a sermon for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 15)
When Jesus first met the Canaanite women, he rejected her. But then she taught him an important lesson about who he came to serve.
Jesus must have been tired that day. After feeding thousands of people, after walking on the water, after healing hundreds of sick, he must have been simply exhausted. Then, after all that, there was that confrontation by the leaders of the temple. “Why don’t your disciples wash their hands before eating? After all, that’s the tradition of our elders.”
I think that’s when he became a little snarky. “It’s not what goes into the mouth that’s unclean, but what comes out of it.” And wham, just like that, Jesus put those Pharisees in their place. Because everyone could see that he was right. It’s our thoughtless words or the times when we pay more attention to traditionalism than what’s in a person’s heart that we end up defiling ourselves. God isn’t concerned so much about the rules as our love for each other.
That’s why it was so strange the way he treated that Canaanite woman. She seemed to come out of nowhere, shouting about her daughter. “Have mercy upon me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon!” Tears were running down her face and she was acting like a crazy woman herself. The disciples didn’t want to have anything to do with her.
Neither did Jesus. First, he tried to just ignore her but she kept shouting. Then he tried to reason with her, explaining that his ministry was really only for us Jews. But she knelt down and begged him. That’s when he said it. “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
For a long while, nobody said anything. Jesus just stood there, praying. And the woman just stayed there, kneeling in front of him. I don’t know what she was thinking. Maybe she was thinking about his insult. Maybe she was thinking about her sick daughter. Maybe she was thinking about all the times she had been disappointed by holy people. Maybe she was thinking that this man, this Jesus, had to be different.
“Yes, Lord,” she finally said. “Yet, even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
There’s a prayer that we sometimes say before we take communion. It’s called the Prayer of Humble Access and you can find it on page 337 in the Book of Common Prayer. I’d like you to find it say it with me:
We do not presume to come to this your table O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercy. We are not worthy even to gather up the crumbs under your table. But you are the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.
It’s not what goes into our mouths that defile us, but what comes out. It’s not our own goodness and righteousness that makes us worthy to kneel here and receive Christ’s blessing and nurture, but God’s own mercy and love for us.
If you recall from last week, when Peter saw Jesus walking on the water, he tried to do it himself. And he was pretty good at it for a while, until he fell. Jesus said to call him, “you of little faith.” But this week, Jesus tells the Canaanite woman that she showed “great faith.” I don’t think it’s because she believed that Jesus was the Son of God any harder than of the rest of us, but because she knew it didn’t matter how much, or little, she believed. God’s grace is so great that even a crumb is sufficient to feed and sustain us. She knew that all of us are unworthy of God’s love and favor. Fortunately, God doesn’t play favorites. God blesses us all and favors us all, regardless of who we think is worthy.
In the end, even Jesus learned something from the woman that day. She never challenged him. In fact, everything she says showed how much she honored him. But she did challenge his assumptions about her. Although she was not a Jew, she still deserved his blessing. In the end, Jesus learned that his own view of his calling was too narrow. He learned that he wasn’t only sent to feed the lost sheep of Israel, but the lost sheep throughout the whole world.
But what about us? What does this story mean to us?
First of all, it means that like the Canaanite woman, we too are children of God. We beg for and receive God’s blessings regardless of our own worthiness. Indeed, there is NOTHING we can do that could possibly make us worthy of God’s boundless love and grace. And yet, God loves us more than we can possibly imagine. God’s love for us is so vast, so abundant, than no matter how many times sin and ask for forgiveness, how many times we cry out in the dark, God forgives us and gives us peace.
And, this story means something more. As followers of Jesus, as his disciples, we are also members of the Christian community known as “the Church.” By Jesus’ own commandment, we are called to go out into the whole world and make other disciples through baptism. At the same time, we need to remember that the church has always been best described as a living organism – the body of Christ – not as an institution. Indeed, whenever we try to make this living body into an institution, we fail. That’s why Jesus always struggled against the Pharisees – they kept trying to maintain the institution of the church and forgot that it was made up of living members who had real lives and real problems.
The tradition we have received from our church father and mothers says that Holy Communion should only be offered to those who have been baptized. As your priest, I have largely upheld this tradition, bending the rules for weddings and funerals. But I wonder, is the holy food of the Eucharist really intended to be offered only to the children of Israel? Aren’t even dogs permitted the crumbs that fall from our master’s table?
When Jesus really stopped and looked into the heart of the Canaanite woman, he realized that she, too, deserved his blessing. I believe that we are called to challenge the traditionalism that sometimes prevents us from seeing the heart of the person standing in front of us, seeking the same grace, the same blessings that we share through Christ. We are invited to learn, as Jesus himself learned, that our view of our ministry may be too narrow, and that we need to once again expand our understanding of who God is calling us to serve.
Thanks be to God.