Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen!
Picture it! Christmas time. 1996. The snow was falling, the winter wind was blowing. Parents everywhere were going out, facing not only the harsh winter weather, but also the crazy madness of long shopping line-ups and crowded parking lots. Everybody was on a grand Christmas mission that year! Unfortunately, it wasn’t to tell everyone about the birth of the Christ child. No! Instead, everyone was on a mission to get the hottest Christmas fad. Tyco had developed a sure-fire stuffed toy sensation. And do you remember what it was?! He was a bright red, bulgy eyed muppet that would chortle when squeezed, and when squeezed three times he would shake and laugh hysterically! Do you remember him now?! Yes, you guessed it! It was the one, the only: Tickle Me Elmo! Long before the Covid 19 toilet paper wars, parents were literally fighting each other in the store aisles to get one. Short supply drove the demand through the roof, taking with it the price! Some people paid upwards for $1500.00 for this $28.99 giggler. It was a living chaos! Why would anyone put themselves through this kind of torture? Because they love their kids and will stop at nothing when it comes to bringing them joy and happiness!
This is the world that opened up to us when we opened our Gospel reading from St. Matthew this morning. No, it wasn’t Christmas time, and no there weren’t huge multitudes lining up to purchase the “Tickle Me Israelite” doll! Rather, we get a glimpse of a desperate woman, a mother, stopping at nothing to help her troubled daughter. The Canaanites were descendants from Canaan, the cursed grandson of Noah (you know, the guy with the ark). They were looked down upon by the Jews. In fact, Jews wouldn’t associate with the likes of those people. Don’t talk to them, don’t walk with them, don’t eat with them, don’t touch them! And above all do not marry them! It was like oil and water between these groups, not much unlike modern day Israel and Palestine. These Canaanites were often viewed in a very canine way.
I remember when I was in the great nation of Ukraine, the city of Odessa. I was at a summer time market square looking at all the products and tourist stuff the people were selling. It was a hubbub of activity! There were people everywhere and the merchandise was spread out on tables for consumers to view. At one point though this poor little black dog, limped over towards the table I was at. I looked down at this shabby matted little guy and I felt sorry for him, walking around with probably a broken leg. I was just about to give it a snack when the woman who owned the table full of goods stomped over, wound up and kicked this poor little dog across the square! I couldn’t believe it! Dogs are our pampered pets! They are cute and cuddly members of the family … to us. But to other cultures, dogs are dirty. They are filthy garbage eating scavengers. “Dog” is what the Israelites called the Canaanites. A very lowly, ethnic slur.
So this is our situation: this Canaanite woman comes running up to our Jewish Jesus, asking for a miraculous healing! “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely oppressed by a demon!” she cried. She was a desperate mother, trying to do anything to help her daughter. Nothing could stop her! Not society’s norms, not ethnic boundaries. She was a mother on a mission. Of all people, Jesus would understand her plight and of course have mercy upon her as He had for countless other people during His earthly ministry. But did you catch what happened next!? “But He did not answer her a word.”
This is mind blowing! This absolutely bursts the Jesus bubble, doesn’t it?! Where is the love, Jesus?! Where is the divine compassion? Where is the caring? Was Jesus just like everyone else, just like the Pharisees as He essentially replies ‘I didn’t come for your kind of people.’ “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Why wouldn’t Jesus simply help this desperate mother who only wanted to help her poor, demon possessed daughter? The answer is that there was more to this conversation than the picture language would reveal.
The big picture of this Gospel lesson is that God is supremely wiser than we are. Instead of just healing the daughter immediately, Jesus evokes her love and persistent faith. Christ’s hesitancy was not a form of torture or a lack of compassion, but a conscious means of revealing the virtues of this persistent mother – both to the disciples and for her own sake. This text opens our eyes to see that even when things in life get rocky, when disease afflicts us, when we undergo spiritual torment and trials, it is not because God doesn’t care or takes pleasure in harassing us. It’s the complete opposite. God wants us to be faithful Christians. And it’s easy when things are going great, when we have all the money and toys that we want, when we have the perfect family, when our health is good. But when the hard times come and everything isn’t so cushy, where does our faith often go?
“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Jesus was so impressed by this Canaanite woman’s faith, her persistent faith that continued to look to Him in prayer and worship. She showed her humility in that she even accepts her social place beneath the Jewish people, the chosen people of God, but even greater still is her desire for God’s grace! Faith is what impresses God, not money, social status, gender, or anything else. It is only faith: believing and trusting that Jesus Christ is indeed the savior, the Son of God who takes away all of our sins. Christ accepts this woman because of her faith. It also points us ahead to the gathering of the Gentiles into the church no longer as dogs scavenging for garbage, but as children who are invited to come to the Master’s table and feast on the fullness of the bread of life!
This bible text also helps with our own humility. We realize that in and of our sinful selves, we are the dogs, the outsiders. Yet because of God’s amazing grace in the Cross of Jesus Christ, we are made children of God by faith. We are brought into God’s family in our Baptism, born again into a life of faith that persistently clings to our Savior no matter what! In our sinful pride, we might take offense to being called dogs, we might even storm off in a fit of rage! Yet faith helps us see that although we aren’t even worthy of the crumbs from the table, God’s grace in Christ welcomes us to the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom that has no end. Faith helps us get even just a crumb to make our lives whole, just like this persistent woman whose daughter was healed by the Word of Christ.
This is the wonderful gift of God. These are the good things from His table! It is His undeserved Grace to the least of all, sinners like us. It is amazing grace, it is universal grace, it is inclusive grace. As we are baptized and brought to faith in Him, we are no longer roaming dogs, but children of our Heavenly Father, with a wonderful seat at His heavenly table! Amen.