“The Canine Canaanite”*

Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:

Isaiah 56:1 & 6-8
Romans 11:13-15 & 29-32
Matthew 15:21-28

The First lesson for this Sunday says that “foreigners” can find joy and acceptance in God’s house (Israel’s Temple). In the Gospel, a “foreigner” demonstrates a truly remarkable faith that wins both the acceptance and admiration of Jesus. The story begins with some actions and comments from Jesus that are quite out of character. They are unsettling, if not upsetting. A Canaanite woman came up to Jesus and said, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter has a demon and is in a terrible condition.” Unsettling action number one is recorded with the simple sentence: “He answered not a word to her.” But she did not take silence for an answer. She kept up her request.

At that point, the disciples came and asked Him to dismiss her because she was making such a racket. They may seem to be asking Him to heartlessly send her away, but that was probably not the case. They clearly could have meant that He should send her away with her request granted. Jesus’ answer shows that likelihood. His answer, however, is as unsettling as His silence: “I have been sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” We want to say, “Wait a minute! Isn’t this the same Jesus who tells a story that makes a hero out of a Samaritan, who holds up a Roman centurion’s faith as greater than any Israelite’s, who asks for water from a Samaritan woman, etc.?”

It appears that the disciples accepted His answer, but the woman did not. She came right up to Him and, kneeling at His feet, cried, “Lord, help me.” Then came the most upsetting answer of all. He said, “It isn’t right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” At this point, we might want to jump in and say, “Get real, Jesus! The lady comes to You hurting and pleading, and You compare her to a dog!” We could easily get offended, but this mother did not care if she was a canine Canaanite! She cared about her daughter, so she responded, “Yes, Lord, but even the little dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” That did it! Jesus returned to characteristic form. He said, “O, woman, great is your faith! Let it be for you as you wish.” Her daughter was healed at that very moment.

It is interesting to read interpretations of this story. One important point is that Matthew wrote his Gospel primarily to Jews. Jesus’ mission unfolds just as Paul describes it in Romans: “To the Jew first and then to the Greek.” From this point on in Matthew’s account, Jesus shares the Kingdom with gentiles as well as Jews.

Some interpreters suggest that Jesus was sort of toying with the crowds who were following Him, pretending to have the same prejudices toward non-Jews that they had. Others suggest that He was testing, and thus strengthening the woman’s faith. One author listed three tests: silence, doubt, and unworthiness. He suggests that Jesus concealed His compassionate love as He tested (exercised) and thereby strengthened the woman’s faith.

I question whether faith is strengthened by difficulty. I think a strong faith stands up to virtually any confrontation, but it is God — through the Gospel — who makes it strong in the first place. It is not in asking for mercy, over and over, but in receiving mercy, that faith is strengthened.

The first words out of the woman’s mouth demonstrate an unusual faith. She is a Canaanite, yet she reveals a belief that Jesus is the Messiah. She calls Him “Son of David.” That’s hardly typical Canaanite lingo! She also offers a plea in which forgiveness and grace are inherent. She seeks no recognition, offers no credentials and suggests no reason why Jesus should pay the least attention to her. She asks for mercy. Even in this, the outsider uses the ancient cry of both the Old and New Testament Church: “Kyrie eleison” (Lord, have mercy), only in this case it is more personal, “Eleison me, Kyrie.”

The event took place shortly after a conflict arose between Jesus and the Jewish authorities. The disciples were concerned because they felt Jesus had offended those authorities. I tend to think Jesus was testing the disciples, their concept of the kingdom and its extent, rather than the woman. I think Jesus knew the depth of this woman’s faith and the depth of her need. He was probably disappointed that the disciples gave up so easily when He said He was sent only to Israel’s lost.

I think we need to be seeking spiritual fitness with even more fervor than contemporary society is seeking physical fitness, but we cannot do that by seeking some kind of testing for exercise. We do that by going to the Means of Grace. It is through the Word and Sacraments that we experience God’s mercy and the strengthening of the Spirit we so desperately need. There we experience God’s grace to us without regard to our heritage, lineage, or race — without regard to what we have done or what we have failed to do. There we find relief from our fears of God’s judgment against us. There we find mercy!

I am convinced that the biggest reason why people, even in the church, keep using language that describes the whole world in terms of “we” and “they,” those “in” and those “out,” is because we have failed to see ourselves as outsiders whom God has — purely by mercy — pulled in. As long as we do not see ourselves as having received mercy, we fail to see others as candidates for receiving it.

One of the great things that can happen when we join a church is that we sense a kind of special inclusion, acceptance, even appreciation. It is wonderful to feel like you are a part of something good, rather than apart from it. At the same time, the circle of the church must always have an opening. If it is ever seen as a closed circle, then the feeling is one of exclusiveness instead of inclusiveness. There is a fine line of difference there — not unlike the fine line between day and night or good and evil.

The disciples were learning that Jesus had authority over the little things of life, like daily bread — specifically, five breads and two fish. They were also learning that He had authority over bigger things, like wind and waves. Now it was time to see that He was the only Authority in the Kingdom. He, not the priests, scribes and Pharisees, would set the prerequisites for inclusion. He would even decide who would live and who would die, and why. It turned out that nothing He said or did prepared them for that last part. Who could have dreamed how great God’s mercy could be or how far it would take Him! Who could have dreamed that He would die so they and we could live?

Some people resent mercy because they confuse it with pity. A man once saw a dog rummaging around in his trash. Angered by the mess in his yard, he shot the dog dead. Two neighbors came to complain. The man said, “What’s the problem? It was just a dog.” The one neighbor, an animal rights activist, said that he should have shown pity because even a dog has a right to live. The other punched him in the nose and said, “That wasn’t just a dog; it was my dog!” He didn’t want the dog to be shown pity because it was helpless. He wanted it to be shown mercy because, even if it was in the wrong, it was valuable and loved.

Carl Sandburg, in Lincoln: The War Years, told a story about a very young soldier who ran away from his first confrontation with the enemy. He was sentenced to death, but the President pardoned him. Lincoln wrote, “I have observed that it does not do a boy much good to shoot him.” Mercy sees, in spite of the guilt and apparent worthlessness of the person, a value that only the eyes of love can imagine. This is how you are perceived by the God who gave His life to save yours. It is also how He perceives your neighbors, family, friends and every stranger or “foreigner” in the world. He died for them and our mission is to tell them.

* The title for this devotion is not original with me. It came from a homiletical journal some years ago. I would love to credit the original author but, while the clever phrase is unforgettable, I cannot remember who first wrote it.

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