The Second Sunday in Lent
February 21, 2016
“When It Seems God Won’t Help You”
Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed." But He answered her not a word. And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, "Send her away, for she cries out after us." But He answered and said, "I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, "Lord, help me!" But He answered and said, "It is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the little dogs." And she said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters' table." Then Jesus answered and said to her, "O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire." And her daughter was healed from that very hour. Matthew 15:21-28
St. Mark reports that this woman had heard of Jesus. Her prayer to Jesus tells us what she had heard. She cried out to him, “Have mercy on me O Lord, Son of David!” This woman was not Jewish. She wasn’t of any of the tribes of Israel. She was a Greek. She was living in Canaan, a land infested with idolatrous doctrines and practices. Jesus was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. This woman had nothing to do with Israel. Her only connection was that she had heard of Jesus and she believed what she heard. She was in dire need and only Jesus could give her what she needed.
Demon possession is unknown among us sophisticated moderns. It is the stuff of science fiction movies. But it was a literal and miserable fact of life for this poor woman who came to Jesus for mercy. She had no choice but to watch in helpless sorrow her daughter’s captivity to an evil spirit. Everyone who doesn’t know Christ is spiritually possessed by the devil. This is why the sacrament of Holy Baptism has sometimes included the rite of exorcism whereby the minister commands the devil, by the authority of Jesus Christ, to leave the one being baptized. Jesus said, “Whoever sins is a slave to sin . . . if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.” God must set you free.
Bodily possession by an evil spirit is particularly painful for the loved ones of the possessed because their subjugation to the evil spirit is so obvious. They cannot control what they say, where they go, or what they do with their bodies. It is a visible display of demonic power. Demons revel in inflicting suffering on human beings. Demon possession does no good. It is cruel, vicious, and loveless. It is what our Lord Jesus Christ came into this world to destroy. Surely, he who fought the devil in the wilderness, driving him away with the “it is written” of God’s holy Word, would deliver this woman’s suffering daughter from her suffering.
But it didn’t look like it. She begs him. He ignores her. His disciples intercede for her. He appears to reject their plea as well. He says he was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. It looks like he is excluding her. She had nothing to do with Israel. But she begs him again. He tells her that it is not good to give the children’s bread to the dogs. That sounds like a clear no. First he ignores her. Then he seems to say that he was not sent to help her. Then he calls her a dog.
But if you pay very close attention to what Jesus is saying and to what he is not saying you will notice that he doesn’t ever say no. He only appears to say no. Jesus never said no to her. He doesn’t say no.
Faith and the church go together. You cannot separate them. The holy Christian Church is the communion of saints. The church is made of true believers in Christ. The church is those who, through faith in Christ, are forgiven of their sins. They are saints. If you are a believer in Christ you are a saint and a member of the church.
But look at what Jesus does! He appears to exclude this poor woman from the church. First, he says to her that he was sent to Israel and only to Israel. She was a Greek, and not a child of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He appears to exclude her from the church. Second, he tells her that it isn’t right to throw the children’s bread to the little dogs. Again, Jesus appears to exclude her from the church.
But how can he do that? She has faith! She pleads to Jesus for mercy. She confesses him as the Christ. She calls him the Son of David. She addresses him as Lord. This is the confession of faith. How can someone who believes the faith of the church be excluded from the church? How can it be? It cannot be!
No, it cannot be. Then why was Jesus tormenting her? Why was he playing hard to get? If he had it in his mind to help her all along, why did he put her through such a trial? Why test her so? For the same reason that he wrestled with Jacob all night long and refused to bless him until the break of dawn. God tests us to drive us to his Word.
That’s what Jesus did. The woman was listening to every single word Jesus said, waiting for an invitation. She found it when Jesus said that it wasn’t good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs. She latched onto an insult as a promise of mercy. Surely, the dogs are entitled to the crumbs that fall from their master’s table. She caught him in his own words. That’s what he wanted her to do: to catch him in his words, to hold him to his words, and thereby to claim her right to his mercy.
But there’s always something that gets in the way of trust in Christ’s words. What is the greatest obstacle of faith? Let me illustrate it by sharing with you some lyrics of a song written about fifty years ago that became quite popular with Christian youth in America during the sixties and seventies. It was called, “They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love.” Listen to a verse from this popular song:
That’s not how Jesus treated this woman from Canaan whose daughter was severely demon-possessed. He didn’t guard her dignity. He didn’t save her pride. He gave her something far greater than dignity. He blessed her with something more precious than pride. He showed her his mercy.
Mercy is for the miserable. Faith does not come from soaring up to heaven where the heart is freed from the troubles of this life. Faith springs out of despair, misery, and helplessness. The God who grants it perfects it. That God’s Word might be rightly extolled, our self-image must be rightly humbled. The song-writer had it exactly wrong. The religious preoccupation of the past few generations has been to guard dignity, save pride, empower the powerless and affirm everybody in everything.
Our loving Savior knows better what we really need. He said that everyone who humbles himself will be exalted and whoever exalts himself will be abased. This means that when God humbles you he is loving you. It may not feel like it, but our feelings are not the ground of truth. God’s Word is.
The Holy Spirit recorded this incident for our instruction. Let us pay as close attention to our Lord’s words as did the woman whose daughter suffered from demon-possession. Jesus made it clear that his gifts are for his people, his chosen people, his holy church. He told the woman that he was sent to the lost sheep of Israel. Israel is the church. He told her that the children have a status that doesn’t belong to the dogs.
The church is the apple of God’s eye. You cannot have a relationship with Jesus if you spurn his church. The Christian and the church go together. They belong together. The children get the bread. The stranger gets nothing. Only the children, those who belong to the family – the church – can lay claim to the wealth of the household.
The woman knows this. She also knows that you claim your status as a member of the church by latching onto Jesus’ words. It is through faith alone. Faith makes you a member of the church. Jesus will always acknowledge those who hold to his word, claim its promises, and beg him for his mercy.
Jesus fought our battle against the devil and won. Sometimes our battle appears to be with God himself. It looks like he is ignoring us. It looks like we don’t belong. We cry to God for mercy. We see no proof that he hears us. It appears that he is rejecting us. Then we turn to what he says. When we listen carefully and take him at his word we always find what we need: his mercy. His word is the preaching of the cross. It is the word about his suffering that bears our sins and removes our suffering; that faces all evil to deliver us from the power of the evil one.
We come to church and confess our sins. What does Jesus say? He tells us he forgives us. We go up to the altar to eat and to drink and what does he say? He says: “This is my body, which is given for you. This is the New Testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” We join our sister in Christ whose daughter Jesus set free, begging for the same mercy from the same Jesus, and we receive the same answer: “Let it be to you as you desire.”
Rolf D. Preus