We have all been raised to believe that God answers prayer with “yes,” “no,” or “wait.” We have been told that when we pray we are to believe what we pray. And we have been taught by Jesus Himself to be persistent in our prayers. In our Bible reading for this morning it would appear that our learning is still missing one element, that element of, “What do we do when Jesus ignores our prayers and when He even suggests that we are not worthy to be listened to?” Well, that is how this story seems to play out.
Jesus had been discussing what makes a person clean or unclean, that is, spiritually clean or spiritually unclean. It is not what you eat that makes you clean or unclean, because what you eat simply passes through your body. What makes you clean or unclean, in God’s eyes, is what comes out of your heart, either faith or unbelief. Moving on in our text, leaving from that place and that discussion, our text says that Jesus withdrew privately to go to a place near the region of Tyre and Sidon. Here, again, we see Jesus as a human in need of some time alone for rest and relaxation, for reflection and time for strengthening through prayer with His Father in heaven. As He comes near to this place, this Gentile town, He is met by a Canaanite woman. Matthew makes sure that we understand that this is not a Jewish woman, but a Gentile woman, a foreigner, because that fact is an important fact to know, because we know how Jews, good Jews, good practicing Jews, are not allowed to associate or even speak with foreigners. Anyway, this foreigner, and a woman at that, comes crying out, yelling and hollering to Jesus, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” Her’s is not a cry for self pity or for self help. Her’s is a painful cry of a loving mother for her daughter.
We know what it is like when one of our children is sick and we pray and expect God to hear our prayers and to answer them. We do not come to Him expecting Him to turn away or even to turn a deaf ear. What kind of a God would we be worshiping if we believed He would turn away? Yes, Jesus is Jewish and the woman in our story is a Gentile or we might imagine even worse, a Samaritan, but we would certainly think that Jesus, who is God, who is love, who came to save the world, would make an exception and have mercy on her. Certainly, if anyone would listen to her and help her it would be Jesus, at least that is what we think and I believe what she thinks. But . . . “[Jesus] did not answer a word.” Can you believe it? Jesus, loving God, loving Savior, cold heartedly does not answer her, not even a word. It just does not make sense, not to us and not to this Canaanite woman. And it was not just Jesus alone who turned away from her, it was His disciples as well, but we might expect that from His disciples. Remember these are the same disciples who turned children away from Jesus as well. However, this woman would not take “no” for an answer and instead continued to hound Jesus and His disciples. “[So] his disciples came and begged him saying, ‘Send her away, for she is crying out after us.’” It is really rather embarrassing.
I do not know about you, but I never really looked at this text in this way. It does not look so good for Jesus. We are raised to see Him as kind and loving. We are told that He is our best friend. We are told that He always answers our prayers. We are told that He came to save all people, but here we have it, right here in the pages of the Bible, right here in black and white. Jesus is refusing service, even refusing to speak to this foreigner. Certainly we must be mistaken. Certainly He has to listen and answer her.
And yet, we seem to be confirmed in our suspicions, that Jesus is cold hearted when “He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’”
Well what does that mean? I thought Jesus was sent to save all people of all places of all times. What does He mean, “only”? What does He mean, “lost sheep”? What does He mean, “Israel”? Can things get any worse? Today we would approach Jesus and we might cry out, “But I am an American. I am entitled to Your hearing me.” Or even, “But I am a Lutheran.” “You have to listen to me.”
It is obvious that the woman either did not believe Jesus, that He was cold hearted and uncaring, or she did not believe the words He spoke, or maybe she had a different understanding than we seem to be getting from the reading. We are told that she came and knelt before him. Actually she fell prostrate, that is she fell with her face to the ground, in the dirt, before Him and she said, “Lord, help me!” She recognized her unworthiness, that she was not worthy to have Him listen to her or answer her prayer, yet, she comes to Him anyway. And this time she gets a reaction. This time Jesus turns and speaks to her, but He still seems to be pretty cold hearted. He says, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
Let me say that it is true, Jesus did come only for the lost sheep of Israel. That was His primary purpose, His first reason for coming to earth, to save the lost sheep of Israel. But now it seems worse. Jesus stoops to calling her a dog. She is one who falls into the spiritually unclean group. It is as if everything is against her. Well, maybe we can pull some shred of decency out of this text because the type of dog of which Jesus was speaking was at least a house pet. So the woman has now moved from being ignored to being a house pet.
And just as you and I would not give up when praying for our sick child, so she does not give up. She searches for and finds some bit of hope in Jesus’ words. She clings to that hope and turns His words back to Him. “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.”
This word of Scripture falls between Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand and His feeding of the four thousand. The feeding of the five thousand with the twelve baskets left over is considered God’s providing for the children of Israel, the twelve tribes. The feeding of the four thousand and the seven baskets of leftovers is considered God’s providing for the Gentiles. This Canaanite woman is not a part of the lost sheep of Israel. She is merely a gentile who happened to be at the right place at the right time, the place where Jesus is, the place where he brings faith and where faith brings life.
Faith is possible among others, even those we might not see or think. We cannot look into the hearts of others, only God can. Faith is not dependent on birth, on ethnic origin, or even on us, but faith is possible only with Christ. Jesus is drawing the faith, which He has given to her, out in this woman. He alone draws faith, which He gives to us, out of us.
Jesus was sent only to save the lost sheep of Israel, that was His main goal and objective. The woman had no right to come begging for help. In a very real way, we are very much like the Gentile woman. We are sinful human beings, conceived and born in sin, daily sinning much, and we have no right coming to Jesus to ask for anything. Martin Luther goes so far as to say that we are sinful worms. Thanks be to God that not only is He a just God who condemns sins, but He is also a merciful God who sent His Son to save the world.
What does this mean? Our Old Testament Lesson reminds us of the Lord’s promise to us foreigners, that by faith in Jesus, we too will have a part in His kingdom. It is not something to which we are entitled, it is a gift from God. Isaiah reminds us that it is “the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel” and He “declares, ‘I will gather yet others [to him] besides those already gathered.” In other words, Jesus did come to save all people, you and I included. What this means is that Jesus did come to save you and me.
In our Epistle lesson Paul shows us the ultimate conclusion of Jesus coming to earth, that is that Jesus, who came only for Israel, was rejected by Israel. Their rejection opened up the kingdom of heaven for all believers. Thus, by faith, the Gentile woman is a part of the lost sheep of Israel. Thus, by faith, we, you and I, are a part of the lost sheep of Israel. So it is by God’s grace through faith in Jesus, faith given to us through the means of grace, either at our Baptism as a baby or through the means of the Word of God as an adult, it is by this faith that we have a part in God’s kingdom. Jesus is not the bad guy He seems to be portrayed as in this reading. He did come to seek and to save the lost. He did come to give His life to save all people of all places of all times. He did come to give His life, to suffer the eternal spiritual death penalty, the cost, the wage, the price for our sin, for us. He came to give us faith to believe in Him and to share in His glory in heaven. The Good News of our text is that we have great faith because Jesus gives us that great faith which clings to Him, who gives us life, even eternal life and He stirs in our heart joy to say, to God be the glory, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.