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“Help Me!”

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 17 August 2014 by the Rev. Judy Chan. The scripture readings that day were Isaiah 56: 1,6-8; Romans 11: 1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15: 21-28


Today’s Gospel reading is a strange story. It’s troubling to readers because it has Jesus doing and saying things that seem so unlike what we expect from him. Jesus – the champion of women; Jesus – the healer of the sick; Jesus – who had harsh words for religious leaders and those who abused the poor, but never to the suffering and marginalized.

That’s why the story in Matthew 15 puzzles us. Even though it has a happy ending, it seems the Canaanite woman has to endure insults to get what she wants from Jesus. She has to figure out how to outwit him to get help for her sick daughter. So why is this story in the Bible? What are we supposed to learn?

Let’s take a look at the story at face value.

Jesus and his disciples are in or near a region called Tyre and Sidon. This is no longer Jewish territory. It’s an area where non-Jews or Gentiles live, in other words pagan territory. As they go along, a woman from that region comes out. She starts shouting to Jesus, ‘Lord, have mercy! My daughter is tormented by a demon!’ The daughter was possibly suffering from what we know as epilepsy or mental illness today. We’re not sure, but whatever it was, it was a terrible affliction. So what was Jesus’ response? Nothing. No answer. He seems to be ignoring her.

Then the disciples come into the picture. “Send this troublesome woman away,” they plead. The New Revised Standard Version gives the impression that the disciples just want Jesus to brush her off. However, there are different ways to read the Greek text. They could also be saying ‘Just give her what she wants so she’ll leave us alone.’ That’s how the New Jerusalem Bible translates it. Have you ever done that? Given a beggar what they wanted so they’ll go away?

I think it’s likely that the disciples were asking him to heal her daughter to shut her up, because look at what Jesus says next: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In other words, I can’t do it. My first priority is to our own people. This might seem odd, given Jesus had healed a Roman centurion’s servant earlier in Matthew Chapter 8. The centurion was also a Gentile, not a Jew, and we suppose his servant was a gentile too.

But this gentile woman gets nothing. So, she drops to her knees and begs him, “Please help me!” At this point, you would think anybody with an ounce of compassion would do what he could. And how does Jesus respond? “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” That’s right. He’s saying this foreigner and her people are dogs. In that time and culture, being called a dog was not a compliment. In other words, why should I take what is needed for God’s chosen and give it to people like you?

By now, you would think the woman would get the message. He’s not going to help you – either he can’t or he won’t. So give up. But she doesn’t. She actually takes his words and uses them to her advantage. OK, you want to call me a dog? OK, I’m a dog but even dogs aren’t left to starve. Even dogs get leftovers, even dogs can eat the crumbs that fall from the table onto the floor. I’ll take the scraps, the crumbs, anything you give me.

Well, that finally seems to do the trick. Not only does Jesus grant her wish, he does so because he’s so impressed by her faith. And just as she had asked, her daughter is healed instantly.

As you can imagine, preachers and scholars have had many debates on how to deal with the difficulties in this text. Some take the simplest way. They say maybe Jesus really didn’t say this. Matthew or the early Church created this story after Jesus’ death. Remember Matthew was writing for a Jewish Christian audience. They weren’t crazy about non-Jews joining the church without going through Judaism first. But it was happening anyway. So Matthew wants to assure them that Gentiles coming to Jesus were part of God’s amazing plan since the beginning.

But others take the exact opposite position. Jesus must have said these words because surely the disciples wouldn’t have made up such an unflattering picture of the Savior. If someone were going to put words in Jesus’ mouth, they wouldn’t have chosen such jarring language. So the church has to deal with it being in the Bible even if it makes us uncomfortable. And the uncomfortable conclusion for some is that Jesus was acting like a jerk, and it took a foreign woman to teach him a lesson about God’s grace.

For me, neither of these interpretations is particularly satisfying. Both read a lot into 8 short verses, making assumptions that can’t be proven one way or the other. For me, the best way to give you a sermon is to accept this story as a portrayal of the actual words and actions of Jesus. But knowing Jesus as we do, or try to anyway, it seems unlikely that Scripture intended to portray Jesus as a jerk. As one commentator remarked, “… I doubt Jesus’ intention was to take a vacation among unpleasant people in order to insult them when they annoyed him with a desperate cry for help…it doesn’t fit with the psychological or spiritual character of Jesus.” Yes, there are cultural factors operating in the Bible in terms of religion, gender and society. But I trust that if we come to Scripture with open hearts and open hands, we can find God’s redeeming word for us.

To start, I’d like to propose that the focus of this story is really not the Canaanite woman, even though she is rather amazing. I don’t think the focus is on healing the daughter either, though that is what brings all the parties together. I think the focus of the story is Jesus and his desire to know and do the will of God.

That would explain why Jesus was silent when this woman approached him begging for help. He wasn’t heartless, but he was torn inside. Yes, he had healed many others before this, both Jewish and Gentile, but this time something is different. This time, he holds back. Why? Because he has come face-to-face with someone who embodies everything his people tell him to reject – unclean religion, unclean gender, unclean family.

He could heal the Canaanite woman’s daughter, but if he did, then what? Would that bring his own people any closer to repentance? No, it would only bring more and more of her people to him, and that might drive an even bigger wedge between him and the people God sent him to save – the people of Israel, the sheep without a shepherd.

So that’s exactly what he tells his disciples. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Whether the woman heard it or not, we don’t know but she persists. This time she prostrates herself in front of him, begging again for help. Jesus has to respond to her, one way or the other.

