Sunday, August 31, 2008

Jesus and the Canaanite Woman part 3: Entitlement Christianity v. Great Faith

Sermon by the Rev. Matthew Kennedy
Text: Matthew 15:21-28

Listen to the audio here

Americans are given, by birth, privileges few elsewhere ever enjoy. America is a land of abundant wealth. It's very difficult to be truly poor here compared to poverty elsewhere. Sometimes, in a wealthy nation, people come to see the blessings they enjoy not as blessings but things to which they are entitled, things they have a right to demand, things that are owed to us.

We've tried to train Aedan to say “May I please have...” when he asks for something. He was very good at this during his third year but when he turned four things started to change. Every morning Aedan comes down and has milk. I have my coffee, he has his milk, we're set for the morning. He used to come down and say, “May I please have my milk”. When he turned four, just recently, it became, “Where is my milk?” That is entitlement thinking.

“I have a right to this thing,” whatever it is, “and somebody had better make sure I get it.”

This entitlement thinking, if allowed to shape our theology, leads to a terribly mistaken notion of who God is and who we are. This mentality often creeps in when Christians discuss the problem of suffering. “If God is good” the question is asked, “how can he permit this flood, or that illness, or this hurricane?” Some grow angry. Some even renounce any belief in God at all. “I can't believe in a God who would allow [this or that] to happen.”

The question of suffering is certainly difficult when considered apart from the biblical record and I don't mean to suggest otherwise, but the bible is not unclear about these things. Scripture teaches that when humanity turned from God, God let us go. Death, pain, sorrow, suffering, came into the world as a result. God did not turn from us, we turned from him. God does not owe us happiness, healing, forgiveness, or salvation. His offer of these things in Christ is an offer of infinite mercy. The Canaanite woman recognizes that.

The Canaanite woman is an antidote to entitlement Christianity.

Nevertheless, despite her humility, and we spoke about that last week, despite the reverent and respectful way she approaches Jesus, the first thing we'll notice this morning is Jesus' very uncomfortable silence. “He answered not a word” (23).

A second century Rabbi wrote that when Gentiles seek conversion, they must be met with silence until the third request in order to ensure sincerity. Jesus does seem to engage in some sort of testing.

The woman doesn't have have the bible but, if you remember from last week, she's heard the Word. She's heard that Jesus is a healer, king, and redeemer. Will the woman trust what she's heard and persevere in her requests or will Jesus' silence lead her to disregard the word she's heard and turn away.

How many here have prayed for something desperately without any response? When I consider my own experience with Jesus, his silence here fits the pattern. I want Jesus to act quickly. But he usually allows me to wait in painful circumstances until I'm at the point of being unable to cope before he brings deliverance.

And I've noticed, over time, that Jesus' silence has produce endurance and trust in his promises. “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:9-12) That is a promise. Romans 8:28 “In all things God works for the good of those who love him” That is a promise. And the longer I go in need, the more I've learned to cling to those promises and when God delivers, the promises are confirmed, my faith is strengthened, and I grow. That's the pattern and, from the biblical record, we can even say that that is a principle. God's silence increases our capacity to endure suffering faithfully by increasing our trust in his promises. God's silence is good because it produces perseverance.

This woman models this principle. With every request and every rebuff, she's driven back to the the word she's heard. She's forced to trust what she's heard about Jesus. And the word, you'll notice, helps her interpret her experience correctly. “He's silent but I know he's a healer. He seems to have said “no”, but I know he is a redeemer and healer.” So, on the basis of this word I'll press on to seek his mercy.

The disciples, however, are annoyed. “his disciples came to him and urged him, "Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us."(v.23) I can think of three things that may irritate the disciples. First, Jesus is exhausted and the disciples probably want him to rest. Second. They're not happy about being where they are. It doesn't look good for the Messiah to hang out where all the Gentiles live. Finally, they're displeased that a woman has presumed to approach Jesus. She breaks all sorts of cultural and traditional boundaries. In Galilee it would be seen as brazen. So they want Jesus to send her away.

This is instructive for us as well. Some in the church have very odd conceptions of what the church is. They have this image a respectable place where respectable people go and do respectable things and when someone shows up who is not respectable in their eyes they want them to go away. Nobody says that out loud. It's communicated with a look, with a turned back, with a head shake, with a sigh...all of these say, “Lord send this person away” so that we can have a respectable fellowship of respectable people.

