Then Jesus answered her, ‘O woman, great is thy faith!…’ (St. Matthew 15:28).
There is a common objection to the Christian faith which goes something like this, ‘I can’t believe in an evil god who would commit genocide or ethnic cleansing like the God of the Old Testament.’ This declaration is usually treated as if it is a slam-dunk, unanswerable condemnation of the God of the Bible. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this tired old slander intoned like some magic spell to make Christians shut up. But, of course, magic isn’t real: none of us can bend the natural world to our will with a few words and a wand, and neither can we stand in judgment of the God who establishes what is moral and righteous in the same way He establishes the grass, the air, and the mind we use to try and judge Him. More immediately troubling, if we don’t believe in God, then who is to say genocide is bad anyway. Maybe, genocide is good, and we only think it’s bad because we are moral cowards enslaved to self-defeating fairy tales or simply old, tired ways of thinking backwardly preventing us from having heaven on earth? Now, I do hope everyone in this room is anti-genocide, but we can see in the hysteria of our present moment how a people could be moved to think the eradication of one group of people could bring utopia.
It was Christianity, of course, which made parts of the world—for periods of time anyway—anti-genocide. Of course, rulers and compromised clerics have tried to justify mass slaughter in the name of Christ, but it always rings false when one is actually confronted by the Son of God forgiving and loving from the cross. But, this great act of self-sacrifice seems to be inconsistent with the Biblical decrees our atheist friend thinks he understands, for example, from Deuteronomy, ‘When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you, and when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them’ (Deut. 7:1-6). How do we reconcile, ‘Show no mercy’ with ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do’? The only thing worse than the atheist’s shallow condemnation of God is the most common, modern Christian answer to this problem, ‘Well, we worship the loving God of the New Testament not the judgmental God of the Old Testament.’ It’s simple, it’s easy to remember, and the Western church has been paying the penalty for its complete and utter misleading wrongness since long before we were born. I would rather have a thousand atheists try to cast one of their memorized spells upon me than hear one more self-identified Christian parrot back this blasphemy. If we take nothing else from today’s sermon, let it be this: we must believe and trust in the God revealed in the Old Testament, or we do not actually believe and trust in the God revealed in the New. Once we understand this reality, so much of the rot infecting American Christianity over the last century becomes clear.
But what does this phrase really mean? It means we must accept God’s commandment to Joshua and the Israelites to utterly destroy the Canaanites; just as we must accept the same God’s mercy to the faithful Canaanite woman we meet today. We are going to talk about why God would command these just actions, but I will not be apologizing for Almighty God in any way. God does not need me to prove His morality, and I am certainly not qualified to stand in judgment of my Creator. Our goal as Christians is always to be people who join with the 11th century Archbishop of Canterbury, St. Anselm, in his personal motto: ‘Faith seeking understanding.’ We Christians are to judge ourselves, lest we be judged by God, and so we must better understand His justice to properly understand both our just condemnation and our undeserved salvation.
So how do we understand the judgment of God in Deuteronomy in light of the mercy of God in today’s Gospel? First, we must clarify that the judgement of God is always merciful—these are not two different parts of God which reveal themselves at different times; no, God is always merciful because everything our sinful hearts deem an atrocity committed by God is infinitely more merciful than what we deserve. For example, we look at God’s commandment to destroy the Canaanites, and we feel sympathy for the men, women, and children who were executed by God’s chosen people, but we fail to consider that God allowed the Canaanites to exist in open rebellion against him for centuries when He could have destroyed them in an instant. Or, what about the great mercy shown to the Israelites, who deserved the same fate as the Canaanites, but were instead chosen to be God’s sanctifying instruments in a land destined to be made holy. Remember, to be holy or sanctified is to be set apart, to be separated from evil, and the Israelites were tasked with doing what Adam failed to do in the garden: keep evil out of God’s holy, sanctified space.
Further, this campaign against evil was not ‘ethnic cleansing’ or ‘genocide’ as Canaanites families—like Rahab the prostitute’s—were spared and integrated into the chosen people, while disobedient Israelites—like Achan and his family—were destroyed. Judgment against Canaan was ethical cleansing, and our uncomfortableness with its strictness or completeness is simply a consequence of the misplaced kinship we feel with sinful humanity. We have been taught to believe sin isn’t that bad, and we all deserve a second or third or fifth chance, but this self-serving fiction is not the reality of our situation at all. As St. Paul tells us, ‘…the wages of sin is death,’ what we deserve, what we have earned is death, and we cannot be surprised or shocked when God gives us what we demand. As the great Old Testament scholar Dr. Meredith Kline writes, these moments of judgment throughout the Bible, in both Old and New Testaments, are ‘intrusion judgments’ or live-action dress rehearsals for the end of time. The first-born Egyptians, the Canaanites, even Ananias and Sapphira were living breathing examples of what the last judgment of the earth will look like; a time, when—as Jesus tells us—’there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth’ (St. Matthew 13:42). In that royal judgment hall, our corrupt and self-absolving sense of justice will mean less than nothing (frankly, what it means in this world anyway). A person may not believe me; he may not believe Jesus, but God intends for us all to believe the cries of the Canaanites and the cries of all those who have been weighed on the scales of a justice system untainted by greed and selfishness and sin only to find themselves hopelessly wanting.
