Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, AD 2020

Matthew 15:21-28

In early versions of Luther’s Small Catechism, each section of questions and answers would be matched with a woodcut, or picture, depicting a scene from a Bible story. The point of this was to show that the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer weren’t just things to be memorized, though they should be memorized, but applied to real life situations both in the Bible and in our lives. For example, our gospel lesson today of the Canaanite woman was paired with the seventh petition of the Lord’s Prayer – Deliver us from evil.
It is important first to know the Lord’s Prayer so we can know to pray to our Father to deliver us from evil. Second, it is good to know the explanation – “We pray in this petition, in summary, that our Father in heaven would rescue us from every evil of body and soul, possessions and reputation, and finally, when our last hour comes, give us a blessed end, and graciously take us away from this valley of sorrow to himself in heaven” (SC III.20). Knowing this, how does this work out in our lives? What does it look like to ask our Father to rescue us from body and soul? This is what the scriptures tell us in these true historic accounts, like today’s, about the Canaanite woman. We see through her the struggle of prayer and what great faith looks like.
First, it is important to set the scene. Jesus again is withdrawing to the backcountry part of Palestine in order to get away from the Pharisees for a time. Just before our reading, Jesus was rebuked by the Pharisees, the good Jewish people, the children of Israel he was sent to, because his disciples did not follow their handwashing rituals. Jesus in return rebuked them for paying attention to outward things while ignoring those inside. For uncleanness and evil does not come from outside of us, but from inside, from our corrupt sinful hearts. It is our sin, not dirt or unclean foods, that defile us. This enraged the Pharisees, so Jesus withdrew, as it was not yet his time to be delivered over and crucified. Jesus, always following his Father’s will, heads to the area of Tyre and Sidon with his disciples.
Tyre and Sidon are two cities on the coast of the Mediterranean which for centuries were quite prosperous but were always associated with evil people. The children of Israel, people who believed in God, did not live there. More often, the people there who worshiped pagan gods would corrupt the people of Israel to do the same. The Pharisees and all good Jews in Jesus’ time knew to avoid these people. Then this woman, who comes crying to Jesus for help, is called a Canaanite, which is even worse.

In the Old Testament, the Canaanites were the people who occupied the promised land before the children of Israel arrived. They worshiped pagan gods, even sacrificing children, and were so evil that God wanted them wiped out. The children of Israel largely did conquer them, but did not wipe them out, and so the Canaanites continued and influenced the Israelites toward pagan practices, turning them away from God. So it’s not without reason that the Jews in Jesus’ time avoided these people. They had been burned too many times before by the Canaanites.

That sets the scene, now we see how this woman’s faith plays out. This Canaanite woman comes crying, “’Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” It is important what the woman is crying out, calling Jesus the “Lord, Son of David.” By this she is confessing that Jesus is the Messiah, he one who is to come and save his people. She knows he is the one who can save her daughter, so she asks him to deliver her from evil.

Note that she does not request this due to anything Jesus owes her. She asks for his mercy, for undeserved favor from Jesus. She knows that as a Canaanite woman, she has nothing to stand on her own before him. Even more, her daughter is oppressed by a demon, and these things don’t just happen. Demons come when people flirt with demonic things. What we watch on TV or the websites we visit, when sinful, are flirting with the activity of demons. Dipping our toes into magic, the occult, or other religions, even if in jest, is like dipping them into shark-infested waters. Too often, we think we are too strong to be overcome by sinful influences. We are fooling ourselves. We need to repent and remove ourselves from sinful circumstances. We need to turn to Christ for our strength, forming habits of calling on Him and hearing His Word.

Like the Canaanite woman, we must realize our sinful state and call upon Jesus. Yet, somewhat unexpectedly, he does not answer. Despite common belief, Jesus isn’t just a traveling miracle worker. He didn’t just go around healing people for three years for no reason. He works to follow the Father’s will. Neither does he just heal people out of annoyance, to get them away. This is what the disciples ask. Most likely tired of her crying out, causing a scene, they ask Jesus to give her what she wants and send her away. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, they say.

Jesus answers, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Jesus is not there just to heal whoever complains the most. He has been sent as Israel’s Messiah and Savior. This has implications for the rest of creation, but he is primarily sent for those Pharisees, scribes, and all the crowds who misunderstand, ignore, and hate him. Even though they are ungrateful and uncomprehending, He was sent only to them. So if this woman thinks she has the right to get what belongs to the people of Israel, she is wrong. She has no right. Yet this is what Jesus is finding out. Does the woman know she has no right to healing? Does she know who Jesus really is? Does she actually understand the implications of Jesus being the Messiah better than the Pharisees?

She falls down and kneels before him, saying “Lord help me.” She doesn’t claim any rights. She does more than kneel, she worships. Just like three other Gentiles, the wise men, who knelt before Jesus when he was a baby. And Jesus answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” And she answers, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” In fact, that is not the best translation. She really is saying “Yes, Lord, and even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She is not rebuking or teaching Jesus. She is in a state of total humility before him. She completely agrees that Jesus’ mission is not primarily for her, but she knows Jesus has enough abundance of provision to give a little crumb to her and her daughter.

Like with another Gentile, the centurion with the sick servant, Jesus notes that this woman has great faith, and her daughter is healed from that hour. Whatever report she heard of Jesus planted in fertile soil of her heart and turned into great faith, so that she could request, beyond all appearances, for the Lord to deliver her from evil.

Let us then learn from the Canaanite woman’s great faith. She was in terror of her sin, she saw the consequences and knew only Jesus Christ could help her. She called out to him, knowing him to be her Savior and Lord. So it is when we see our sin, that we have dipped our feet too far, that we are even drowning in shark-infested waters, that we should cry out to God and pray. For like the woman we should know that he doesn’t answer on account of our goodness, but because of his love for us.

The woman continued crying out when it seemed like Jesus was not going to answer. So we often think God is not answering us. The woman continued to cry out when those in the church treated her badly, when Jesus himself rebuffed her, and when Jesus all but said he wouldn’t answer her prayer. But she didn’t take no for an answer. She knew that Christ had more than she would need. So also it is for us. It may seem like God is not answering us, or rebuffing us, or saying all but “no” to our prayer “deliver us from evil.” But He gave us this prayer to ask him. He wants us to ask. It is the very act of great faith to keep asking what God says to ask for even when all else is trying to deter us.  

Therefore, we continue to pray “deliver us from evil.” Even and especially when it seems as if God isn’t answering. That is how we persist in faith. That is how we cling to him. For he delivers us. He died on the cross to save us and to defeat all evil. He has risen from the dead and defeated death forever. There is nothing he cannot overcome. Even if we can’t claim a place at the table, even the crumbs are more than we need. Yet, like the woman, trusting in Christ, we are more than his dogs. We are his children, adopted sons and daughters with Christ.
Come, let us eat the food he has given to his children. Amen.

[Some parts of this sermon were inspired by Dr. Martin Luther's sermon on the Second Sunday in Lent from his Church Postils, and Rev. David Petersen's Sermon on Reminiscere from his collection Thy Kingdom Come.]

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