And it seems at first that Jesus gives in. He says(24): “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." His words are hard but true. His mission is to call Israel to repentance so that God might redeem the world through Israel in keeping with the promise he made to Abraham. He's is simply telling the truth. The time is not yet. The descendants of Abraham must have the first opportunity to fulfill their role.

The woman doesn't argue. She doesn't say, “No Jesus since Jews and Gentiles are equal and must be treated equally. You must help me in order to show your benevolent care for all humanity.” She recognizes that Jesus has the right to refuse her request. Instead of protesting, she prostrates, she kneels. The word in Greek, prosekune, shares the same root as the Greek word “worship” the woman knelt before him, she prosekune, she worshiped him. And she said, “Lord, help me.”

How do you respond when God does not do what you want him to do? Do you get angry? Do you lose heart? Do you seek help elsewhere? This gentile woman responds on her knees, humble trust, persistent prayer.

And yet again Jesus says no. "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs."(26) The word Jesus uses for dog is more like “pet dog,” not the more insulting equivalent to “cur” but, speaking personally, that doesn't help me much. But let's focus the point of the illustration. His point is not to identify Gentiles with dogs; his point is the very same point he made in verse 24; that he was sent to Israel first. Verse 26 is merely an illustration of the principle articulated in verse 24. We may not like the illustration he uses, but it makes the point. Offering the gentiles redemption and healing apart from Israel, before giving Israel the opportunity to do what they've been called to do, would be rob the descendants of Abraham of their promised role. It would be like giving dinner to the dogs before children have had a chance to eat. This is a simple fact not an insult. The point is not that Gentiles are pets. The point is: God made a promise to Abraham and God keeps his promises.

That may or may not make easier for you, I don't know, it helps me. What helps me more than that is to realize that I'm not a pet dog before God. I'm far lower on the chain. This woman may deserve to eat the crumbs off the table, but I'm not even worthy to do that. As David says about himself in Psalm 22, “I am a worm and no man.” If God incarnate chooses to compare me to a pet dog in relation to the Jews, who am I to complain? He's right. And yet, the wonder of it is that despite my sin and rebellion, despite all that I've done, when I repented of my sins and surrendered to Christ, he made me a son and an heir. Though I am a worm, for Jesus' sake I'm counted as a child of God. And the same, judging from her next answer, is true for this woman.

"Yes, Lord," she said, "but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." The woman doesn't reject Jesus' illustration. She doesn't argue with it. She's not insulted by it. She accepts it willingly. Yes Lord. It's not our time. And yet my need is desperate and though I'll not presume a place at the table, but I'll gladly take whatever falls to the ground.

In the modern context, her words and her actions would reflect a terrible lack of self esteem, Oprah might think she needs a life coach. Jesus doesn't. "Woman” he says, “you have great faith! Your request is granted." What about this woman's faith is great?

Notice that throughout this exchange there's no argument, no debate, no learned consideration. When Jesus speaks she accepts the truth of his word even when it's an uncomfortable truth. Many who call themselves Christian read their bibles as if they're in the position of Lord and the bible is in the dock. “I like the Gospels but not Paul. I like the NT God not the Old Testament God. My God would do this but not that.” I hope, if nothing else, we can learn from this woman that great faith, from first to last, requires humble trust in God's word. It is because this woman trusted Jesus' verdict that she humbled herself before him and as a result received his mercy. And it was her trust in the word she heard about Jesus, that he heals and redeems, that gave her confidence to seek his mercy and continue to seek it while accepting his verdict. The whole account is shot through with this woman's total reliance upon and trust in what Jesus says and the word she has heard about him.

That is the model of faith: trust in what God says. God says we are all sinners. But God promises mercy and grace and salvation to those who repent and seek him. God says that we are unrighteous. But he promises to give his Son's righteousness as a covering and to make those who turn to him in faith righteous in his sight. God says that in our own power we are weak and can do nothing. But he promises to give strength, nourishment, healing, and wholeness to those who seek it. God says we are destined to die. But in Christ he promises eternal life for all who seek him. God says we're but dust and to dust we shall return, but he promises to make those who repent and believe sons and daughters and to set them a place at his table where they will feast with him forever.

All of these hard and uncomfortable truths are declared and all of these wonderful promises are revealed in his word.

And, like the Canaanite woman, it is humble trust in the truths we have heard and the promises we have read that can and will in the end make us men and women of great faith.

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