If it is the cry of the desolated Canaanites which reaches through time and warns us of God’s real and imminent judgment; it is the cry of another Canaanite which alerts us to our only logical response to the awesome and mysterious majesty of the God who allows us even one more day of undeserved mercy. There is so much to see and admire in the faithful, penitent woman who throws herself on the mercy of Jesus. Her suffering and the suffering of her daughter have broken the illusion that she can do this on her own or that her false gods will save her. The world, with its false faith in strength and power, looks at this woman—on her face before Christ—and calls her weak or pathetic. She is both; I have no interest in convincing you otherwise. Our Lord tests her by calling her a dog, the normal Jewish, derogatory term for a Gentile, and she humbly says, ‘Yes, I will gladly be your dog, if you will only be my master.’ Our pride cannot take this kind of abasement; we are taught to have self-esteem, to love ourselves first, to be no man’s dog. We all carry some form of the revolutionary and butcher Che Guevara’s stolen battle cry, ‘It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees!’ Which is all well and good until someone shoots you in the back, and your legacy becomes t-shirt sales to unserious undergrads. The faithful Canaanite woman is weak and pathetic, but so is every person the world teaches us is strong. The great difference between she and those who think they are mighty is not muscles or technology or money; no, it is simply the realization that none of those things matter when we stand before the Holy God who created us. We cannot bribe Him; we cannot dazzle Him with our toys, and our strength or our sad story will mean nothing to the God who created a good world from nothing and watched us try to destroy it for nothing.
The faithful Canaanite woman falls on her knees and begs for the crumbs from Christ’s table because the Holy Spirit has alerted her to just who stands before her. Her great faith saves her daughter from the evil forces that conspire to murder us all. She put her faith, her trust, in the second Joshua who will do what the first failed to do. The second Joshua who will cleanse the world of evil with fire and sword, while carrying the citizens of the new world to come in His arms—carrying all those baptized in His blood and sanctified in His pain. The destruction we witness in the Israelite’s failed Old Testament campaign against evil will be perfectly completed by Christ at His second coming. The wrath of God will justly pour down upon a people who have been allowed to mock and jeer the saints, to boil with evermore depraved and twisted iniquity— a people who breathe in mercy like air and cough out bile in return. And this final justice will not just be for Adolf Hitler or Charles Manson or whomever we think deserves it; no, this justice will be for Carl: the neighbor who waves to you every morning and lives for his Harley-Davidson, or Julie: the receptionist at your dentist office who loves celebrity gossip, or any of the thousands of people we know who have been taught to trust in their corrupted hearts and the lies of this evil world—to trust that the instruments of mass distraction and consumption are enough to get us from here to eternity. We may find this judgment harsh, but if justice is anything more than a figment of our imaginations then there must be a judge; if good and evil are not simply the pronouncements of the powerful then there must be a judge; if our moral indignation over invasions or school shootings or genocide reveals anything more than the temporary feelings of a confused and dying animal then there must be a judge. And if there is a judge, is it any surprise that His perfect judgments are different from what our limited, corrupt brains can imagine?
Why do we think St. Paul spends so much time telling us how to live if we are to be God’s people? He couldn’t care less about our best life now or whether our neighbors will judge us or whether we will fit in at Kroger; no, he is pleading with the people he loves—the people he will soon die for—not to be the new Canaanites: not to be the lost and damned marked by unrepentant sin. We live in a world where Jesus Christ has been forever vindicated by His public resurrection, and that means we live in a world where new life is truly possible; we actually can escape from the dreary pleasure numbed existence fallen humanity holds out as our greatest hope. But that new life is only given by Christ through the complete repentance and trust we see displayed by this woman today. Our natural existence as Christians is to be like this woman. If we are to live by faith, then we are to live on our knees repenting and thanking God for granting us new life; we are to live on our knees praying for God’s mercy on all those who, as we once were, live in open rebellion against their Creator and foolishly believe their anger or victimhood or intelligence or charm or strength or kindness will save them. Our deadly serious calling is to pray and live and love and sacrifice like a people whose only hope lies in the pierced hands of our Savior. We are not worthy to eat the crumbs off our master’s table, but the God who is always merciful beckons us to eat and drink kneeling before His most holy table—unworthy but unashamed, naked but clothed in His righteousness, dying but made alive forever.