Mercy Against All Odds

21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15:21-28)

One of the questions pastors get asked a lot is,
“Do you think Hitler will go to heaven?”

You say God is gracious, you say God can forgive anything,
so how gracious is God, really?

Who get into heaven? Who would you let in?

How many lost sheep can that glory train really hold?

Sure, we want a merciful God, but what about Judas?

I don’t know who will get into heaven,
fortunately, that’s not my decision and it’s not your decision, either.

But where do you draw the line?

Will Judas get in? Will Paul Olsen?

Do you even belong here?

Is it fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs?

This is such a great story today—
a feisty, nasty Jesus and a back-talking bad girl.

First of all, this is a Canaanite woman.

“Canaanite”—that’s a old-fashioned word
that hardly ever shows up in the New Testament,
but shows up a lot in the Old Testament,
and it’s never positive when it does.

Here’s the way the book of Deuteronomy (7:1-2) puts it:
When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you—and when the LORD your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.

So when this obnoxious woman starts shouting at Jesus,
Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David!
it’s one of the very same sinful Canaanites
God had commanded the Israelites to show no mercy.

So when Jesus did not answer her at all—well, what did she expect?

And when Jesus calls her one of the dogs,
well, she’d probably been called a lot worse,
and she maybe even deserved it.

It might sound like a nasty Jesus to you,
but so far, everything in this story, right up to the last verse,
sounded perfectly righteous to Matthew’s first listeners.

Send her away, Jesus disciples tell him,
and everybody would have said, “Yeah, and good riddance, too.”

Which, if you know Jesus, ought to make you duck,
because you know the gospel has a way of messing
with what you thought you knew about God.

Jesus shows mercy to this woman,
against all the odds and all the rules, Jesus shows her mercy.

At just the point where we can finally stomach this story,
Jesus actually shows us how offensive the mercy of God can be—
how wild and free,
how inclusive and embracing,
how forgiving and giving.

Jesus shows us that facing your enemies isn’t about power,
strength isn’t demonstrated by dominion over others
but the ability to be merciful to them.

Jesus doesn’t ask this woman to do anything;
he just recognizes the miracle of her faith
and gives her what she wants.

How miraculous it is
that any of us have the faith to believe
that God could be merciful to us.

Faith is essential—you must believe;
but it is not conditional, it is miraculous,
it comes to birth in the most unexpected places,
the most impossible souls,
a Canaanite woman,
John Wilkes Booth, maybe,
your soul or mine.

Jesus breaks the rules and shows mercy
to those to whom no mercy ought to be shown—
which is, of course, the very definition of what God’s mercy is.

And the woman shows us that we are the recipients of that mercy,
and it is only a miracle of faith that we are here where we belong,
following her example:
humbly begging for God’s mercy—
it is by grace that we are saved.

MATTHEW 15:21-28 – © Pastor Paul Olsen, KING OF GLORY LC, BOISE, ID

Paul Olsen

Paul Olsen

ELCA Pastor, King of Glory, Boise ID

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