The Parish Church of Connersville, Indiana

The Second Sunday in Lent 2024

Sermon Date: February 25, 2024

Passage: St. Matthew 18

And he answered, ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.’ And her daughter was healed instantly (St. Matthew 15:26-28).

Last week, we began our series of Lenten Gospel readings by meditating on Christ’s victory against Satan in the wilderness. We joined the Apostle Paul in seeing our Lord as the second Adam reversing the terrible curse earned by our first ancestors in the garden. This new Adam, the living, talking, breathing sign that new creation will soon be coming to the earth, walks from town-to-town meeting resistance from those who should be falling to their knees before Him. The religious leaders hate Jesus; they hate His miracles; they hate the Kingdom He is bringing, and they oppose Him at every step because they are evil, and their hearts are darkened by sin. These men have the source of all love and justice and peace before them, and they hate Him. Satan may have lost in the wilderness, but he certainly seems to have won in the hearts of these cruel and murderous men.

To find momentary peace, to pray and prepare His disciples for the mission that lies before them, our Lord goes to the district of Tyre and Sidon (modern day Lebanon). Jesus goes to the ancient enemies of His people because His people have taken the great treasure bestowed upon them for granted. Those who believed they owned God drove Him into the land of their enemies. To be clear, the Trinity’s plan for the salvation of the world is not impeded by the cruel selfishness and betrayal of any religious leader; the victory march of God through time and space will not be derailed by a petulant sinner yelling, ‘Stop!’ But, there are, of course, real world consequences for a people who sell their birthright for nothing. The tragedy being that God is still going to win even if man’s cowardly heart draws him to stand on the side of evil, cheering on his tribe while ignoring the call of the Lord. As Jesus walks from town to town, He is indeed in the land of His enemies, for the inescapable truth of Jesus’ life is that the second He was born, the second He was laid in an animal’s feeding trough—Jesus had entered the land of His enemies. ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’ (St. Matthew 8:20).

Now, as God incarnate and His disciples are walking along in Gentile lands a problem presents itself in the form of a woman screaming for the Lord to heal her dying child. Anyone who has ever had a sick child or seen doctors become achingly quiet and slowly back out of a dying child’s room know something of the impotent anguish this woman was suffering through. Every part of her just wants her daughter to get better, and there is nothing she can do. She is powerless to do that which she most wants to do, and so she cries, and Satan laughs, and all the necromancers and priests and doctors in the world can do nothing to help her. 

A normal, human story would end in her suffering, probably with some useless bromide about her daughter ‘always living in her heart’ or something equally banal and suffocating. We accept these little trinkets of despair so often that they become part of the way we think about death and life. We discard what God has to say about death and life, and cling to these adult fairy tales like every other poor, misguided pagan who has looked to Zeus or Mithras or Shiva to save them. We need something to keep us going, so a Hallmark psalm will have to do. Thankfully, it’s not enough for God.

St. Matthew, being the skilled writer that he is, emphasizes a point that St. Mark—in his parallel account—does not. Rather than call her a ‘Syrophonecian’ woman, as she would have been known in her own time, he calls her by her ancient title. He calls her a Canaanite. Why does this matter? It matters because of the historic relationship between the people of God and the people of Canaan: a nation God told His people to destroy. Now, modern, up-to-date Western people, while looking for reasons to disbelieve the Bible will often turn to the conquest narratives of, for example, the Book of Joshua, and triumphantly cry out, ‘Ah ha, this loving God of yours demands ethnic cleansing. I could never believe in a God who commands such a thing.’ Modern man is a strange creature. He has little problem supporting governments that blow people up every day, but he gets squeamish about wars that occurred 3,500 years ago. Strangely, the person who refuses to believe in God for this reason holds this imaginary god of his own making to a higher standard than the leaders he actually believes in and supports; however, even this very human inconsistency points to our felt need for true justice and peace in the world—a need, unfortunately, that can never be met by the state.

In any event, we rightly feel uncomfortable when we read about the Israelite’s failed cleansing of the promised land. We feel uncomfortable because, deep down, we don’t think that sin is as bad as all that. We might think sin is icky or generally bad for society, particularly other people’s sins, but we probably don’t really think sin deserves death, and we certainly can’t imagine that sin is so horrible a betrayal of the good that all those who practice it deserve the fate of the Canaanites. We draw back from the war against Canaan because we see ourselves in the eyes of those caught in the righteous wrath of a just God, and we don’t like it. We want God to lie to us; we want God to tell us how to be happier—not painfully cure the disease that is making us miserable. Thankfully, God says, ‘No’.

