You can find the podcast for todays sermon here –
A man goes to see his Rabbi. “Rabbi, something terrible is happening and I have to talk to you about it.” “What’s wrong?” “My wife is poisoning me.” “How can that be?” “I’m telling you, I’m certain she’s poisoning me. What should I do?” “Tell you what. Let me talk to her, I’ll see what I can find out, and I’ll let you know.” “A week later the Rabbi calls the man.” “Well, I spoke to your wife. I spoke to her on the phone for three hours. You want my advice?” “Yes, Rabbi.” “Take the poison.”
The dog on the front of your bulletin – head cocked to one side, trying to hear, trying to understand – can represent us all at times. Something happens, someone says something so out of character, so out of place, that we tilt our heads and can only respond by saying, “Huh?” “Take the poison” is one such remark, but not the only one we’ve heard today: Jesus said, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Huh? Did Jesus just call this lady a dog?
There are several modern-day scholars that say, “Yes.” They condemn Jesus and write that his “human” side was showing, that he got caught with his compassion down, but that is just not possible. God is love. Jesus is God. God’s nature is not anything like human nature, which is about as fickle as politics. God is a rock, a sure foundation, which we can count on, but if this isn’t the explanation of Jesus’ comment, then what is? To find the answer, we must go back aways in the history of Israel, to the time of Moses. To the time when God was giving the Law before the Israelites entered the promised land.
The Lord said to Moses, “In the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them — the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites — as the LORD your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God” Why the Lord ordered the destruction of these other people is the topic of another sermon, but in the end, the Israelites were unsuccessful, which – not surprisingly – led to a great deal of animosity between them, and even though the Israelites failed in destroying these people, they had complete disdain for them because they were not Jews. They were Gentiles. Over the course of many years this disdain led to stereotyping and bigotry and it was a very familiar practice for the Israelites – the chosen ones – to refer to the Canaanites, the Gentiles, as dogs. Now, hold that thought.
In the first episode of our Gospel reading, Jesus said to the disciples, “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.” It’s not what we eat that makes us unclean or sinful, it’s what we say, what we do that makes us evil, because these things come from the heart and our spirit.
Having said this, the Gospel tells us that Jesus and the disciples then went into the region of Tyre and Sidon. They have gone into the land of the Gentiles and there they encounter a Canaanite woman. She hasn’t even opened her mouth, but according to societal norms she’s already got two strikes against her. Canaanite equals dog and woman equals marginalized. The third strike comes when she dares to open her mouth, because a Gentile woman speaking to a Jewish man was just not supposed to happen.
What did she say? She began, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” [Just as an aside, we know that the title “Son of David” is a way of referring to the Messiah, the Christ that they believed would come, so in Greek, the woman is essentially saying, “Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Kyrie Eleison.” Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.] How did Jesus respond to these cries? Exactly the way societal norms dictated. How did his disciples respond? Exactly the way societal norms dictated, and coming to Jesus the disciples said, “Send this dog away, she keeps shouting at us.” Not to the woman, but to the disciples, Jesus says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” The woman clearly overheard this remark, so “she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’” Theologian N.T. Wright says that this is bantering, playful and teasing. How can he say that? Because the lady has referred to Jesus as Lord and as Messiah. She has knelt before him. She has an understanding of who Jesus is even more so than the disciples. She also has a far greater understanding of the nature of God’s love and mercy than the others. She breaks all societal norms with Jesus, because she knows that he has been doing the same thing. So she, in great faith, kneels before God and asks for a crumb of God’s mercy.
Jesus responds to her the way he did, because that is what was expected of him. He was demonstrating to the disciples the evil in their hearts and then showed them the true nature, mercy and love of God: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.”
In this encounter with the Canaanite woman, we see the uglier side of how we can treat one another, even including how Christians respond to others. Brennan Manning states, “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” The world (Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheist, black, brown, white) the world in all its variety, comes looking for a crumb that has fallen from the table – and when I say crumb, I’m not talking about the Christian faith. I’m talking about love, mercy, respect, understanding. – the world comes looking for a crumb, but not only do they not receive a crumb, they are oftentimes not even acknowledged. There are some who respond in this manner from the evil in their hearts, but more often, we respond this way out of the fear of the other and their differences, and in that fear we become self-absorbed. The other can fend for themselves. Instead of sharing the love and mercy of God, instead of even allowing a single crumb to fall from the table, we tightly hold onto it to the extent that we ourselves cannot enjoy it to the fullest.
In 1979 Mother Teresa was in Oslo, Norway receiving the Nobel Prize for peace. During her acceptance remarks she told a story: “Sometime ago, this to you will sound very strange, but I brought a God child from the street, and I could see in the face of the child that the child was hungry. God knows how many days that she had not eaten. So I give her a piece of bread. And then the little one started eating the bread crumb by crumb. And I said to the child, eat the bread, eat the bread. And she looked at me and said: I am afraid to eat the bread because I’m afraid when it is finished I will be hungry again.”
In our fear, we become like that little girl, holding tightly to what we have, nibbling it, and in some cases, not sharing it, because we are afraid of the other. But with Jesus, the one who said, “I am the bread of life,” there is no need for this fear. For although the other is not like us in race or even creed, they are like us in the most significant of ways. They are like us, because they also are imago Dei, the image of God. In the end, they will be judged just as we will be judged, but that judging is and always will be far above our pay grade. Our job is to share this love, mercy and grace of God with all, because through Jesus, there is an abundance. Enough for all. In fact there is more than enough. What do you think is the very next scene in Matthew’s gospel following our text today? The feeding of the 4,000 men and the women and children that were with them from seven loaves of bread and single fish. And what happened after everyone had eaten their fill? Scripture says, “And all of them ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full.”
As a disciple of Jesus, do not guard and horde the love, mercy and grace of God or be afraid of sharing it with others. As a disciple of Jesus, share it, freely giving it whether it is asked for or not, regardless of race, creed, or any other dividing factor. From the infinite expanse and abundance of the goodness of God that he has placed in your hearts through his indwelling Spirit, share with all creation the love, mercy and grace of God that has been shared with you in the giving of His One and Only Son, Jesus Christ.
Let us pray: O Lord, our God, You called Your people to be Your Church. As they gather together in Your Name, may they love, honor, and follow Your Son to eternal life in the Kingdom He promised. Let their worship always be sincere, and help them to find Your saving Love in the Church and its Sacraments. Fill with the Spirit of Christ those whom You call to live in the midst of the world and its concern. Help them by their work on earth to build up Your eternal Kingdom. May they be effective witnesses to the Truth of the Gospel and make Your Church a living presence in the midst of the world. Increase the gifts You have given Your Church that Your faithful people may continue to grow in holiness and in the imitation of Christ. Amen