A young woman visited me in the office of a former parish. I knew her to be a kindhearted person. She was then in her twenties. But during her teens, her mother died and a grandmother took her in. She had been close to her entire family, coming to be, despite her youth, someone everyone depended on. But when an uncle abused her and she felt that she could confide in no one, her life grew worse and worse. Feeling isolated and hopeless, she became promiscuous, then got involved with alcohol and hard drugs.
Not long after we talked, she checked herself into a hospital and later, a treatment program. The counselors and other patients urged her to rely on her “higher power.” For her that could only mean the God we meet in Jesus Christ. But that created an early and enormous snag in her treatment regimen: She couldn’t believe that God would care about her.
I visited her several times at the treatment facility. Along with many others, I urged her to read Scripture and to pray, talking with God just as she would with a good friend, and to be unafraid to ask God for help. Over time, that young woman gained the strength not only to deal with her addictions, but also to face life.
The last time I saw her was some years ago. But the last I heard of her, she was still doing well. And her real progress seemed to begin when she vetoed worrying about her own worthiness and asked God for help.
Over the years, I’ve met many people who wanted to have God’s help and guidance, but felt, like that young woman, that they didn’t dare turn to God.
They didn’t feel they were good enough or important enough for God to care for them.
Yet one of the consoling truths of Biblical is that while none of us is worthy of God’s help, God wants to help us anyway.
We see this truth in today’s Gospel lesson. In it, Jesus passes through the non-Jewish--a Gentile--region around the cities of Tyre and Sidon. The people who live there aren’t the targets of Jesus’ earthly mission. First, Israel’s Messiah must claim His kingship over the Jews, the people of God. Then, enthroned through cross and empty tomb, He would send His disciples into the world to share the good news--the gospel--that all who trust in Christ, Jews and Gentiles, would be saved from sin and death and live eternally with God. But during His earthly life, Jesus came to fulfill the Old Testament prophecy of a Messiah Who came to call God’s own people, the Jews, to follow God into His kingdom.
And yet, in today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew, for one of only two times that we know about in Jesus' life, we encounter Jesus as He chooses to travel outside His native country, beyond the boundaries of the promised land. He may have done this because the opposition against Him is increasing and in God’s plan, it isn’t yet time for His crucifixion. We don't know for certain.
While there though, a Canaanite woman shouts out to Him. The Canaanites, you’ll remember, were bitter enemies of God and of God’s people back in Old Testament times. Yet this woman cries out to Jesus for help. Why?
It appears to me that there were three things that this woman, confronted with an awful problem--the demon possession of her child--did know.
They’re three things that you and I need to know when we face our own awful problems.
First: She knew Who Jesus was. That’s clear from what she called Jesus. “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!” she says in verse 22. “My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” Son of David was the title associated with the long-promised Savior, Messiah: the King of the Jews. Not even many of Jesus’ own disciples, like Him, Jews, had yet applied this title to Jesus. Yet this foreign woman did.
Who knows how the woman had come to know this about Jesus? Probably reports had come from Judea about Jesus. On hearing them, she may have resolved that even if there was a one-in-a-million chance that she would ever meet Jesus, if she did, she would go to Him and beg Him to help her daughter. She believed that Jesus was the Messiah and that He could help.
The most important question that Jesus asked during His earthly ministry was one He posed to His disciples and appears in Matthew 16:15: “Who do you say that I am?” Who we say Jesus is, is a question that we all must answer for ourselves.
Many in contemporary culture try cutting Jesus down to their own size, spinning Him down into nothing more than an affable preacher.
Others, even those who occupy seats in churches every week, don’t think much about who Jesus is, instead relying on their memorized creeds and liturgies and religious traditions to obscure the God-Man-Savior of cross and empty tomb.
But Jesus won’t let us cut Him down to anything less than “the way and the truth and the life.” And, as much as I love liturgies and the creeds, as helpful as they can be to our faith, unless we believe in Jesus, they don't mean much.
We must know Who is Jesus because we know Him personally. The Canaanite woman knew that Jesus was (and He remains) the Messiah Who came to show mercy and give life to all who believe in Him as their God and King.
