11th SA Pentecost – Vicar Ethan Stoppenhagen
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (Series A, Proper 15)
Text: Matthew 15:21-28
Our Savior Lutheran Church, Raleigh
In the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world. Amen.
Let us pray: O Ever-living God, let this mind be in us which was also in Christ Jesus; that as he from his loftiness stooped to the death of the Cross; so we in our lowliness may humble ourselves, believing, obeying, living, and dying to the glory of the Father; for the same Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.
To the disciples, this Canaanite woman is exactly the wrong person, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
You remember the Canaanites, right? Here’s a quick refresher. A reading from Deuteronomy, chapter 20: The Lord said to the Israelites: “In the cities of the peoples [i.e. the Canaanites] that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them…as the Lord your God has commanded you.” The Word of the Lord! Thanks be to God.
Of course, we recall that when the Israelites entered the Promised Land, they didn’t do a very good job of annihilating the Canaanites as God commanded them. Instead, the Israelites let the Canaanite women live and took them as their wives, and in return, their new Canaanite wives led them into idolatry.
So the Canaanites—especially Canaanite women—were bad news. And the disciples knew this.
But to Jesus, the Canaanite woman is…well…it’s hard to tell. First, he ignores her, then he humiliates her, and then he praises her faith. But in the end, through the Canaanite woman, Jesus teaches us that his way is the way of humility.
What makes this situation so difficult is that we can see this woman’s humility from the get-go. She comes up to Jesus and says, Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David. Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David. She acknowledges him as the Messiah. She bows down before him. She asks for the crumbs. For all we can tell, her faith is genuine. So when Jesus humiliates her even more, we’re left feeling a little uncomfortable.
Nonetheless, as a Canaanite, she doesn’t belong. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” Jesus reminds her. She’s no Israelite. She’s not part of the covenant. She wouldn’t ever be able to receive the blessings of the Messiah. As far as the disciples could see, she’s just a wolf in sheep’s clothing, sneaking into the sheepfold through the back gate. She must be faking faith in order to reap the benefits, and she deserves to be humiliated for it. Right?
So the question stands: Is the Canaanite woman coming to Jesus in true faith or is she coming to Jesus simply looking for a miracle? Is her faith really real?
However, I hear one my seminary professors whispering, “Wrong question!” “Is her faith real?” is the wrong question, because by asking it we suddenly put ourselves in the judge’s seat. We determine if her faith is substantial enough, we judge if she’s just seeking after earthly gain, we decide whether her prayer is genuine. But we are not the judges of faith.
Our self-justifying selves want to see this face-off between Jesus and the Canaanite woman as a test—Jesus testing the strength of her faith. But in reality Jesus is showing us the power of faith’s humility. In humiliating the Canaanite woman, Jesus simply highlights the humility of heart that she already has as a believer. Rather than testing the woman, Jesus is lifting her up to the disciples and to us as an example of true faith.
Think of her confession again. It’s truly self-deprecating. When she professes Jesus as Lord, the Son of David, she is setting aside her ethnic heritage, her gods, and her very identity. She denies the Baals and Ashtaroth of her ancestors, choosing instead to bow down before Yahweh, the God of Israel. Yet she acknowledges that she is not part of the people of God and stands outside of the blessings of the covenant. In effect, she admits that she is nothing, completely undeserving of anything the Messiah has to offer. She accomplishes the destruction of her Canaanite self that the Israelites were unable to do.
She can do nothing but agree with Jesus’ humiliating words: “Yes Lord, I am a dog. But even the dogs eat the crumbs from the Master’s table.” She has only a demonized daughter, a humble heart, and a belief in the infinite mercy of a God not her own. It’s a long-shot, but she’s counting on Jesus to open up the kingdom to those beyond the Israelites—even to the Canaanite canines.
She would prove to be right. Her humble words tugged at Jesus’ heart, for he himself was the embodiment of humility. Descending from his heavenly throne, he became man, suffered, and died for the life of the world. Born in a no-name town to a no-name woman, he knew only the poor and simple, living a life so ordinary and unnoticed that even those nearest him could not have known that God himself was dwelling in their midst.
Jesus’ humiliation would reach its pinnacle on that Good Friday in the humility of the cross. He would ache with the hurt of rejection and denial. He would endure the humiliating insults of his captors, mockingly clad in purple and crowned with thorns. He alone would suffer the silence of God.
But his humiliation was not without a divine purpose. Jesus sank to such depths of suffering in order to bring you up to his holy mountain. “All we like sheep have gone astray.” But our Good Shepherd has sought the least, the last, and the lost from the far corners of the world. He has hemmed in his flock and safeguarded us in his fold, which is the Church. Even more, he’s welcomed in us wolves and given us snow-white sheep’s clothing. He has made us joyful, and gathered us into his house of prayer.
Jesus could have chosen to be born into luxury and power, to recreate on earth his heavenly throne. But souls are not won by wealth, or by sword-wielding, or by legislating hope into the hearts of the people. Instead, Jesus gathers us in unwittingly; he brings together his flock in simple and unsuspecting ways. No pomp. No flair. Only a few words, a few drops of water. Simple crumbs and a sip of wine. Yet in such humble means we are given life in all its fullness. Jesus has come down and placed his salvation within our reach.
We take our cues from this dear Canaanite woman. We accept that we are lost sheep and scrounging dogs. We put to death the identities and idols that have taken hold of us. We approach our Lord with humble hearts and confess our worthlessness. We stand with dogged persistence when faced with his silence. We bow down when he strikes us with the humiliating truth of our sinfulness. We rejoice in his healing gift of forgiveness. We keep justice, do righteousness, and walk obedient to his Word. For he has placed in our hearts a resolute faith, and given us mouths that humbly confess a need for mercy, a need for healing, a need for food which only God can give.
And so we receive with joy the salvation of God and his righteousness, which have been revealed in Christ. He is our strength and our shield, and he hears the voice of our pleas for mercy. We delight in his gifts and patiently await the day when he will gather us to his holy mountain where we will know joy without end.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.