Sunday, August 17, 2008

Pentecost 14 Sermon -- Matthew 15:21-18 (LSB Proper 15A)

August 17, 2008 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church - Mechanicsburg, PA

Jesus said: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” The woman answered: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

Jesus certainly is right in what He says. It would not take long for the Department of Public Welfare to put an end to such a practice, if parents were starving children by throwing their food to the pets. Why isn’t it right to do such a thing? Various reasons exist, from the inane to the logical: Veterinarians may say dogs aren’t supposed to be fed human food. In parts of the world, making bread is too expensive, too time-consuming to make, to give to the animals. Philosophically, a child’s welfare is of greater value than a dog’s life.

But these aren’t the reasons that Jesus has in mind. They aren’t the foundational premise for what He says. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” What Jesus says is true, because “the children’s bread” is not meant for the dogs. The pets have no rightful claim to it. They may live with the family, but they have no place at the table. That’s the point of His statement to the Canaanite woman.

Essentially, what Jesus says to her is: “I’m not meant for you. I’m not your Lord, your Deliverer, or your Messiah.” Isn’t that why the incident happens? St. Matthew faithfully describes the scene. Jesus is politely addressed and positively identified by the woman: “O Lord, Son of David.” She makes a fairly reasonable request: “Have mercy on me.” She asks for something that is in Jesus’ area of expertise: “My daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” And Jesus’ response is . . . silence. “But He did not answer her a word.” Silence . . . because Jesus is not her Lord. Silence . . . because Jesus is not meant for her.

Jesus is very clear about His mission, even in the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The Messiah was meant for Israel. That seems to be the promise of the Old Testament. Statements to that effect are all over the Torah and the Psalter and the writings of the Prophets. The Lord God through Moses tells the Israelites: “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put My words in the mouth of the prophet who shall speak to them everything that I command.” The Prophet Micah even tells from where this Promised One would come: “You, Bethlehem, Ephratha, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for Me One who is to be ruler in Israel.”

That is “the Lord, the Son of David” who is promised, the prophecies that Jesus fulfils. But to whom is He sent? “I have only been sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He is “to be ruler in Israel.” He will speak to Israel “everything that the Lord commands.” Tyre and Sidon, you are excluded. Syria and Samaria, you are not the target of the Christ’s mission. And you, O Canaanite woman, you are not meant to have what Jesus provides. You do not get “the children’s bread.” “It is not right” for you to have it.

But note what the woman says in reply. She believes the truth of the matter. She does not try to pass herself off as an Israelite, neither does she claim that Jesus is unfair. Rather, she accepts what Jesus says: “Yes, Lord.” It isn’t right for me to have “the children’s bread.” But the woman also mentions something else that has been and still is just as true: “But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” And no one begrudges the puppies who do.

To this acceptance of the truth, Jesus replies: “O woman, great is your faith!” She is commended for believing the truth of what He says, for believing the truth of what that Torah, Psalter, and Prophets declared, for believing the truth about who He is. “Her daughter was healed instantly” as the crumbs fell from the Divine Master during His work of redeeming Israel and her mother snatched them up. And as Jesus leaves from there, the woman’s faith remains.

But for you, there are no crumbs to be had. Because the truth of who Jesus Christ is and what He does and what He says puts you into a different category than the Canaanite woman. Having the same faith in Jesus as she had makes you no dogs, but places you at the table as children. For what Christ was meant to do would also incorporate the nations into “the house of Israel.”

That is what the prophecy given through Isaiah declared. There would be an expansion of the household: “The foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, who minister to Him, to love the Name of the Lord, and to be His servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast My covenant—those I will bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on My altar; for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” This is what the Lord God declares will happen as He “reveals His deliverance and His salvation” through the promised Christ.

There is a change in status to occur. People who were excluded from the presence of the Lord God and His covenant are being brought in. You, who once were not part of His people are made recipients of the Messiah’s work of redemption. Jesus is “sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But His salvific work is not limited only to them. No, what the Incarnate God accomplishes through His perfect life, sacrificial death, and glorious resurrection transcends all times and places. This is the greater work that would happen after the exchange between Jesus and the Canaanite woman. She may receive “the crumbs from the masters’ table,” but her descendants are part of “all nations” from whom Christ’s disciples would be made.