Which brings us back to the woman begging and crying out for God to save her dying child. By linking this desperate woman to her Canaanite heritage, Matthew is reminding us of why her daughter is dying. Her daughter is dying because we all are dying, and we all are dying because sin has so marred our souls and bodies that decay and death are their inevitable and deserved end. Sin has so alienated us from God, and the life He upholds, that death has become the destiny of all living creatures. In the Old Testament, the Canaanites represent the world, and the world deserves death.  You and I deserve death.

The only response to this reality are the words of the Canaanite woman: ‘O Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me.’ We ask for our Lord’s mercy every week, but I do wonder if we ask with the same repentance and sincerity of this woman confronted by the pain only a world so bent and misshapen by sin can apply. Time is a funny thing. Surely, we all have been or will be confronted by tragedy but our distance from that tragedy tends to blunt our felt need for mercy. It’s like we are on a train moving from one station to the other, but we pretend that the train ride will last forever—only occasionally bothered by the people who get on and off. This woman crying out to God knows that her train has derailed, and there is no choice but to call upon the strange man who has providentially come her way. 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. She invokes the messianic title of Jesus, a title His fellow Jews are afraid to bestow upon Him, because through her suffering the Holy Ghost has turned her heart in the direction of salvation. Amazingly, the Holy Ghost has even used the work of the Evil One to further the salvific mission of Christ and His people. It is at this moment, that we begin to see just what is happening in this story, we begin to see that the Trinity is changing the destiny of Canaan and the destiny of the sinful world it represents. Hope is being proclaimed from the mouth of an enemy.

St. Matthew next tells us that Jesus didn’t answer her, and so she kept screaming and crying out until the disciples begged Jesus to send her away. Our Lord tells his disciples, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ We cannot forget Christ is fulfilling the promises made to Abraham and all his descendants, and He must first bring the fulfillment of those promises to the people entrusted with them. It is for this reason the incarnate God doesn’t just show up in the middle of Rome—or New York City for that matter. We humans imagine our empires will last forever and that God should act accordingly, but God works on a timetable and view of the world which simply doesn’t consider our temporary kingdoms as stable reference points for His plan to save the world. Something bigger than us is at work in the world. When St. Paul writes, ‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek’ (Romans 1:16), he is expressing this idea in its full post-Easter glory. Salvation will come from the Jews and for the Jews first and from that primacy will come the salvation of the Gentiles; however, it isn’t time yet in Matthew chapter 15. Just as we must have Good Friday before we can have Easter, Jesus must die and rise again before the Great Commission of Matthew 28 can be established.

Jesus responds to this woman, now kneeling before him, ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’ We are safe in assuming Jesus felt compassion for this woman as He did for every person He saw burdened by the sin and death He had come to abolish. Jesus wasn’t being racist or sexist by denying this woman, He was simply steeling Himself for the mission in which He was now engaged. Jesus is preparing to die for the sins of His people, all while everyone around Him is asking Him for things: heal this, cure that (be the Messiah I want you to be). Jesus is not a magician or a conjurer or a traveling healer, he is on a cross-shaped mission to save the world.  To paraphrase Anglican theologian N. T. Wright: Jesus is preparing for Calvary, and this foreign woman is already insisting upon Easter.

Her reply to Jesus should be familiar to us all, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’  In the ancient world, calling oneself a dog was not flattering or cute. This phrase is one of humility and abasement, and as she kneels before the God who has humbled and abased Himself by becoming one of us, whose future holds the humiliation of the cross, our Lord recognizes one of His own. He sees in her reply the faith which can only come from the Holy Ghost. A faith Jesus describes as a ‘mega’ faith. And so, our Lord gives her the scraps from His table; He heals her daughter. And mind you, these are scraps, for just as the glorious medicine of immortality we will experience at each Lord’s Supper is only a foretaste of the endless wedding feast to come, so too is this miraculous healing merely a paltry morsel compared to the endless restoration and reconciliation of the new life to come. The healing Jesus provides for this faithful woman points to a future in which Gentiles from every tribe will be welcomed into the people of God to receive a permanent healing.  Jesus recognizes, just as He did with the centurion, that this woman is a harbinger of that future glory. As John tells us in the Book of Revelation,

‘After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”’ (Revelation 7:9-10).

We can be sure that as John looked out upon that innumerable host, he saw a few familiar faces; certainly, one of them would have been this Canaanite woman. May we who are or who once were the enemies of God find ourselves within that triumphant throng, for the Lord has prepared a table, and He calls us all to approach it in glory.