“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Excuse me. What was that? Did I miss something there?
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Yes, that’s exactly what Jesus says to the Canaanite woman in our text this morning. And it is no mistake. This is not like where our political leaders say something that is false and misleading, and then later they try to explain it away by saying that they “misspoke.”
Jesus really means this, and it is not the first time he had said it. In chapter ten our Lord sends out the twelve apostles on a mission trip in which they are to proclaim as they go, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” They are to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons. And as Jesus sends them out he gives these instructions: "Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
We are confronted here by a reality that we often overlook. Jesus came as Israel’s Messiah. Matthew begins his Gospel by giving the genealogy of Jesus whom he describes as “the son of David, the son of Abraham.” He starts this list by saying, “Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers.” Judah and his brothers – those are the twelve tribes of Israel. That is the people God took into a covenant at Mt Sinai. When Matthew then continues to trace the lineage from Judah through David to Jesus, he is telling us that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah.
Jesus came as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel. Israel was God’s people. If you did not descend from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then you were not Matthew make it clear that the focus of Jesus’ ministry was to Israel as her Messiah.
However, in our text we do not find Jesus in Israel. Instead, he is in the region of Tyre and Sidon. Just before our text, our Lord has had a confrontation with the Pharisees. They have asked him, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” Now this washing of the hands had nothing to do with health concerns. It was instead an example of how the Pharisees had taken aspects of the Law that were directed only to priests and applied to it all people. Things got heated as Jesus said, “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.’”
So as he does several times after a sharp confrontation like this, Jesus withdraws to a different area. Our Lord has a mission and a timing. He is to die in Jerusalem at the time of the Passover. He is to die during Holy Week for which the season of Lent prepares us. And so he prevents any kind of premature event by leaving to another place.
In the area of Tyre and Sidon, we find Jesus in the very opposite of Israel. This region north of Israel had always been pagan territory. It had been the home of Jezebel, the daughter of the king of the Sidonians, who married Ahab the king of Israel. She had vigorously promoted the worship of Baal as she tried to kill the prophet Elijah.
This is the last place where we expect a person to appeal to Israel’s Messiah. Yet in our text 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 which in the first century A.D. was an anachronistic term. It would be like today calling someone from Mississippi a “Confederate” woman. But the description is intentional because it is a term that reinforces the pagan associations of the area.
The woman’s appeal is remarkable because not only does she call Jesus “Lord,” but she also addresses him as “Son of David.” She uses a term that identifies Jesus as the Messiah – Israel’s Messiah. Word about Jesus had traveled throughout the region of Palestine. This woman had heard about Jesus, Israel’s Messiah who had the power to heal. And so she appeals to him to help her daughter who is afflicted by a demon.
Jesus’ response seems shocking: he completely ignored her. He did not answer her a word. It is apparent that the woman continued to cry out to Jesus for help because his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” They seemed to be asking Jesus to heal the woman’s daughter so that she would just leave them alone. But Jesus didn’t do it. Instead, he answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Yet the woman had faith in Jesus that he could help her daughter. So she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” Yet rather than helping her, Jesus answered, “It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.” He called her a dog, in a culture where the animal did not have any of the positive connotations that we associate with our family pets.
Surely this would finally prompt the woman to give up. But instead, she replied, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.” She did not deny her status as a Gentile. She did not claim that she had a right to help from Jesus, Israel’s Messiah. But what she did assert was that Jesus was so powerful and mighty that even scraps of what he had to offer were more than sufficient to heal her daughter.
Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” He praised the woman and left no doubt that he continuing appeal to Jesus was one of true faith. And we learn that her daughter was healed instantly.
Today’s Gospel lesson is one that seems challenging. We don’t see Jesus act as we expect him to do so. He doesn’t seem to be the loving, caring Savior. But there are very important lessons in our text that teach us about how, at times, God deals with us.
The first thing we learn from the woman is the manner in which we must approach God. Jesus called her a dog. He said that she was completely unworthy of his help. We must confess that the same thing is true of us. In the dispute with the Pharisees that prompted Jesus to withdraw to the region of Tyre and Sidon, the topic had been what defiles a person. Our Lord said that it was not some particular food banned by religious law that did so. He said: “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.”
This describes us. We are sinners who spew forth sin in every possible way. We try to find ways to justify and excuse our sin. We are so sinful that we don’t even recognize all of the ways we sin in thought, word, and deed. We have no right to be with God, much less ask for God’s help. This is what we must confess about ourselves. This is what we must confess before God.
The second thing we learn is that the woman clung to what she had heard about Jesus. She had heard the Gospel. She had heard God’s Word, which was the word about Jesus. And she believed. She believed in Jesus because of this word and she would not let go of faith in Christ no matter what happened.
You have heard the Gospel. St Paul told the Romans, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” You have heard that Jesus Christ died on the cross to in order to redeem you – to free you from sin. You have heard that on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead. Through this action he vindicated Jesus as the Messiah, and defeated death. God has used that word to call you to faith in Jesus. As Peter said, “you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” This word is living and abiding because it is the means that the Holy Spirit uses to create and sustain faith.
You believe in Jesus Christ as your risen Lord and Savior. You are the baptized child of God who is forgiven and has salvation. But what we see in the woman’s experience is the way that God sometimes deals with us. When he preached on this text, Martin Luther commented, “But see how Christ drives and pursues faith in His people, so that it becomes strong and firm.”
In our lives, we encounter circumstances that make it seem as if God does not love and care for us. If God loves me, why did he allow me to get cancer, or have a stroke, or get diabetes? If God loves me, why is he allowing my family member to experience these hardships? If God loves me, why am I facing such uncertainty about my future?
But God’s Word – his word of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for you – remains. It stands firm. God allows these things that seem to be a denial of everything he says about his love for us because they force us to cling yet more firmly to the word – to Christ. As Luther said, “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.”
Like the woman, we have heard the word about Christ. What is more we know the whole story. We know about the death and resurrection of Christ. We know that though Jesus was sent as Israel’s Messiah, Israel’s Messiah was ultimately sent to carry out a mission that brings salvation to all people. Jesus may say in our text, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But as the fulfillment of what Israel was meant to be for the nations, he told his disciples after his resurrection: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
There will be times when God allows us to experience things that force this faith to deepen, grow, and mature. The woman in our text this morning provides the example of what this looks like. She believed in Jesus. She declared that he was the Messiah. Even when it seemed like she was being rejected, she pressed on toward Jesus in faith. She confessed her unworthiness, and but also believed that Jesus was so powerful that even the smallest help from him was more than sufficient.
Our faith in Jesus Christ does the same. Through the work of the Spirit, we have been brought to faith in the Lord who died for our sins, and was raised from the dead. In him we find the “yes” of God’s love that overcomes every “no” that we are experiencing. In the midst of those times, we cling ever more strongly to Jesus. We do not turn away, but instead focus our lives even more on those ways by which he comes to us with the promise of his faith sustaining Spirit – in his Word, in Holy Baptism, and in the Sacrament of the Altar. We believe and trust in Jesus to bring us through those times, because he died for us and now lives as our risen Lord.