Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 16:00 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This might be one of the most difficult accounts in the Gospels. We’re not ready to hear Jesus talk this way to someone. We don’t think He should talk this way. We don’t expect Him to talk this way to the Canaanite woman. But maybe even more surprising than what Jesus says (and doesn’t say) to her, is what she says to Jesus. Why in the world would she even be looking for Jesus in order to ask Him for help for her demon-possessed daughter? It doesn’t really make a lot of sense.
In the frame only of the relationship between Israelites and Canaanites, what Jesus says is not very surprising. If you follow Canaanites through the Old Testament, they basically show up in two ways—both negative. All the way back to Ham, the son of Noah, the Canaanites are cursed. They show up as one of the nations that God is going to drive out of Canaan when He brings Israel into the land. He tells Israel to drive out all the Canaanites. Besides one of the nations that are going to be driven out of the land, they are also repeatedly highlighted as idolaters. God tells the people over and over to drive out the Canaanites, because otherwise they will intermarry with them and worship their gods.
Which is, of course, what happens in Judges 3. The people of Israel never completely get rid of the Canaanites, and they do intermarry with the Canaanites, and they do worship the gods of the Canaanites. Sometimes they mix that worship with worship of Yahweh. But they worship the gods of the land, who did not deliver them from Egypt, who can’t see or hear or act.
And now a Canaanite shows up generations later, and for some reason she seeks out Jesus, an Israelite. And not only does she seek out Jesus, she thinks He might be able to deliver her daughter from an evil spirit. And not only does she think Jesus might be able to do something for her, she calls Him Lord and Son of David. She calls Him Kyrios, Lord, which is not a title of nobility. This isn’t “lords” and “ladies.” The Greek word for Lord is how they translated the Hebrew Name of God into Greek. This is Yahweh in Greek. And this Canaanite woman calls Jesus that! And then she calls Him “Son of David.” What does David have to do with the Canaanites? That Jesus might be here only for Israel is not too surprising within the frame of Israel and Canaan. But that she might call Him Lord and Son of David? That makes no sense.
But she does. She cries out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me, my daughter has an evil demon.” Jesus ignores her. But she doesn’t stop. She is following them and continuing to cry out, and the disciples get tired of it. Jesus, send her away, with the implication that the easiest way to get her to go away is to do what she’s asking for. And Jesus confirms that when He says that He was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel—not, that is, to Canaanites. This is basically the same thing He said to the disciples in chapter 10: don’t go to the cities of the Gentiles; go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
The woman comes and falls down at Jesus’ feet and says, Lord, help me. First, Jesus ignored her. Then He talked to the disciples. Now He finally answers her, and it might be the worst of the three responses. He says, It is not right—it is not good; it is not within the good order of God—to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.
Yes, Lord. Yes, Lord. She hears Him. No expectation; no right. Yes, Lord. And when the children are fed, the dogs eat what falls from the table. If you’ve had children and dogs, you know she’s telling the truth. Unless you have your dogs really well trained—and we don’t—they will sit right near the table, right underneath the table, and they will wait for whatever might fall from the table. It doesn’t matter what it is. They will take it. Yes, Lord, and the dogs eat what the children drop.
The children have been eating a lot in the passages around this account. A couple weeks ago we heard about Jesus feeding 5,000, or 8,000, or 10,000 people, and there were 12 baskets left over for the disciples. And after this Jesus is going to feed 4,000, or 6,000, or 8,000 people and there are going to be 7 baskets left over. More than enough. Abundance. Overwhelming, overflowing. If Jesus can feed the children of Israel and they have more than enough, then maybe there’s enough left over for Canaanites.
O woman! Great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you desire. And her daughter was healed from that moment. Great is your faith! You hold onto Jesus as the Lord of Israel, through whom all other nations are going to be blessed. Within Israel Rahab, the prostitute of Jericho, found a place. Within Israel Ruth, from Moab—who were never to be among the people of God—found a place. Within Israel even a Canaanite woman might find a place, as easily as a Roman centurion asking for healing for his servant. Of him, Jesus was amazed (and Jesus is not often amazed), and said, I have not found such faith even in Israel! And the centurion’s servant was healed from that moment. Great is your faith, Jesus says to this woman. And her daughter was healed from that moment.
What is happening here is how God gets rid of Canaanites. Israel didn’t drive them out, so God does. And the way God gets rid of Canaanites is not by Israelites becoming Canaanites and worshiping their gods, but by Canaanites becoming of Israel and worshiping her God: Lord, Son of David. Because both the Roman and the Canaanite become true Israel when Israel according to the flesh wants nothing to do with her Lord. When the house of Israel rejects Him, doesn’t believe Him, doesn’t confess Him, a Roman soldier and a Canaanite woman do.
And what Jesus does here in a small way, He does in a universal way after His resurrection when He tells the disciples to make disciples of all the Gentiles. First to the Jew and then to the Gentiles is the order of God’s salvation, but within that salvation there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile. And we’re in exactly the same place as that Canaanite woman: outside, unworthy, with no rights or expectations of the God of Israel. And yet it is that God of Israel who becomes our God in the resurrection of Jesus.
Here we are, seeking Jesus of Nazareth and His mercy and healing. There are no rights before God, no taking for granted that this God will be our God. But there is mercy and there is abundance and it overflows and overwhelms. Like little dogs, we wait below His table, and the scraps fall, just a little bread and a little wine. But in that is everything, all of Jesus, body and blood and soul and divinity; crucified and resurrected, for you and me and all. He is the Good Shepherd who has come to gather His scattered flock, but He also has sheep of other folds that He brings in and makes one with the sheep of God. It is not anyone who is welcomed according to the flesh, whether Israelite or Canaanite or anything else. But it is everyone who is welcomed according to the promise received in faith: Israelite, Canaanite, Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Roman—even American. Not as those first, but as Christians. And then, all of us together, from every tribe and language and people and nation, in white robes, gathered around the throne of God and of the Lamb.
For now, like little dogs, we wait, eager and joyful and fed and satisfied.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 8/14/20