Unexpected Mercy – August 20, 2017
The priest stood in front of his congregation and looked out on the people: He saw hypocrites who loved to put on a show of religion but whose hearts weren’t transformed by the Gospel. Some of them had given him a really hard time. They didn’t pay him as much as he felt he needed to live as he ought. Some of them didn’t put anything in the plate at all! They didn’t appreciate him. Some of them even fell asleep during his sermons. And so the priest shook his head and said aloud, “Lord, have mercy!” The congregation looked at their priest and they saw a hypocrite who loved to put on a show of religion but whose heart all too often wasn’t transformed by the gospel. He was always asking for money. He preached too long. So the congregation, as one, blurted out, “Christ have mercy!” Then looking at each other and realizing what each had said and remembering that “mercy” is exactly what Jesus did give them all, they all said together, “Lord, have mercy!” That’s one version of how the Kyrie came to be said liturgically in worship!
Unexpected mercy is a theme that unites all three of our scripture lessons this morning. Joseph had been sold into slavery by his brothers. And now, finally, he had them in his grasp. He could do to them anything he wanted. But instead of exacting some revenge he showed them mercy and took care of their needs, providing for them in a time of famine. Paul reminded his Gentile Roman readers that they had received undeserved mercy from God. Now, perhaps through them, the Hebrew people could be brought anew to God’s mercy. Last of all in the Gospel of Matthew a Gentile woman – a Canaanite – whom Jesus rejects at first and even calls “a dog,” begs Jesus for mercy for her daughter and through her faith and persistence she receives it.
What are we to make of Jesus’ hash treatment of this poor woman? As faithful Jews we have to realize that to Jesus and his disciples this woman was a triple outcast. She was a foreigner, a Gentile and thus not part of God’s chosen people. She was a Canaanite and despised for the Canaanite’s Pagan culture and religion. She was a woman and not of the same social status as a man. Furthermore she was breaking all the rules of etiquette, making a scene and yelling after Jesus to have mercy on her and her daughter. At first Jesus simply ignores her. His disciples have no sympathy for her and ask Jesus to send her away. When Jesus does talk with her he denies her request and calls her “a dog.” “It’s not fair,” he tells her “to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Still, she persists and comes back at him with a great line: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” Bible scholars debate whether Jesus was testing her, trying to lead her to this point of faith or whether she was testing Jesus and that through her sass and courage Jesus first learned to share God’s mercy not only to his own people – the Jews – but to all people everywhere. You’ll have to make up your own minds on that piece of Biblical interpretation.
It’s always helpful to look at the context in which Matthew places this story. Immediately before Jesus takes his disciples on a tour through the largely Gentile territory of Tyre and Sidon where they meet the Canaanite woman he encounters criticism by the Pharisees who accuse his disciples of eating with unwashed hands. To this, Jesus replies, “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Then he explains the parable. What we eat simply passes through our body. But the evil intentions that come out of our mouth: murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. Those are the things that defile us. Two other times the Pharisees had criticized Jesus before this point in the Gospel. Matthew 9:10-13 they criticize him for eating with tax collectors and sinners. And in Matthew 12:1-8 they criticize his disciples for eating grain on the Sabbath. In both cases he quotes to them a saying from the Prophet Hosea, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” In this case Matthew doesn’t have Jesus repeat that saying from Hosea, but uses an example from Jesus’ ministry with a Canaanite woman to highlight how God’s mercy is extended to all.
Matthew is in many ways the most Jewish of the four Gospels. Matthew emphasizes Jesus as the new lawgiver – the new Moses – and he emphasizes obedience to his words. Jesus’ commitment of going only to the house of Israel makes great sense in Matthew. But look where Matthew brings us at the end of his gospel following Jesus’ resurrection – to the great commission. The resurrected Lord appears to his disciples on the mountain he had directed them and commissions them to “go” and “make disciples of all nations.” Jesus, who in today’s Gospel tells the Canaanite woman he “was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” has extended his ministry to all peoples. And the disciples who had despised the Canaanite woman and urged Jesus to send her away, are the vehicle through which Jesus’ message of love and hope is to go out to all the world. (Matthew 28:16-20).
What are we to take away from this Gospel story to use in our faith and life? How should we approach Jesus? The Canaanite woman shows us the way. She didn’t come from the place of entitlement and privilege. She was a Gentile. She knew and as Jesus himself warned her, she had no place at God’s table. “It’s unfair to take the children’s food and feed it to the dogs.” She knew her need. As a mother she was desperate for healing and hope for her daughter. Her need made her bold and persistent. She came to Jesus as Lord and she begged, “Lord have mercy on me and my daughter.” But she came as a beggar, claiming no place more than that of the dog who might get crumbs from the master’s table.
In the Rite 1 Eucharist there’s a prayer that we say through Lent on page 337 in the BCP, the prayer of humble access.
We do not presume to come to this thy table, o merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.
None of us deserve God’s gifts. We don’t deserve his mercy. Nor can we hope to ever do enough to earn it. We come as outsiders, as beggars and dogs to the Lord’s table and we pray for mercy. The Canaanite woman teaches us how we are to approach God. God’s love, God’s grace, God’s mercy is not ours for the taking, but a gift, a wonderful gift, that we don’t deserve.
There’s an awful lot of hatred going on in our world and in our country today. We see it in Isis that justifies killing people indiscriminately who are not of “our” Islamic persuasion. We see it in “white nationalism,” Nazi and neo-Nazi’s who claim that only whites and those of Christian and European descent deserve to be inheritors of America and Europe. We see it in any philosophy of exclusion and hatred that keeps some “in” and excludes others as unworthy of inheriting the good things that this world has to offer. Jesus teaches us today that it is not anything outside ourselves, not our level of purity, or our heritage, or the color of our skin that defines us. It’s what comes out of the intentions of our heart in words and actions that defines us. When those words are about hate and belittling or hurting others and self-aggrandizing then our words and our actions defile us.
Whether the Canaanite woman helped open Jesus’ eyes to extend God’s mercy to all people or whether that was always Jesus’ vision and intention, on Good Friday, he reached out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace. His mercy embraces you and me. As his disciples, he commissions us to extend that embrace to all of humanity.