21 And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 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.” 23 But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (ESV)
This summer the world news has offered us another set of studies in the reality of human hatred. It started with the Russians in Ukraine fighting to leave their country. It continued with the escalated attacks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It seems to be climaxing in the bloody take-over of central Iraq by Muslims who are killing all who do not comply with their religious vision. The common denominator in all of these hate-filled conflicts is the differences between people – differences in ethnicity, in language, in culture, but often in religion, too. One group claims to be the people of God and with God on their side, they feel they are right to fight and even kill the other.
In our Gospel lesson this morning, we overhear a scene in which the disciples and even Jesus Himself seemed to dismiss a person just because she was different. Getting away from the crowds, Jesus withdrew from his usual ministry area of Galilee and Judea and went off to the pagan region of Tyre and Sidon. There wouldn’t be as many Jews there; his reputation wouldn’t have reached there. He could spend some time alone with his disciples. Nevertheless, a Canaanite woman found him and began to plead for deliverance for her demon-possessed daughter. it seems that the Lord’s reputation indeed had wings. He ignored her. She persisted. She pestered the disciples to get Jesus to respond. They responded by asking Jesus to send her away. When Jesus does talk, his first words rebuke her. He explains that she’s not part of his mission: “I was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Her response to that? She asks for help anyway: “Lord, help me!” He explains that she has no claim on His help: “it’s not right to throw the children’s bread to the dogs.” This is not the Jesus we expect. We have the words “Jesus sinners does receive” printed in large letters over our chancel – but here’s Jesus saying there’s a sinner he won’t receive, won’t help. He’s not for her.
But sometimes I think we do follow this Jesus who is for us but not for everybody else. More than we might like to admit, we can dismiss people because of their background or their appearance. Sometimes churches have had the experience of a shabbily dressed person walking in and there are stories of sidewise glances, suspicious stares, and even ushers escorting them out. When we know of someone who has an addiction to alcohol or drugs, someone caught in sexual sins or plagued by mental health problems, maybe they wear clothes that makes them look tough or dirty or maybe they listen to music that we can only hear as vulgar noise. Earrings, nose-rings, body-piercings and tattoos. Sometimes it’s even as petty as their face is not pretty for us to look at or they have a challenge being overweight or they laugh a little too much or talk a bit loud. There are many reasons we come up with why we might want to avoid or dismiss certain people. Even in our first instinctive response, we might want to cut short a conversation with them or leave by another door not to pass them.
It’s natural, sadly, for us to like people who are like us and to feel comfortable around them. The mistake is that we think that Jesus is like us, too, and we feel its okay for us to ignore, dismiss and avoid people who really are creatures of God and objects of His love and care. This kind of judgment by which we like the people we like and we don’t like anyone else is really living under the law. It’s a way of dealing with people as if they have to earn our love and deserve our kindness. The truth is that Jesus has come for all people and this must transform how we welcome and receive everyone. His grace means that there is love – God’s eternal love – even for people we don’t like and people we think have nothing to do with God and we imagine that God wants nothing to do with them.
So, if that’s all true, what do we do with this Jesus who ignores and rebukes the Canaanite woman? We hear him out and we listen as he finally praises her: “O woman! Great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you desire.” And we see the result: her daughter was healed instantly.
The coming of Christ Jesus to the regions of Tyre and Sidon meant the coming of faith. His reputation had preceded Him. And this desperate woman who knew her need had heard that this Jew teacher/preacher/prophet was helping and delivering people. She herself was helpless in the face of powers beyond her control. Her beloved daughter was possessed by a demon. The coming of Jesus had stirred hope within her. Here was a chance that she could not pass up. She knew she had nowhere else to turn. And when she came to Jesus, she wouldn’t take no for an answer – not from the disciples and not from Jesus – and in the end her faith was rewarded and her request granted.
This story teaches us to leave the way of the law by which we judge who deserves God’s help and who doesn’t. Faith and faith alone grabs hold of God’s grace. The disciples dismissed the woman because she was from an idolatrous people and she had obviously lived an immoral life apart from the Word of God. Jesus Himself was testing the woman’s faith, helping her to grow in faith by exercising her in prayer and trust. Maybe He was giving his disciples a lesson about the power of faith to grasp the good things of God. How He astounded them when He praised her and praised her faith no less. God’s very plan of salvation seemed to oppose her request. God had chosen the children of Abraham to be His own. When the His chosen tribes entered the Promised Land, God was saying that the time was up for the idolaters who lived there. The Canaanites had had their opportunity to repent and it was past. That had been 1400 years before.
Nevertheless, the coming of Jesus gave this woman such hope that He could help her and that He would help her that faith arose in her heart. Her faith crossed all the boundaries of history and culture and language and religion and boldly insisted on claiming the good things that God had for her. And when she heard that final word of Jesus – “be it done for you as you desire” – she rested in that word and went home confident in His grace.
There is no one so far from God that Jesus cannot come to them and bring them all the gifts of His salvation. Nothing that anyone has done, nothing of their past, nothing of their present, nothing of who they are can bar them simply hearing the Word of His grace and then knowing that, yes, His love is also for them. We know this is true. It is true for ourselves. As Christians we live everyday counting on God’s mercy and trusting in His forgiveness. We know Christ’s blood is enough for us and His rising means we have eternal life. We didn’t earn this. We don’t deserve this. It’s not like we’re so good to get such amazing gifts from God. The only difference between us and those who do not yet know God’s grace is only this: faith. Alcohol abuse, drug use, smoking, loud music, tattoos and body piercings, disease or dirtiness, vulgarity or rudeness. None of the things that we may not like about other people matters. Every person is either already a brother or sister in Christ or they are but one step of faith from becoming a brother or sister in Christ.
Your believing this can help them believe this too. When we react to people – even in subtle ways – as if they don’t measure up, then we reinforce in them the idea that relationships are based on the law of what we earn or deserve. But when we follow Christ’s way of love for them, we show them kindness and respect, no matter who they are, how they look or what they’ve done. We listen with interest and care to truly get to know them whether we feel that first connection to them or not. That becomes a taste of grace for their spirits. You can show them that Christian love extends to them and that Christ’s love is for them as well. And then they too may believe and receive His healing grace.
When people seem far from God’s love, when God Himself seems to have distanced Himself from someone’s life, your faith can know better, you can believe better. There is grace in Christ Jesus: God’s love, God’s help, God’s deliverance is not far from any one of us. None who call on Him in faith will ever be disappointed.