Sermon by Rev. Zickler for August 20, 2017

August 20, 2017
Matthew 15:21-28

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. This morning we meditate on the Gospel Lesson, previously read.

As most of you probably know, I love dogs. We have our dog, Lucas. I grew up with multiple dogs, even having four of them when I was in High School. Dogs were always a part of our lives. In fact, I often say that there is an aspect where I think having dogs is so great because elements of it are a return to Edenic Paradise. Just as our Lord gave dominion over the animals to Adam, so also dogs enter to live under our dominion, and when they obey us, which happens better sometime than others, we have a small glimpse of what things were like before the fall. There is the unabashed love and devotion, the desire to please, the care and even service at times to their masters.

But that being said, when the Scriptures speak of dogs, there’s often a lowliness involved. Think about the parable of Lazarus and the rich man that Jesus tells. Poor Lazarus sits outside the gates of the rich man’s house and you know things are rough for him because the dogs come and lick his sores. Or with the death of the horrid Jezebel, the curse was given that dogs would eat her flesh. So when our Lord Jesus tells this Canaanite woman that “it’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” as if it’s not abundantly clear, this is not a compliment. Now, to be fair, Jesus does use a form of the word that is a diminutive form—a more affectionate form; dogs who live in houses and are domesticated, not wild ones—but even still, this is clearly not a compliment. When you call someone a dog, like this it’s not good. So why does Jesus do this? I mean, this is our Savior that we’re talking about here. The Lord who was crucified for our sins because of God’s great love. Why would He say such a thing? After all, this doesn’t seem loving at all, does it?

Well, to understand, we have to put this in some context. First of all, the Canaanites. Do you remember the Canaanites in the Old Testament? Who were they? They were the people who occupied that Promised Land, and when the Lord parted the Jordan River that the Israelites could pass through and enter into the Land of their inheritance, He also gave the Israelites a command. He told them to exterminate these Canaanites. They were supposed to be gone, eradicated. But the Israelites didn’t do what they were supposed to. Judges Chapter One tells us as much. In fact, if you’ve seen reports that the Bible has been proven wrong because the Israelites were instructed to eradicate the Canaanites, yet Canaanite DNA was found in people in Lebanon, those reports are wrong. Scripture is clear, the Israelites didn’t do what they were commanded and the Canaanites were NOT eradicated. That’s part of the issue here. For those legalistic Jews, especially the Pharisees, this woman’s very existence is a boil on the history of Israel. She’s not supposed to exist. And that’s a part of what Jesus is playing into here.

Actually, as I say this, this is all the more clear if you look at Matthew Chapter 15 just before this. Matthew, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, has placed just before this Jesus’ comments about those who cling to Tradition over God’s Commands and His words about the sin within us which truly defiles us in contrast to the foods we eat. So Matthew is setting Jesus up here. Jesus is hammering on the point that the Old Covenant is going to be changed by His coming. Along with that, this means that God’s people are not only the Jews, but all nations. As Isaiah says, “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” And the Psalm confirms, “let all the peoples praise you!

So to answer the question, why then does Jesus call this woman a dog? Well, on the one hand think about it. Jesus, by all appearances always had people around him; always had Jews around him. As He says this, He’s setting them up. You see, even though there were clear directions in the Old Testament about what to do with converts to Judaism–called proselytes—many Jews were self-righteous about their faith, thinking that they were perhaps even deserving of Gods gifts because of their heritage. This would be akin to someone thinking they’re better off for having been born a Lutheran and deserve to go to heaven because of it, rather than understanding that the greatness of Lutheranism is its faithfulness to the Scriptures and the centrality of Christ and His work for us in all things—something that as I convert I feel I can attest to in a particular way. But Jesus is going to drive this point home, isn’t He?

Now as I say that, you might still be thinking, “Just how is He going to do that?” Well, look at what happens. Of course, it’s a bit hard to listen to, isn’t it? Here’s this woman in desperation. Her daughter is oppressed by demons, she’s sick in some way, oppressed by suffering. She hears that Jesus is coming through these regions, and so she as hope. She comes to Him, and begs. And what happens? At first, nothing: “He did not answer her a word.” Not only that, but the disciples are begging Jesus, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” And then Jesus opened His mouth. You can imagine her excitement. What is He going to say? Is He going to give me what I want? Is He going to grant his great need for my beloved child? Will He bring the healing the Son of David is supposed to bring? Which by the way, the fact that she calls Him Son of David is an additional dig in all of this: a gentile, one who shouldn’t exist recognizing this Jesus to be the Messiah promised to the Jews, when so many Jews can’t see it, that’s not a compliment. But there she waits. Will this Son of David bring healing? And what does He say? “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” “Gentile, I didn’t come for you.” You can imagine how disheartening this would be to the woman. But it seems like she gets it, and she knows there’s no other hope, so she tries again, “Lord, help me.” Her desperation. She knows that there’s no other place to turn, and since He’s the Messiah, she knows that He’s come to bring salvation. So she begs.

