In his one of his accounts about his journeys entitled, North by Northeast, Walter Cronkite recalls the following incident:
Sailing back down the Mystic River in Connecticut and following the channel’s tricky turns through an expanse of shallow water, I am reminded of the time a boatload of young people sped past us here, its occupants shouting and waving their arms. I waved back a cheery greeting and my wife said, “Do you know what they were shouting?” “Why, it was ‘Hello, Walter,’” I replied. “No,” she said. “They were shouting, “Low water, Low water.’” Such are the pitfalls of fame’s egotism.
I seriously doubt that Walter Cronkite is alone in his egotism. We want to see ourselves as the ones who matter. We want to see stores, holidays, laws, celebrations, and even schools cater to our needs, our preferences, and our ideas of social equality and equity. Is this not what leads to 95% of our disagreements? We want to be included. We want life to be about us. Pride, hubris, arrogance, narcissism, haughtiness, self-importance, or whatever term you might choose to identify it, has led to a general pining for inclusiveness amongst our society. We want everyone to be bidding us a warm welcome and calling us by name. We want to be included in all of the good things, and protected from all of the bad things. We want to rid ourselves of any possible reason that someone might want to exclude us. The idea of someone being excluded from some benefit on the basis of nationality, race, gender, age, or even sexuality offends our senses… it stirs up dissension in the ranks… it causes protests, riots, and many other hateful things. This might be why this account of Jesus and the Canaanite woman seems to ruffle our feathers a little. For people who fancy themselves as disciples of Jesus, we might find this passage a little offensive. So, we might be liable to try to defend Jesus. We may want to run to His side and explain his motives. We might try really hard to show that Jesus is not really saying what He is saying. Just in case you weren’t paying attention, Listen to the passage again. You can even follow along in your bulletins if you like.
And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon.
A little bit of explanation is helpful here. Jesus had just been in the area of Gennesaret. When He had arrived there, the people started bringing all the sick and diseased to Jesus, as was the case most of the places that He went. While He was healing people, some scribes and Pharisees came from Jerusalem to ask Him why His disciples did not wash their hands when they ate. Now, Gennesaret was roughly 75 miles from Jerusalem. That’s a long way to travel by foot just to ask a question about cleanliness. But, cleanliness was important to the Jews. It was important for their laws. Cleanliness was next to godliness as the saying goes. So Jesus explains to them that cleanliness comes from the inside of a man. It doesn’t have to do with what you put into your body. Evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not mean anything. It’s all about perspective. So after this encounter, Jesus leaves the area and heads out of the “comfort” of Israel towards the pagan cities of Tyre and Sidon. These places were definitely NOT clean in the Jewish sense of the word.
And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word.
So, in this pagan place, a seemingly pagan woman interrupts the disciples and Jesus on their getaway. AND she wants something. They always want something from Jesus. They want to be healed. They want their family members to be healed. They want something to eat. People always want something from Jesus. He has just traveled the almost 100 miles to the region, and here is another charity case. But obviously this doesn’t mean a whole lot to Jesus. He doesn’t even answer her. But she is persistent.
And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Wow! This is where we, as Americans, start to get a little bit uncomfortable. I mean, yeah, we understand that Jesus would be a little ticked that every time He tries to get away for a little R&R people interrupt Him. The disciples even seem to know what’s going on here. They just want Jesus to get on with it so they rid themselves of the presence of this woman. “Send her away. Give her what she wants!!” is the connotation of their words here. But Jesus remarks that He has not come for this woman. She’s not part of Israel. She’s a Canaanite. But this is a little exclusive. Isn’t it? Only sent for the lost sheep of the house of Israel? That seems a little cold. I mean we can understand if He doesn’t want to do anything because He is tired. But to exclude this woman on the basis of nationality? Religious preference? That’s not very… well… nice.
But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
And here is where we really get uncomfortable. This poor woman is begging… on her knees in the dirt of the road… “Lord, help me.” The disciples had seen this before. Jesus always has compassion when this happens. He always ends up helping. The man with a withered hand, the men with demons, the woman bleeding, the paralytic, the centurion’s servant and the crowd that followed, the leper, they all get healed. Surely, Jesus is just stringing this woman along.