This is what today’s Psalm predicted and the Epistle Reading explained. The Israelite Psalmist writes: “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make His face shine on us, that Your way may be known on earth, Your saving power among all nations.” And the Lord God answers the Psalmist’s prayer as He sends the Eleven and their successors out “to make disciples of all nations,” as they take up the task that Christ began, “baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”

St. Paul tells the Romans how this has taken place and how the Gentiles (“all nations”) including you have been made part of “the house of Israel: “The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable. . . . You at one time were disobedient to God, but now have received mercy . . . . God has consigned all to disobedience, that He may have mercy on all.” And just what does that divine mercy entail? Precisely what Isaiah described: “The Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares: ‘I will gather yet others to Him [the Messiah] besides those already gathered.” This is the divinely-planned outcome of Christ’s work in the past and the present work of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

As you are called and gathered by the Holy Spirit, you are made part of “the house of Israel,” made part of His chosen people. You receive the privileged place of children and leave the dogs on the floor. But remember, this is a status given to you, not earned. It is the result of mercy, not justice. In truth, it’s not right for you to receive anything good from the Lord God. Why should He grant you any good thing when you “daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment,” as the Catechism reminds you? You break the two Great Commandments, neither totally loving the Lord your God nor loving your neighbor as yourself. Even the dogs’ place is too good for you.

And yet, you are made the Lord God’s children. For that is His gracious will for you. And in doing so, He does not feed you leftovers, but places the Bread of Life in front of you to eat. He doesn’t treat you as unloved stepchildren, but gives you His Name as your own. He doesn’t leave you out in the courtyard or the foyer, but welcomes you into His “house of prayer” with all the rights and privileges of full membership.

None of this is just. But in matters of redemption, the Lord God goes beyond what is fair: His sense of equity is much different than ours. The Lord God’s salvation is a matter of mercy. It is the answer to the Psalmist’s prayer: “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make His face to shine on us, that Your way may be known on earth, Your saving power among all nations.” Grace and blessing: that is what the Lord God shows to you who are now given a place at the table.

The incident with the Canaanite woman is an incomplete foreshadowing of what was going to happen just over a year later. Soon, the disciples who wanted Jesus to “send her away” would themselves be sent to deliver the good things of salvation to people just like her. But you are not given incomplete shadows of salvation, you actually receive what the Lord God promised. You have been gathered, you have been born again into the Eternal Father’s household. And each day, in His graciousness, the Lord God gives you what your sin-oppressed souls need: forgiveness, life, and salvation.

What was promised to Israel is granted to you, as “the Lord, the Son of David” chooses to show you mercy and reveals His deliverance to “all nations” and to “the ends of the earth.” So you have been given a rightful claim to it, even given a place at the table; for you are the children of the Lord God, and it is right for you to have His good food.

T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.


Anonymous said...

Luke, Do you think it is a possiblity that Jesus was simply testing the woman? From what we know of Jesus' holistic ministry, do you think he ever meant, literally, "I have come only for the house of Israel", or could this be a "test question" for those who misconceived his mission?


Rev. Luke T. Zimmerman said...


Good question. I was knocking that around in my mind as well, especially with the dog imagery (e.g. hold up the piece of ham and make the beagle jump for it).

What I found interesting was the Sending of the Twelve earlier in Matthew's Gospel, which was read a couple months ago in Church. Note the command that Jesus gives to them in Matthew 10: "Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, 'The kingdom of heaven has come near.'"

Now of course, the Twelve (minus Judas Iscariot) would be sent to the Gentiles after Christ's resurrection. But in this part of Jesus' ministry, the Gentiles appear to be excluded from deliberate evangelistic effort. There seems to be a parallel here. And I found that fact to be influential in trying to explain the exchange in Tyre and Sidon with the Canaanite woman.

Why would Jesus make such a statement: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the
house of Israel"
and only send the Twelve to the same group, when we know that He was sent to redeem the entire world? I'm led to explain this by focusing on the timing of both incidents. At this point in His ministry, Jesus is fulfilling the prophecies regarding mastery over sin-plagued nature (miraculous healings, control over wind and wave, etc.), as well as remedying the poor spiritual condition of Israel (teaching with authority, rather than preaching Pharisaical theology). When this is completed and then the Suffering Servant prophecies are fulfilled, then the full effect of Jesus' work is seen: the entire world is redeemed.

But as we know, there are "crumbs that fall from the Master's table" during this ministry. The Gentiles, like the aliens in the Israelites' tents during the Exodus, receive good things from Jesus. Yet, it would not be until the institution of the New Testament and the Resurrection that they are made deliberate targets of the evangelistic mission of Christ.

That was bouncing around in my mind during the study of this event in Matthew's Gospel.


revlittleelmer said...

Welcome to the blogosphere. I'll have to read through your sermons now that I know where to find them. It will be nice to have a chance to see what you are up to.

Take care,