The woman also knew that she didn’t deserve Jesus’ help. She would agree with Paul, who, in Romans 3:23, makes an honest confession for the whole human race: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
The Canaanite woman doesn’t say, “Lord, take away the demon because I’m a good person.”
She doesn’t say, “Lord, help my daughter; she’s always been such a nice girl.”
She knew that nobody is good enough to deserve the help of God.
And so, she says simply to Jesus, “Have mercy on me, Lord.” She bases her request not on what she deserves, but solely on the infinite love and mercy that God bears for all people!
So, this woman knew who Jesus was and she knew that she didn’t deserve Jesus’ help. But she also knew that Jesus cared.
Of course, you and I have the advantage over those who, like the Canaanite woman and the first disciples, encountered Jesus during His earthly life. We live on this side of His crucifixion and resurrection.
Through His cross, we know the depths of His passion for us.
Through His resurrection, we know that He has power over our worst enemies: sin and death.
Jesus' care for us has been shown in His sacrificed flesh and blood and in His resilient love for us that will not die! As we follow Christ, we take comfort and strength from the truth underscored by Paul in Romans 8: "...nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."
But it’s amazing that the Canaanite woman knew how much Jesus cared, because not even His disciples appreciated this.
When the woman first approached Jesus, He paused. I think He did this in order to test the disciples. If so, they failed miserably. They didn’t urge Jesus to help this desperate woman as Jesus had helped them just a few days before when, during a storm, they thought they would drown at sea. Instead, they begged Him to send her away.
“Her shouting is really annoying us!” they tell Jesus.
The disciples remind me of the "good" members of some "good" churches. They want their churches to grow so long as the people who start coming look and act just like them and don't annoy them by bringing any problems to church with them.
Many of you know that my friend, Steve Sjogren, started a congregation in the Tri-County area of Cincinnati in the late-80s. Early in the life of the congregation, they began attracting all sorts of dysfunctional people (dysfunctional, by the way, is another word for ordinary) who felt the need for Christ in their lives. When they showed for worship and Bible study, they brought all their annoying problems with them.
One day, a couple got into a fierce fight on the church parking lot and the police had to be called.
At that point, the leadership of the church had to choose: Did they want to take the easy way, asking only "good" church-broken people to be part of their fellowship, people who knew how to hide their problems beneath a veneer of niceness? Or, did they want to take the harder route, inviting dysfunctional sinners into that fellowship? They took the harder route. Many have come to follow Christ because of that courageous decision.
After the disciples beg Jesus to send the Canaanite woman away, Jesus turns from them and toward the woman. He tells her in verse 24, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Then Matthew tells us, “The woman came and knelt before him. ‘Lord, help me!’ she said. He replied, ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.’”
Jesus’ response is part of a playful dialog between Him and the woman. While Jesus clearly had a mission to complete with His fellow Jews, He had already healed the servant of a Roman centurion, in response to a Gentile's request. And of that centurion, who had sought the healing, Jesus had said: “I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.”
Jesus is seeing the same kind of faith in this woman. But His disciples only see an annoying foreigner who threatens to take what they think belongs only to them and their fellow countrymen.
In those days, Jesus’ fellow Jews referred to non-Jews as wild dogs. Most scholars surmise that the twinkle in Jesus’ eye as He looked at this woman didn’t match the sternness of His words, which were a parody of the attitudes of His fellow Jews, including the disciples. She would never dream, the Canaanite woman seems to say, of taking anything from the children of Israel, “yet even dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
At this, Jesus lays aside the banter and declares, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” Matthew tells us, “her daughter was healed instantly.” The woman had known that Jesus cared.
The Bible records only two of God’s saints--Enoch and Elijah--leaving this earth without going through death. Not even God in the flesh Himself, Jesus, escaped death.
And we know that one day, this demon-possessed girl who Jesus freed would, like the rest of the human race, die.
Nor did Jesus’ exorcism of her demon free her from the problems that go with life in this world.
But this act by Jesus, in response to a foreign woman’s faith, demonstrated that the things she knew about Jesus were (and still are) true:
- One, Jesus is the king of all creation.
- Two, none of us deserves Jesus’ help, but He wants to give it anyway. And the greatest help He gives comes to those who turn from sin and trust in Him as their King and Savior.
- Three, because of His great mercy, Jesus cares for each of us.