And the way he responds to her is tough to hear: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” I confess I struggled with this verse for a long time. There have been all kind of explanations that try to soften the words, but they aren’t altogether convincing. Eventually two incidents about dogs came to my mind after much pondering.

The first was a few years ago when I visited my university roommate in Florida in the USA. She usually cooked for us, but she mentioned she’d like me to teach her to cook Chinese food. Well, I’m not much of a chef, but we give it a try. So we went to the Asian market in Jacksonville and bought rice, vegetables and spices. Then she pulled out meat from her freezer, big chunks of pork and chicken. I had forgotten how big freezers are in the US and how much meat Americans eat. It made a lot more food than we could finish, so I said oh, we could give the scraps to her dog Lucy. My friend gave me a look of surprise. “Oh, Lucy doesn’t eat table scraps. That’s no good for a dog. We feed her dog food, because it’s got the right nutrition for a dog.” So, that’s one way to think about Jesus’ words: Children have children’s food and dogs have dog food, and it’s not good to mix them up. But still, he’s calling her a dog.

The other incident happened in an Anglican church in Toronto back in 2010. Maybe you read about it. It was summer and the church had an interim minister. When it came time for Holy Communion, a man came up to receive the bread and wine, bringing his dog with him. The minister knew he was a first time visitor, and she wanted to make him feel welcome. So she gave the dog Holy Communion too. From what the news reported, the dog did not receive the wine. Well, you can imagine some people might have had a negative reaction. One member resigned from the church in protest and filed a complaint to the Anglican Diocese.

The bishop, a godly man no doubt, wrote to the parishioner, “It is not the policy of the Anglican Church to give Communion to animals. I can see why people would be offended. It is a strange and shocking thing, and I have never heard of it happening before. I think the reverend was overcome by what I consider a misguided gesture of welcoming. She is embarrassed by her action, but the matter is closed…we are after all, in the forgiveness and repair business.”

We are after all, in the forgiveness and repair business. That’s what Jesus believed about his ministry on earth. Yet everywhere he went, he was offending people, doing strange and shocking things that his ‘bishops’ had never heard of happening before. Now, if he goes against official policy, if he accepts this ‘dog’ at the table of the Master, could this too be labeled a misguided gesture of welcome? Could this Canaanite woman not understand that there might be a conflict between her immediate need and God’s bigger plan?

As it turns out, this rather amazing woman did understand. Remember she called Jesus ‘Lord’ and ‘Son of David’. That wasn’t just flattery. She understood that the lost sheep of Israel were his first priority, and she wasn’t among them. But, she says, I’m not asking for the children’s bread. I’m not asking you to change God’s plan. I’m only asking for a taste, just a taste of the blessings God has brought into the world through you. That’s all I want, that’s all my daughter needs. That will be enough.

And it was enough. After praising her great faith, he says, “Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. The wording is rather special here. Not, I will heal your daughter. Rather “Let it be done for you as you wish.”

In other words: “Your will be done.”

Sound familiar? Yes, the same words Jesus used when his disciples asked him how to pray in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Your will be done.’

The same words Jesus himself prayed in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane: ‘Your will be done.’

From the beginning to the end of Jesus’ life, he sought only one thing: to know and do the will of God. To know what his Heavenly Father was calling him to do and to have the courage to do it. That’s what he prayed for and that’s how we should pray when we ask for help in Jesus’ name.

We could be under the mistaken impression that the Canaanite woman was granted her wish because she figured out how to change Jesus’ mind. But there’s nothing great about that kind of faith. In fact, that’s not faith at all. Faith means ultimately trusting that God’s divine wisdom and mercy will never fail, even when the answer seems to be silence or ‘no’. Believing that behind the silence is a word, behind the no is a ‘yes’ waiting to be revealed in God’s bigger plan for you and me and this world through Jesus Christ.

As one Lutheran theologian said: God’s love which is eternally on its way to Calvary is always on its way to us. No matter what happens or doesn’t happen, God’s love is always on its way to us, and it cannot and will not be bound. That’s why the Canaanite woman was willing to endure the silence – because she believed her prayer was heard. That’s why she was willing to ignore Jewish opinion about her people – because she trusted that Jesus was a man after God’s own heart. That’s why she could align her will with God’s will, because she was so sure divine love was on its way to mother and child through Jesus the Christ. Woman, great is your faith!

Christian writer Anne Lamott said the two best prayers she knows are ‘Help me, help me, help me’ and ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ This comes out her own experience of coming to faith after hitting rock bottom in her life with nowhere else to turn.
She says, ‘Help me’ is the first essential prayer and the hardest one. Why? Because you have to admit defeat — you have to surrender. But at the same time you’re surrendering, something else is happening. You’re establishing a connection with a power greater than yourself, something in the next concentric circle out whose name is not yours. Lamott calls ‘help me’ the prayer of blessedly giving up, of surrender, which is the greatest condition for finding faith.
Help me – the first great prayer of faith.
Help me – the essential prayer of great faith.
Help me – the prayer that today’s Gospel assures us will never come back empty.
I’d like close with words by Anne Lamott. She shared this in her 2012 book on prayer Help, Thanks, Wow. It’s a bit irreverent, as much of her writing is. But think of it as a 21st century Canaanite mother’s prayer. And claim it as your own if you need to.

Hi, God.
I am just a mess.
It is all hopeless.
What else is new?
I would be sick of me, if I were You, but miraculously You are not.
I know I have no control over other people’s lives, and I hate this.
Yet I believe that if I accept this and surrender, You will meet me wherever I am.
Wow. Can this be true? If so, how about this afternoon – say two-ish?
Thank You in advance for Your company and blessings.
You have never once let me down.
Amen.

# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, August 17, 2014

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