Monday, August 15, 2011

Proper 15 of Series A (Matthew 15:21-28)

“Yes Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ: the year was 1546. Martin Luther had spent the last three decades serving Jesus and the Church as a reformer, as one whom God raised up to proclaim the Gospel freely again to all people. His former life as a monk had ruined his body, and a career spent in high pressure situations, confessing the faith before priests and kings, hadn’t helped; now it seemed like the Lord was ready to call him home. He would die on February 18th, but shortly before that time he would scribble a short phrase on a scrap of paper, a phrase that epitomized his own life, and in his opinion, the life of every Christian: “We are beggars, it is true.” In those simple words, Luther wasn’t trying to make a social or economic statement, but instead, he wanted at death’s door to define the Christian’s relationship with God. “We are beggars, it is true.” Our human sense of pride revolts at those words. A beggar has nothing to give, he can place no demand on anyone else, but instead stands openhanded, simply receiving whatever is given to him. A beggar asks for aid, but has no right to expect any response, much less a positive one.

“And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, ‘Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.’ But he did not answer her a word.” If we are beggars, then that means that we have nothing that we can give God, it means that God doesn’t owe us anything. We don’t deserve an answer to our prayers, we don’t deserve help, healing, or even salvation. The Canaanite woman called upon Jesus to help her, and all she found was silence. And why should she expect any different? Why should we expect any different from God? Does God owe us anything? What have we done to merit an answer to prayer, to earn help or healing? Nothing; and indeed we have all done much to discourage such mercy. We are unclean, corrupted completely by the filth of sin. We live as if we mattered most, and as if God or our neighbors mattered little at all. God doesn’t owe us anything. We are not entitled to grace, nothing we do can answer for the sin that fills our lives. We are beggars, it is true, beggars with no reason to expect bread.

“And [Jesus’] disciples came and begged Him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she is crying out after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’” Strike two. Not only are we sinful, corrupted from birth, but we are not even part of the covenant people of Israel. Now the Jews were hardly perfect (just read the Old Testament), but Jesus was sent through them and to them, to find the lost sheep and bring them back to their God. As Gentiles, we are even less entitled to God’s grace and mercy than the lost sheep of Israel were. The woman in our text was a Canaanite, part of that ancient, idolatrous people that inhabited the Promised Land when Joshua crossed the Jordan. She lived in the region of Tyre and Sidon, two cities that were the epitome of pagan debauchery in the Old Testament. She was in the same boat as you and me; unless I am mistaken, we don’t have any Jews here, and so we are all Gentiles, separated by birth from the covenant people of God. The Messiah came through Israel; the Messiah came to Israel. Gentiles deserve nothing from God but destruction. If anyone deserved salvation less than the lost sheep of Israel, it is the Gentiles, you and me. We are beggars, Gentile beggars with no claim on a Messiah that wasn’t sent to us.

The Canaanite woman is persistent; she has two strikes but she is ready to chance a third. “But she came and knelt before Him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ And He answered, ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’” Calling someone a ‘dog’ isn’t a complement today, and if anything, it was even worse in biblical times. The bread belongs to the children, to the people of Israel, not to the unclean, sinful, corrupted dogs that lie beneath the table. The children are given the bread, even if many refuse to eat, not the Gentile dogs, you and I, who have no claim on God, no right to even ask for this bread. We are beggars, it is true, beggars who seem doomed to die of hunger.

But then something remarkable happens. The Canaanite woman has struck out; she has asked for help and has been called a dog, told in no uncertain terms that the bread is not for her. In the face of all that she doesn’t storm off, she doesn’t start arguing, she agrees! “She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.’” This Canaanite woman, far from believing herself to be entitled to anything from God, instead agrees with Jesus that she is a dog. In great humility she confesses herself as a sinner, as one to whom God owes nothing. She declares and understands what we say at the beginning of every service, “I, a poor miserable sinner…” She doesn’t just say the words; Jesus has made sure that she comprehends them, that she has completely understood that her standing before God has nothing to do with her own merits. She is a beggar, it is true, and she admits it here. But she doesn’t wallow in despair; instead she confesses another, even greater truth. She confesses that remarkably, the mercy of Israel’s Messiah overflows even to the Gentiles.

