Even in the most difficult times and unexpected places, Christ’s mercy is enough for us all.
Vicar Emily Beckering
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 18 A
Text: Matthew 15:10-28
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
After hearing that gospel, we may be left wondering where in that there was good news. It can be shocking to hear Jesus speak this way. Can this really be our Lord who seemingly so reluctantly offers his compassion to this woman who only asks for her daughter to be healed?
We are not the only ones to have been shocked by Jesus’ behavior or his teachings. The disciples, the Pharisees, or anyone else in that crowd would have been equally as surprised to watch this interaction between Jesus and the Canaanite woman. Racial stereotypes and mutual disdain characterized the relations between Jews and Gentiles, and “dog” was a familiar derogatory term. Whereas it would have made perfect sense to the crowds for Jesus to say that he was only sent to the Jews, and that it wasn’t fair to give this woman what God had promised to Israel, the crowds would not have expected Jesus to engage the woman or to praise her faith. By the end of this encounter, however, Jesus turns expectations on their head.
In today’s gospel, Jesus challenges the Pharisees’ and the disciples’ notions of who God is for them and for all people. Today, our Lord Jesus does the same for us. He meets us in this gospel in order to challenge our beliefs and to quiet our fears about the limits of God’s mercy. God’s mercy is wide enough, God’s love broad enough, for us and for all.
We cannot separate this story from the rest of Matthew’s gospel or from whom Jesus has revealed himself to be on the cross.
Mercy is central to the gospel of Matthew and core to Jesus’ proclamation and teaching. The same Jesus who speaks so harshly to the Canaanite woman is the One who told a parable of the unforgiving servant who when rebuked, was asked, “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant as I had mercy on you?” (Mt. 18:33). This is the Jesus who taught Peter to forgive not seven, but seventy-seven times (Mt. 18:22). This is the Jesus who, when he heard the Pharisees ask why he was eating with tax collectors and sinners replied, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ for I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Mt. 9:12-13). And in the end, Jesus gives the commission to baptize people of every nation (Mt. 28:19).
Jesus doesn’t restrict his mercy; he doesn’t reduce people to judgment. Instead, as we have heard throughout this summer, Jesus scatters seeds with abandon, lets the weeds grow with the wheat, gives rain to the righteous and the unrighteous, and catches people of every kind, welcoming them to live in the kingdom of God.
In this encounter with the Canaanite woman, Jesus enacts his parables. He offers mercy rather than demands sacrifice. He illustrates what he just taught the crowd in the first 10 verses of today’s gospel: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth—that which comes from the heart—that defiles. The Canaanite woman is the embodiment of this teaching. Where she comes from, what she eats, and her ethnicity ultimately do not matter. What counts is her heart, which Jesus can see. In that heart, she holds an unwavering faith in Jesus’ mercy. She knows who he is, what he is all about, and by persisting until her daughter is healed, she holds him accountable to be who he has revealed himself to be, not only for Israel, but for all people.
The woman is like Moses who reminded God to be faithful to Israel by forgiving, rather than punishing them for the golden calf (Ex. 32:7-14). She is like Abraham who petitioned until God agreed to be merciful to Sodom if 50, then 40, then 30, or only 10 righteous people remained in the city (Gen. 18:16-33). She is prophetic in that her faith reveals that God is a God of mercy. She didn’t have to deny the place of the chosen people in God’s story in order to claim her own. Instead, she honors it and uses it as the basis of her faith. She understands that although mercy starts with Israel, it cannot end there because of the very nature of God. The woman knows that the foundation of Israel’s relationship with God is God’s decision to be merciful, which is what Moses learned when God told him: “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Ex. 33:19; Rom. 9:15).
This is who the Triune God has decided to be and how the Trinity has chosen to relate to us—through mercy: by responding to our brokenness with forgiveness, our hatred with love, our rejection with acceptance. God will be merciful because God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
God will show mercy! We can’t control it, we can’t contain it!
This story exposes the ways in which we behave as if there are some people who are beyond the scope of God’s love, Christ’s forgiveness, or the power of the Holy Spirit.
We do not harbor animosity for an entire ethnic group; our ways of limiting God’s mercy are much more nuanced than that. It happens when we withhold love and forgiveness, when we judge others as unworthy of representing Christ, or when we assume that there are some people through whom God can’t possibly work.
Who might our Canaanite woman be? The serial rapist? The fundamentalist? The bigot? Through this woman, God confronts us with anyone and everyone whom we have excluded, criticized, or condemned. Everyone who offends us. The people who we don’t have time for because they rub us the wrong way. The people who we refuse to forgive because they have hurt us or those whom we love and they don’t deserve it.
But to withhold our love or forgiveness, to refuse relationship, and to define ourselves against others is to live in opposition to who Christ has called us to be. These old ways of defining ourselves and others are dead. We don’t get to choose who is in and who is out. We don’t get to choose whom we love or whom we forgive. As Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians, “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died” (2 Cor. 5:14).
Today, Christ offers us a new way to live and his love urges us on.
We are not to be the church of our own whims and preferences, but rather the church of Jesus Christ. We are to scatter seeds, offer forgiveness, and give grace even when—and perhaps especially when—it doesn’t make sense or it isn’t deserved.
We can’t restrict God’s mercy. We can’t control it. We can’t contain it. But we can cling to it.
We can cling to it just like the Canaanite woman who was convinced that God’s mercy was enough for Israel and for her daughter and herself. Because Christ has died, all have died, and so we trust that God’s mercy is for everyone and that Christ is enough to redeem every situation.
Clinging to Christ’s mercy might mean that when we are tempted to write that person off at the office or the one who lives down the block, as completely ignorant and unworthy of our time, that this time, we make time, and make an effort not only to better understand that individual, but to open ourselves to the possibility that God might have something for us to learn from that person.
Clinging to Christ’s mercy might mean that rather than giving up and cutting ourselves off from that family member who always makes us feel foolish, unappreciated, or like we are less than, that we reach out to that person instead and try once again to build a relationship.
Clinging to Christ’s mercy might mean that when we are confronted with that Christian who, according to our standards, could not be further from the truth or represent our Lord any less accurately, that we trust that God can work in them, too, and that that person is Christ for the world, in ways that we can’t or won’t be.
Trusting in Christ’s mercy means that whenever we feel like holding back, we risk forgiving anyway, making room in our hearts anyway, and giving ourselves a chance to see how God is at work.
But when we fail to do this, as we have and will, Christ’s mercy is for us, too.
No one is outside God’s love—not even us—broken as we are. Others’ judgments or criticisms of us—no matter how valid—don’t have the last word.
Of this we can be certain: God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. We can cling to this when we fear for our loved ones who don’t believe or when we fear for ourselves because we know how far we stray. We can pray with complete confidence, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” and trust that he will, that we are forgiven, just as he promised.
We can trust that Christ will heal us and keep changing us, making us new, until we do reflect him—the One who gave his life for all and the One who now invites us here to this table, where no one is a dog and there are no crumbs because his mercy is enough for us all.