By Paul Koch –
I will never forget the day I first walked into the great cathedral in Strasburg, France. I was a much younger man and quite impressionable, to be sure. But that building was a shock to the system. It wasn’t just the sights of the grand gothic architecture, or the massive stained glass rose window, or even the statues that seemed to peek out from every nook and cranny. No, it was a feeling that I was in the presence of something much greater, much bigger, much grander than myself. There was a certain uncomfortableness to the place that somehow seemed fitting for a house of worship. I knew that this was unlike any other building I had been in. I knew that its very presence was an attempt to confess something beyond my ability to fully understand. God wasn’t pictured as something comfortable in my life, something that would easily accommodate my notions of what is good, right and salutary. Rather God was immovable and I was called to bend to His will. Perhaps there is something good about that confession, something we can easily forget these days.
For you see, our Lord doesn’t always act like we might want Him to act. At times, He says and does things that are shocking and upsetting, and quite possibly offensive to us. St. Matthew in his Gospel allows us to see this side of our Lord’s work. When the respected religious leaders of the day seek to debate with Jesus, he rejects their terms. When they want to talk about the ritual of washing hands, he calls them to task saying that they are unclean because of the evil thoughts that flow from their hearts and out of their mouths. He says things that people don’t want to hear. It isn’t all sunshine and rainbows and making sure everyone is comfortable. He calls people to repentance, highlights their sins, and causes despair.
Perhaps one of the most shocking moments is when our Lord heads over to the region of Tyre and Sidon (Matt. 15:21-28). Now this is Gentile territory. This is a part of the land that was never part of Israel’s kingdom even at the height of their power and influence. And our Lord doesn’t seem to head out there to engage in some sort of compassionate ministry but to avoid (at least for the time being) the growing opposition of the Pharisees, whom he had a knack for upsetting. And yet out there in this surprising setting an even more surprising exchange ensues between our Lord and a Canaanite woman.
We are told that she comes right up to him crying out, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; for my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” Now we see in this text that this woman is saying all the right things. Though she is not a Jew, she confesses that Jesus is the Lord and the Son of David. She gives him his proper titles: titles that speak of him as the long-awaited messiah. This is the very thing the Pharisees in Israel had refused to do. Here, in Gentile land on the lips of a Gentile woman, Jesus hears a confession that is fitting and faithful. And how does he respond? Does he praise her for such a confession? Does he tell her to immediately bring her stricken daughter so that he might drive that demon out of her? No, He completely ignores her. He says nothing, and it drives his disciples crazy. She won’t stop crying out, but he isn’t doing anything about it. So they beg him to send her away.
And this is when it goes from rude or inconsiderate to downright offensive. For he says to his disciples, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” That is, I wasn’t sent to the Gentiles, to the Canaanites. This isn’t part of my mission. This woman and her concern is of no concern to me. But the woman kneels before him and with a breaking heart pleads with him saying, “Lord, help me.” There is nowhere else for her to go, no one else that can help. And our Lord looks at her and says, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
What? How could he say such a thing? He goes from ignoring her to calling her a dog. There is no denying that his words and actions in this text are hard and painful. Clearly Jesus doesn’t always behave as we would like him to. We want him on our terms, domesticated and comfy. Accessible to our every whim and answerable to our demands. We like Jesus in a cozy pew with the air conditioning running, or on a quiet walk in a garden where we have long and wonderful conversations. We want our Lord celebrating when our team scores the winning run and patting us on the back when we’ve given it our best shot.
We don’t want this guy. We don’t want the one that ignores our cries for help. We don’t want the one that will call us dogs. But this is still our Lord. Who here hasn’t cried out to him to be met only with silence? Who hasn’t been at their wits end and screamed out to God to do something to intercede, to give a sign, to work a miracle? Then again, how often has the Word of God spoken to you? How often has it resonated deep within your soul only to tear and wound you? How often have you been called a dog? Think of the times when your sins have been exposed by the Word. The times that you’ve been ashamed of the person you’ve become. The times that you wish you could change, but you can’t seem to do any better. The times you wish you could undo what you’ve said or done, but it is too late? How often have the Words of Christ continually reveal your failure?
What often happens, when one is ignored by our Lord or when one is called a dog, is they abandon their quest. They throw in the towel or look elsewhere. Many people will turn aside from their following of Christ for they don’t find there the Jesus they want. Perhaps they will find another place where Jesus is a little more suitable to their liking – a little more comfortable.
But notice what this incredible woman in our text does. She doesn’t give up. She doesn’t throw in the towel. No, she takes his words as hard as they may be. She accepts them as her own. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” says Jesus. And she responds, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Yes Lord, I am what you say I am. Yes Lord, I may be a dog but the dogs receive the crumbs that fall from the table. Yes Lord, all I want is that crumb, for a crumb from you can free my daughter. A crumb from the master is enough to give life and hope.
You might say that what she does is trap him in his own words. And so, those hard words become a gift of hope. We learn from this Canaanite woman that our Lord is willing and perhaps even invites us to trap him in his words. He wants us to hold faithfully to what he has first said to us. The hard things that he says to you, the word that reveals your sin and shame, that is not a word to run from or ignore or leave behind. No, we are called to follow this faithful woman and say, “Yes, Lord.” Yes, I am a sinner. A sinner in need of a savior. I am a sinner that cannot by my own reason or strength save myself.
For the same Lord that has called you a dog has called you a brother and a sister. He has called you a child of God. He has declared that you are redeemed, not by your own work but by his alone. And he rejoices when you trap him in those very words as well. When you confess and say, “Yes Lord I am a sinner and I am also a saint. For you have said that I am forgiven. You have said that my sins are as far from me as the east is from the west.” See this woman is bold. She holds him in his Word, and you are invited to do the same thing. So, in your loneliness, in your pain, in your fears and your doubt you can cry out and say, “I am yours. I am baptized. I am the child you have said I am.”
And your Lord is thrilled. As he heals the Canaanite woman’s child, so he promises you an eternal healing. For the promises of Christ are for you and your children and even for the dogs.