Sunday, August 17, 2008

Good News: A Little Grace Goes a Long Way

(A sermon based on Matthew 15:21-28 for Sunday, August 17, 2008)

We’re not accustomed to hearing Jesus talk this way; we’re certainly not accustomed to seeing him act this way. A woman comes to him begging for help for her daughter. Jesus ignores her. She continues begging, now making quite a scene, such a scene that the disciples encourage Jesus to deal with her some kind of way and get rid of her. Jesus says that he came to minister to the chosen people, not to outsiders like her. Still she persists. Then Jesus refers to people like her by a derogatory term, implying that she herself is a dog like the people to whom she belongs are dogs and that it isn’t right to take the food that is meant for the children and give it to the dogs. The woman doesn’t argue the point; “Yes, Lord,” she says, “but even the little dogs under the table get the crumbs that the children drop.”

What in the world is going on here? There are at least two possibilities. First, perhaps we are getting a look at the very real humanity of Jesus. Jesus was fully human, our Christian faith affirms, and yet, the Bible affirms, he was without sin. This week I confessed to someone my “sin of forgetfulness.” He asked me if forgetfulness is really a sin. I confessed that I really didn’t think it is; it’s just a sign of humanity. So we see Jesus first ignoring this woman; then we see him refusing her; then we see him insulting her. Can we affirm that his behavior may be a sign of his humanity? It is no sin, after all, to be tired. It is no sin to be pressed for time. It is no sin to sense that you are being pulled in too many directions by too many people in too many ways. And—despite the seeming harshness of his words—it is no sin to tell the truth. Being human—even a Christian human—even a human without sin—does not mean that every thought and every word and every action will be all sweetness and light. So here we just may be given a blessed glimpse of the very real humanity of Jesus.

If so, then we may also see something happening to Jesus, something that Grant LeMarquand cleverly termed “the Canaanite conquest of Jesus.” We may see Jesus growing in his awareness of the purpose of his own ministry. After all, we read of in the gospel message that Jesus grew and matured as a boy; don’t people continue to grow in their understanding as they get older? He said, “It appears that Jesus has been turned; he has been confronted with and has learned the meaning of his own teaching concerning ‘mercy’ (see, for example, Mt 5:7; 9:13; 12:7; 23:23)…. In this narrative the Israelite is conquered by the Canaanite.”

The second possibility is that Jesus is putting the woman—and maybe the disciples—through a test. Perhaps he is testing the faith of this Canaanite woman by continually putting her off and even insulting her; maybe he wants to see if she will trust in him no matter what. If that’s what he wants to find out, he certainly does, because she, like those old Timex watches, “took a licking and kept on ticking.” With every rebuff she became stronger and sharper. When all is said and done, Jesus commends her for her faith and heals her daughter.

And what of the disciples? This passage is one of many that, when I read them, I can’t help but wish I could hear Jesus’ tone of voice and see the look on his face. Do you wonder, as I do, if Jesus is testing his disciples’ reaction with his words? When he ignored the woman, was he looking for the disciples to ask him why? When he said the things he said, was he looking to see if the disciples would suggest a gracious course of action? Or, was he, by testing the woman’s faith, showing the disciples what real faith looks like?

Regardless, there are lessons to be learned here and I hope that we will learn them.

Lesson #1: God means for the outsiders to come in.

There is simply no doubt about that. Regardless of why Jesus said what he said to the Canaanite woman, at the end he commended her faith and accepted her as a member of the family of God. Moreover, by the time we get to the end of Matthew, Jesus is instructing his disciples to take the good news beyond Israel and even to the whole world. In addition, the book of Acts and the ministry and letters of Paul and the subsequent movement of the good news across all boundaries and among all peoples make it clear that God intended and still intends for his Church to be inclusive of all who are saved by grace through faith. The good news is for everybody.

Jesus’ ministry while he walked on earth was first and foremost a ministry to Israel. The idea seems to have been that Jesus would summon the remnant from Israel who would in turn spread God’s salvation to all people. It may be that Jesus here seems to us to overstate the restrictive nature of that ministry. I have already said that here we may see displayed the humanity of Jesus. Still, God has his purposes and they were being worked out in what Jesus did and said here. We don’t have the right or the privilege of saying, “If Jesus restricted his ministry to the ‘insiders,’ then so can we.” No, we have the privilege of knowing how the whole story turns out. We have the privilege of knowing that Jesus died for all who will believe. We have the privilege of loving all those out there who need to know Christ. Some of us—perhaps all of us—may still have some growing to do in our acceptance of that reality.

Lesson #2: Humility and trust matter.

This Canaanite woman is one of the most amazing and compelling characters in the Bible. The Canaanites were the ancient enemies of Israel; they were the people whom Israel defeated to gain possession of the Promised Land and they were the practitioners of a religion that was always viewed as a threat to Israel’s faith. But there she came, not only asking this Jewish rabbi to help her daughter but also daring to use the names and terminology that were reserved for those on the inside of Israel’s faith. “Son of David” she called Jesus. Perhaps even more significantly, she called him “Lord” not once, not twice, but three times. Indeed, she was convinced that Jesus was the one who could help her and she was tenacious in her submission to his lordship even as he seemed to put up obstacle after obstacle to her faith.

When Jesus said, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” the woman responded by saying, “Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the masters’ tables.” Now, coming from our modern mindset we would want to say that no one should accept a label such as “dog” to describe themselves; we are concerned about self-esteem and self-worth. But remember: Jesus took her words to indicate great faith. I believe that we can connect that great faith with great humility. It is not that she was accepting a derogatory term as defining for her character; it is that she was willing to accept that God has his ways and that all that she wanted was what could come to her. She was an insistent person, yes—she insisted that she believed that Jesus could help her and that if she would persevere he would help her. But she was not insistent on naming the terms or on maintaining her dignity; no, she would bow before Jesus and she would accept just how needy she was.

And that’s what it takes to come into the kingdom and to be saved. That’s what it takes whether you’re the best behaving person around or whether you’re the worst reprobate in town. That’s what it takes whether you are white or black or brown. That’s what it takes whether you’re American or Russian or Chinese or Iranian. That’s what it takes whether you’ve grown up in the church or whether this is the first time you’ve ever set foot in a sanctuary. You have to accept your need and you have to trust that Jesus can meet that need.

Lesson #3: A little grace goes a long way.

The Canaanite woman said that all she needed was the crumbs from the table. She knew that those crumbs would be enough. She knew that just a little of God’s grace would go a long way, that it would go all the way to saving her daughter and, I’m sure, saving her, too. I want you to know today that no matter who you are, no matter what you are, and no matter where you are, a little bit of God’s grace is all you need. Maybe you don’t feel like you’re worthy, maybe you feel like you’re too far gone, maybe you feel like there are too many obstacles in the way, but if you’ll just trust and believe, if you’ll just accept God’s crumbs amount to a feast of grace, you can be made whole.

Hear this, Christians: when I say that a little grace goes a long way, that applies whether you’re getting it or whether you’re giving it. I believe that those disciples of Jesus needed to be drawn into this conversation and into this process so that they could see how important it was not only to receive grace but also to dispense it. It was hard for them to love and to accept some folks; it’s hard for us, too. But they weren’t excused from doing it and neither are we. We need to give out the grace that we have taken in.

A little grace goes a long way. Getting it changed our lives; giving it will change them even more.

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