
Today, when I try to reach people, through any of these means of communication, they know exactly who is contacting them. And so if they want to, they can ignore me, even as they continue to interact with all the other people they want. And I am not talking about people forgetting to reply to one message. It may surprise you to know, that some people don’t want to hear from their pastor. They will choose to ignore multiple communications in several different formats. One of the realities I have encountered is that if people want to ignore me, they can.
In our Gospel lesson this morning, a woman from the area of Tyre and Sidon finds herself being ignored as she asks for help. The really surprising thing, is that it is our Lord Jesus who is ignoring her. Jesus’ behavior toward her seems almost shocking. Yet in our text we have a reminder about God’s gracious act to include us in the salvation he has given. And we also learn an important truth about how God sometimes deals with us.
Our text begins by saying, “And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon.” Tyre and Sidon were located on the Mediterranean Sea, north of what had been Israel in the Old Testament. Jesus has left Galilee and gone out of the area that was Jewish. He has done so because he has just had an attack from the Pharisees and scribes.
Matthew tells us at the beginning of this chapter: “Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said,
‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.’” Galilee is located about eighty miles from Jerusalem. Travelling on foot, it takes about four days to get there. This was not a social call. The Pharisees were seeking to attack Jesus as they took up a topic that was a very important part of their teaching – ritual washing.
Jesus answered their challenge. But then he did what he does on several occasions after responding to attacks by his opponents: he withdraws. Jesus is following the Father’s timing. He knows when he is to die, and he responds to events in a way that make sure that he fulfills that will.
Next, we learn, “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.’” When Matthew wants to get out attention – when there is something important or surprising that takes place – he introduces it by saying, “behold!”.
This event certainly was surprising. Matthew tells us that a woman from that region came to Jesus asking for help. Now Tyre and Sidon were Gentile territory – it was pagan territory and always had been. It has been the home of Jezebel in the Old Testament. Matthew evokes this pagan past and its negative associations by calling the woman a “Canaanite.” Historically the term was anachronistic. It would be a little like calling a woman from Alabama a “Confederate woman.” But it conveys the negative things that came to mind for Jews when they spoke about the area of Tyre and Sidon.
The surprise was that this woman approached Jesus and said, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” The words, “Have mercy on me!” were a plea for help. Then she called Jesus “Lord” and identified him as the “Son of David.” “Lord” in the Gospel is the language of faith, and even more shocking is that the woman referred to Jesus as the “Son of David” – a term that identified the Messiah.
It is clear that word about Jesus, the miracle working teacher, had spread far and wide. In chapter four Matthew tells us, “And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.” Just before the arrival of the Pharisees, Jesus’ healing ministry had drawn great attention in Galilee, an area that bordered the region of Tyre and Sidon. Matthew says, “And when the men of that place recognized him, they sent around to all that region and brought to him all who were sick and implored him that they might only touch the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well.”
This woman had heard the word about Jesus. She had heard about his healing miracles. She had heard that he was the Son of David – the Messiah. And so as Jesus came into her area, she approached Jesus, proclaiming who he was, and asked him to help her afflicted daughter.
And what was Jesus’ response? He ignored her. In fact his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” Jesus then said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In the presence of the woman, Jesus said that he wasn’t sent for her.
Of course, it’s not just the woman who is included in that statement. It takes in pretty much all of us. Our Lord’s statement is a reminder that he came as Israel’s Messiah. We were not included in God’s covenant with Israel. And yet, as God had told Abraham, he worked through Israel in order to bring salvation to all people. Our inclusion in this salvation as Gentiles is yet another example of God’s grace. He gives us what we don’t deserve, because of his great love.
Undeterred, the woman came and knelt before Jesus, saying, “Lord, help me.” She approached in humble submission as she again addressed Jesus as “Lord” and asked him to help her daughter. Yet instead of helping Jesus said, “It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.” He called her a dog who was unworthy of his help. After all, she wasn’t part of Israel’s descendants.
First Jesus ignored the woman. Now he insulted her. In her interaction with Jesus she had received no help. Instead, Jesus had only rejected her. Sometimes, that is the way it feels as we approach God. We face challenges in life. There is illness, or family members are experiencing difficulties, or there is loneliness, or we face uncertainty about the future. We do what God’s Word tells us to do. We approach God in prayer and ask for help. And yet things don’t get any better. Or perhaps they even get worse.
At those times it can feel like God is ignoring us, or has abandoned us, or is even opposed to us. These experiences can lead us to doubt God, as we struggle to understand why he is treating us this way. We may become angry with God and face the temptation to give up on him.
It would have been understandable if the woman, after being insulted in this way left. But she didn’t. Instead she replied, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.” She had such great faith in what this Lord, the Son of David, could do that she said even his left overs were enough to help her daughter. When Jesus heard this he replied, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And we learn that her daughter was healed instantly.
Jesus praises the woman’s great faith. She had heard the word about Jesus, and she believed it. When he preached on this text, Martin Luther said the word she had heard is “a true Gospel and word of grace. This is the source of the woman’s faith, for if she had not believed, she would not have run after him.” She came to Jesus. She addressed him as Lord and called him Israel’s Messiah. She begged him for help. When she was ignored and seemed to be rebuffed, she returned yet more fervently. And when Jesus called her a dog, she confessed that Jesus’ power was so great that even the smallest portion from him was more than sufficient.
There are times when this is how God deals with us. He does so in order to lead us to a deeper and more committed faith – a faith that will produce even more fruit. We want the life of faith to be easy. But any coach knows that athletes do not improve by remaining comfortable. Instead, they must be pushed so that they become uncomfortable. That is when growth and improvement take place. Our Lord leads us to a deeper and more mature faith by allowing us to pass through these experiences. In this way he is exercising us in faith. He is equipping us to be people who are more ready to resist the attacks of the devil. He is developing us so that we can bear even more fruit as we love and serve our neighbor.
When it seems that God is ignoring us or even against us, we must cling in faith to what God has revealed about himself in his word. Even when our experiences seem to contradict this Word, we must hold fast to what God has said in his Word. Luther commented: “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 perception and thinking but strictly according to his Word.”
We can do this because Jesus Christ is the center of God’s Word. It is all about Christ, and what God has done for us through Christ. He is the One who died on the cross to reconcile us to God. He has given us peace with God by winning the forgiveness of our sins.
This he did on Good Friday. But never forget what Good Friday looked like on that day. It looked like God had rejected Christ. Indeed during the season of Lent we are preparing to hear Jesus cry out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
However, what looked like God’s “no” on Good Friday turned to be God’s great “yes” on Easter. By raising Jesus from the dead God demonstrated what Christ had won for us on the cross, and he defeated death as he began in Jesus the new life of the resurrection. Because we know Jesus the risen Lord, we are able to cling in faith to God’s word, and continue to trust in him in spite of the circumstances. Because Jesus, risen from the dead is our Lord and God, we know that even the smallest portion of his power is sufficient to sustain and rescue us.
Like the Canaanite woman we continue to turn in faith to our Lord. In his resurrection we have the guarantee of God’s love and care for us. We have his great “yes!” that overcomes every “no” we may experience. The “yes!” of Jesus’ resurrection sustains us in faith until we share in the resurrection when Christ returns on the Last Day.