Jesus Christ came first to the lost sheep of Israel; it is only right, for they brought forth the Messiah, they were God’s people chosen from of old. Saint Paul declares in our Epistle lesson, “I ask then, has God rejected His people? By no means… God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew.” The Gospel first came to Israel, for Jesus is Israel’s Messiah. He preached to them, He healed their sick, He called His followers from among them. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table. Jesus doesn’t owe Gentiles anything, but yet He still delivered us, He won salvation not only for Israel, but for all people. Isaiah prophesied this in our Old Testament lesson: “The Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.’” God loves His rebellious people, though they abandoned Him again and again, and that same love is extended even to the Gentiles, even to you and me. We have even less of a claim on God’s grace and mercy than the lost sheep of Israel, but the redemption of Christ flows even into our lives. We eat from beneath the table, a table overflowing with grace and favor.

For the abundance of the Gospel is far beyond our comprehension. Christ died for the lost sheep of Israel, and He also died for Gentile dogs. He died for you and me, those who had no right, no entitlement, no reason to deserve such grace. While we were still sinners, while we were still dogs, Christ died for us. He faced the wrath of God in your place, He suffered the very punishment of hell so that you will never have to. He took on your sin, your impurity, your corruption, all that kept you away from God, and He paid for it on Calvary’s cross. His death was your death, and His resurrection is yours as well. Jesus didn’t owe you anything, but He gave you everything. He gave you His own outpoured blood, the life He offered up into death and then took up again on Easter morning. You are a beggar, and He pours into your empty hands forgiveness, life and salvation. He died for sheep that love to wander, for dogs that deserved nothing but punishment. That shed blood, that redemption, fills the Lord’s Table in abundance, and the crumbs that fall from that table are enough to satisfy our deepest needs. Think about it: the crumbs of God more deeply satisfy than any other feast on earth. We satisfy our greatest need, the need for salvation, the need for deliverance, the need for forgiveness, from the overflowing bounty of the Lord’s Table. Yes, we are beggars, beggars who have been given all things in abundance.

“Then Jesus answered her, ‘O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for your as your desire.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.” Christ’s grace and mercy poured into her life, for God had worked faith in her heart. This corrupted, sinful woman, unclean in every respect to people like the Pharisees, demonstrated with her words that she clung to Israel’s Messiah. She had inner purity through faith that meant so much more than her outward uncleanliness. It is the same way with you and me. We appear unclean, corrupted with sin, but through faith in Christ, we are clean. We are covered with the robe of Christ’s righteousness; the Gospel has overflowed from the Lord’s Table into our lives and has cleansed us, purifying us to stand before our Father for eternity. God doesn’t owe us anything, but He gives us everything through the redemption of Jesus Christ. He pours His grace out in abundance to those who by no means deserve it, but instead have been claimed in mercy by the blood of His Son. We are beggars, it is true; beggars redeemed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

We never stop being beggars. All people are beggars from the moment they are conceived to the moment the leave this earth, but the difference is that Christians acknowledge that fact and confess it. We confess, like the Canaanite woman, that we have no claims upon God, that we stand empty-handed before Him, with nothing to give Him but our sin. And He takes our sin and forgives it, giving in its place forgiveness, life, and salvation. Though to the world we wear the rags of sin, to our Father in heaven, we are clothed with Christ’s own righteousness. We are beggars, it is true; beggars who eat the crumbs from the table, who feast on the abundance of Christ’s redemption. In the name of the one who fills the beggar’s empty hands with the overflowing abundance of His table, Israel’s Messiah who redeemed the Gentiles, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, Amen.

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