But then His response, “it is not right to give the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus does not only ignore her initial request. Ignore the disciples’ request to give her what she wants to get rid of her. But now He calls her a dog? At best, she is some sort of household pet who is way down on the list of those who get fed. At the worst, she is an unclean scavenger of dead prey and garbage. Either description seems kind of harsh for this poor woman with a demon-possessed child. But in a strange turn of events, the woman actually consents to this description.
She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters ‘table.”
Wait… What??? Is she really begging for a crumb from the master’s table? Did she really agree with Jesus’ assessment of her? She’s ok with being a dog? That’s not how this is supposed to work! She’s supposed to march herself right into the office of her lawyer, bring Jesus up on charges of discrimination. She’s supposed to march in the streets with signs that say, “Health and Wellness for All!” She’s supposed to lead campaign after campaign to try and change the public’s perception of CWDD’s (Canaanite Women with Demon-possessed Daughters). That’s what we would do, isn’t it? But she doesn’t. She continues to beg and plead with Jesus. “Even the dogs get to eat when the scraps fall from the masters table.”
Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
HA!!! We knew it! We knew it was coming! We knew it was coming. We knew Jesus would heal her! We knew He was just kidding! We knew that He didn’t mean to call her a dog! He didn’t mean to say that He only came for Israel! He was just stringing her along. HA HA HA HA HA! We knew He wasn’t serious. Wait… He wasn’t serious? Then, why did He do that? That was actually kind of cruel. Why did He put that poor woman through that? To teach her a lesson? To teach the disciples? To teach us? That was really cruel. Pretending He wasn’t going to heal her was no bueno… not cool! Jesus actually comes off looking even more like a…. well… a jerk.
Until you take off your American hats and set them to the side for a minute. Let’s quit rushing to judgments or trying to explain Jesus’ actions. Let’s just listen to His Words. Let’s look at the passage just one more time.
And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters ‘table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Whenever we read a passage, we always want to identify with someone in the passage. I think that betrays us a little here when we read this account. We want to identify ourselves with the disciples. We are God’s people. We’re in, if you will. We’re not outsiders. Our church is almost 175 years old. Our families have sat in these pews for generations… a certain pew as a matter of fact. Many of us went to Lutheran schools, were confirmed, and have been faithful attenders for most of our lives. We give our offerings. We sing the hymns. We go to the potlucks, the servant events, the meetings. We are the disciples.
And yet, how did we start this morning’s service? “Almighty God, merciful Father, I a poor miserable sinner confess unto You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You and justly deserve your temporal and eternal punishment.” Does that sound like someone that is in? Does that sound like God’s elect? People ridden with sins to numerous to list. Not according to the world! But according to Christ? Yes! Of course, that is what it sounds like. It sounds like the words told to you later, “Almighty God, in His mercy has given His Son to die for you and for His sake forgives you all your sins. As a called and ordained servant of the Word, I announce the grace of God to you. And in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all of your sins.”
When Jesus tells the disciples that He only came for the lost people of Israel… When Jesus tells the woman that it is not right to take scraps from the children and give them to the dogs, He is not calling the woman a dog or saying she is not good enough because of her nationality. He is changing the definition of Israel and the definition of the children sitting at the master’s table. HE HEALS THE WOMAN”S DAUGHTER! HE FEEDS HER AND RESCUES HER! Her faith has made her part of the kingdom. Even though she is sinful and fallen, and so not the right “kind” of person, her faith makes her pleas acceptable. Faith is the key ingredient in salvation.
It’s not about pews. It’s not about offering envelopes. Its not even about being German. Its always about Christ. His death for your sins. His grace given in your Baptisms. His strength and forgiveness given in His Supper. His calling you out of darkness and into His marvelous light. Yes, we might be dogs. But Christ makes even the dogs to be children of God. Amen.