A sermon preached by Nikolaj Christensen on 16 August 2020.
Romans 11.1-2a,29-32. Matthew 15.21-28.
Why should God help you? That question is posed powerfully by our Gospel reading today. A Canaanite woman comes to Jesus, full of worry for her child, and is fully aware that this question is asked of her: Why should God help you? Perhaps that’s what the people in her own country had said to her. And her words certainly reveal that she was fully aware that this is what a Jew would have said to her: Why would God help you?
‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David’. Her words demonstrate that she knew some theology, she knew something about the Scriptures, and she knew enough about the Jewish law to know that she and her people fell well short of its standards. She knew that the Jews were the masters, the lords. In her words there is no hint of entitlement, or any claim to merit, but simply a cry for mercy. ‘Lord, help me.’
Jesus, it seems, recognised the awareness that lay behind her words, and while the disciples just want to get rid of her somehow, Jesus senses that he can challenge her. He responds to her in three rather frustrating ways. Firstly, with silence – no answer at all. Then with a statement about his own mission – being primarily or, to put it bluntly, exclusively to his own nation, to fulfil God’s promises to them. And then finally he responds with a statement about the woman and her people: ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ Ouch!
But the woman is up to the challenge. This is where we really see that she has not come to claim something as a right, but to ask for mercy, undeserved. She simply accepts her position: ‘Yes, Lord’, she answers him. Yes, I know I’m a dog – I just hope God is a dog person.
As an aside, I personally am much more of a cat person. But it looks like the woman was on to something. God really does love dogs – and he loves people whose lives have gone to the dogs! ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ And with that, she has passed the challenge. No merit, only faith is required. ‘Let it be done for you as you wish.’
In the end it is not belonging to this or that tribe that matters in God’s eyes, but having a faith that wants to receive from him, rather than earning his favour. Mercy that has to be earned, is not mercy. Love that has to be earned, is not love.
St Paul was saying something similar in our first reading this morning. But instead of getting into that, before I finish I want to say a special word to those of you who might not have felt able to go to church before we started doing online services, or you might not have been desperate enough to go then! Thank you for giving church a chance. Please keep tuning in. But more than that, please know that God wants to show his love for you.
I wonder if you feel ready to take a small step of faith with us, beginning to put your trust in God as your heavenly Father, to trust Jesus who was willing to die for you and who was stronger than death, and to trust God’s life-giving Holy Spirit. Let’s reflect on that for a moment before we confess our faith together.