Aug 20, 2017

“Have Mercy On Me” - Matthew 15:21-28

“Have Mercy On Me” - Matthew 15:21-28

            Let us pray.  Dear God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

            Imagine that someone you love--someone you care deeply about-- is in big trouble.  They are hurt and suffering.  They’re being tormented.  Perhaps it’s a loved one.  Perhaps a spouse.  A parent.  A brother or a sister.  A child.  A grandchild.  Perhaps a friend.  What would you do?

            Would you phone “Ask a Nurse” for advice?  Would you call for an ambulance?  Or would you load them in the car and take them to the doctor?  I imagine that if we were in a situation like that, we would do whatever it took to help our loved one.  We would put what we were working on aside.  Our loved one in need would instantly become our top priority.  They would receive our complete focus and attention. 

            We would do all we could to get them needed help.  Sit with them in the waiting area so they’re not alone.  Perhaps say a prayer.  And once we’re in with the doctor, we’d help describe the symptoms.  We might even plead with the doctor.  “Please help our loved one.  Please do all that you can do to make them better.”

            Then what would you do if the doctor said this?  “Sorry, I can’t help you.  I have other things to attend to.  I have more important priorities.  Goodbye.”  Wow!  I imagine we would be shocked and at a loss for words.  I imagine we might even be quite upset and very angry.

            If you can picture this, then you can probably relate to what is going on in our gospel reading for today.  It is about a mother who has a daughter with special needs.  Her daughter is being tormented and is suffering greatly.  It breaks the woman’s heart to see her that way.

So she goes out to get some help, and she can hardly believe her eyes.  There walking toward her is a man who has a reputation as a powerful healer.  He’s even accompanied by his students.  She puts aside all modesty.  She runs toward him and shouts at the top of her voice.  “Lord, have mercy on me.  Please help my daughter.  She is in torment.” 

Now every other time this healer has been approached for help, he does just that.  He responds.  He helps.  But not this time.  This time he says, “I can’t help you.  I have other things to attend to.  I have been sent to help other people.  There’s nothing I can do for you.” 

As you have probably guessed, this healer is none other than Jesus.  But what on earth is going on here?  Why is he turning down someone in need?  Where is all of that compassion he is supposed to have?  Why is he acting like this?  Perhaps we’d better take a closer look.

            If we back up a few verses, we find that Jesus has just had a big confrontation with some Pharisees and scribes who have come down from Jerusalem.  They are there to criticize Jesus and his disciples.  They accuse him of not properly keeping the faith.  And Jesus lets them have it with both barrels.  He refers to them as blind guides.  He accuses them of being more concerned about appearances than about helping people.  His words offend them.  But instead of fighting, Jesus withdraws.

            Now, there is no place in Palestine where Jesus can be sure of privacy.  No place where he can find peace and quiet.  No place to step out of the public eye.   Wherever Jesus goes, the crowds find him.  After all, earlier they have even followed him right into the barren wilderness. 

            So Jesus and his disciples head north until they come to the land of Tyre and Sidon.  There, at least for the time being, he would be safe from the scribes and Pharisees.  He would be safe from their constant watch and criticism.  He would be out of their grasp.  He would also be safe from the crowds.  After all, no Jew in his or her right mind would willingly travel into Gentile territory.  It was unclean and unsafe there.

            But that’s right where he encounters this someone seeking help for a daughter.  We are told she’s a woman.  And back then, women were to be seen and not heard.  They certainly weren’t supposed to be going around shouting at men.  And to boot, she’s a Canaanite.  She’s not even one of their own people.  She’s a hated foreigner.  After all, it was the Canaanites who had cruelly tormented the Israelites for centuries. 

So, here comes this woman right up to them.  This heathen Canaanite woman gets right in their faces.  And she’s actually shouting like crazy.  “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”  Wow!  So much for withdrawing.  So much for disappearing off of the radar.  So much for peace and quiet.  It seems as if Jesus has just gone from one big confrontation to another one.

            You see, news about Jesus must have spread beyond Jewish territory into Gentile territory.  News about his preaching and teaching.  News about the signs and wonders.  News about the miracles and healings.  News about his compassion and caring.

            The woman sees Jesus and just knows there is something special about him.  She just knows that if anyone can help her daughter, it is this man.  This Jesus.  So she approaches him and his disciples.  And it soon becomes evident that she is not about to take “No” for an answer.  “Have mercy on me,” she shouts.  “Please help my daughter.  She’s being tormented.  She’s suffering.  If anyone can help her it’s you.  I know it.”

            But believe it or not, Jesus seems to act completely out of character.  He simply ignores her.  He doesn’t seem to pay any attention to her.  But she upsets his disciples.  They can’t take it any more.  “For goodness sakes, send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”  The disciples are not moved by compassion.  They are embarrassed and annoyed.  They find her to be a nuisance.  They just want to be rid of her. 

            Only then does Jesus focus his attention on the woman.  But his words are not the words she wants to hear.  “Sorry.  I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  I am sent to help the Jews.  God’s chosen people are the ones I am sent to save.”

I’m sure Jesus is not saying this lightly.  Matthew tells us that Jesus has spent hours upon hours in prayer with God.  He has resisted all kinds of temptation regarding his mission.  He has become clear that his heavenly Father is the one who has sent him and that his heavenly Father has not given up on the Israelites.  So, Jesus understands he has been sent to shepherd those lost sheep.  To bring God’s realm to them.

But this woman will not be deterred.  She refuses to take no as an answer.  As a matter of fact, she does exactly what giants of the faith like Abraham and Moses and Jacob have done from the beginning of time.  She takes God seriously enough to wrestle with him.  And she does what people of faith still do.  She persists.  She keeps praying even when the answer is not what she wants to hear.  So, instead of turning away in anger and sadness, she drops to her knees before him.  And she pleads like all of us with a lick of faith do.  She prays, “Lord, help me.”

Then, Jesus does what Jesus does.  He takes her seriously.  He listens.  He’s honest.  He wrestles with her face to face.  And let’s face it, the wrestling gets pretty intense because Jesus actually calls her a name.  He says these very words.  “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  This sounds harsh.  It sounds so unlike Jesus.

But somehow this woman must trust Jesus.  She doesn’t attack and call him names.  And she doesn’t turn around and head back home to her troubled daughter.  In great humility, she responds. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

And when the wrestling is over, things have changed.  Maybe even Jesus has been changed by this encounter.  Maybe now he realizes more fully that, yes, God does love Israel.  But, yes, God also loves the entire world.  We know this because of what Jesus does next.  He responds.  He commends her for her great faith.  Then, he grants her request.  He heals her daughter.  He shows God’s love is big enough for the whole world.

            Long ago, a poor woman from the slums of London was invited to go with a group of people for a holiday at the ocean.  She had never seen the ocean before, and when she saw it, she burst into tears.  Those around her thought it was strange that she should cry when such a lovely holiday had been given her.  “Why in the world are you crying?”  they asked.  Pointing to the ocean she answered, “This is the only thing I have ever seen that there was enough of.”  Of course, we know that this woman is wrong.  With eyes of faith, we know that the thing there is really more than enough of is the love of God.

            The good news for us this day and every day is that this Jesus has oceans of mercy.  There is more than enough of it to go around.  No one is ignored.  No one is turned away.  No one is sent home empty handed.  It is freely given to all who are in need of it.  There is more than enough for friends and enemies.  For red and yellow, black and white.  For Democrats and Republicans.  For neighbors and strangers.  For you and me.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.