But how does Jesus respond here? Even worse. Here comes the dig to her. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” “Woman, you aren’t even a human.” Now imagine the internal monologue of the Jews. “This Jesus gets it! He knows who God is really pleased with! He loves the Jews and hates the other nations!” And on the flip side, think about the woman. Already disheartened, this must have been a bit crushing. Although maybe it wasn’t. And as I say that, we keep asking, why did Jesus say this? On the one hand, He’s setting the Jews up for embarrassment, but on the other hand He’s drawing this woman out. He’s doing what He often does, like we talked about last week with His hiddenness. He’s making Himself look like He’s against us, but when He reveals Himself, we’ll see that this was all to trust in Him and Him alone.

And that’s what He’s doing to this woman. He’s drawing out her humility. Yes, it’s crushing to be called a dog, but this is the God who crushes the exalted, and exalts the lowly. This is the God who rewards those who come to Him knowing that they have empty hands, because His great pleasure is to fill them. In fact, the crushing of the exalted and exalting of the lowly is exactly what He’s doing there. When the woman confesses, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” When she turns to Jesus and says, “Lord I know I don’t have anything of myself, but I know that even what I need is merely a pittance compared to what You have to give,” the Lord looks at her and commends her. He tells her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And here this lowly woman has been exalted, given what she needs. And the Jews have been crushed: this dog, this outsider, this Canaanite who shouldn’t exist has great faith?! What is this?! You can only imagine the disgust in their reactions.

But as we recount this story of the woman, what should we take away from it? Well, to start—as I mentioned last week—we have something to learn about faith. So often, we think of OUR faith as OUR strength, OUR ability to cling to God in times of trouble, how great WE are in relation to God. How successful WE have been in setting ourselves up as God’s people. But what do we see in this woman? A woman who doesn’t demand, but cries out begging. A woman whose humility tells her when it comes to her standing before God, she is nothing; she is a dog. She’s a woman who comes trusting, hoping in nothing in herself, but clinging only to this Son of David. And so should we. We see that our hope isn’t in our heritage, or our greatness, or even how strong we think our faith is. Instead, our faith clings to the cross of Jesus alone. It clings to those words that He speaks, “Be it done for you as you desire.” That promise, “In my cross, your sins have been paid for, and in my resurrection you will live.” It clings to those words, “This is my body given for the forgiveness of your sins.” In fact, as I speak of how we often talk about our faith being so strong, something we have to realize is just what that is. Strong faith doesn’t say, “I am so strong I can go weeks without hearing God’s Word.” It says, “I am so weak, I can’t trust in anything but hearing that Word spoken for me. I am such a dog I need the crumbs from my Lord ’s Table just to make it to the next week.” That is what faith does. So that’s something we should take from this.

Something else, extremely pertinent we should draw is something I’m sure I don’t need to mention, but considering what we’ve been seeing on the news, it seems necessary to do so. As we look at all of the conversations about white supremacists and Antifa. About violence in the midst of all of this, we should consider this: if we are dogs before God, how does that inform how we treat our neighbor? It’s interesting that Jesus is here making such a point to the Israelites. He’s telling those who would be self-righteous about their Jewish race that race that your bloodline doesn’t earn anything before God. The only one who has earned anything before God is Jesus. In fact, as we see this Canaanite woman, we see that Jesus heals her daughter. He commends her faith. He drives home the point that He is here for all people, for all peoples, for every nation on earth. And when our Lord shows as that we see that humility doesn’t boast in the identity of the color of our skin. It doesn’t boast in our heritage, it boasts in weakness, and in the firm knowledge that because we are dogs, the only hope that we have is the crumbs that our master drops from His table.

Finally, as we think about ourselves as those dogs, as I mentioned, I love dogs. That being said, one of the things about my dog that makes me the craziest is how when I’m eating, I tell him to go lie down, with greater success at times than others. But without fail, when I drop food, when I drop the smallest crumb, he immediately lunges out of his spot to the vicinity where that crumb landed. And then He begs for more. You see he knows where the source of his food is. That’s how we should be with God. We have to know that He is the source of our well-being. The difference is that the crumbs that fall from my table for my dog are just that: small crumbs. But with the Canaanite woman, we have to understand, that crumbs that fall from the Lord’s Table are far more than that. Even the crumbs are a feast. A feast far beyond what dogs deserve. But that’s our Lord. He loves to give to all, even to us dogs. Amen.