The Rev. Kathi Johnson
20 August 2017
Text: Matthew 15:21-28
Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Grand Prairie, Texas
+ INJ +
This story is not my favorite portrayal of Jesus. I struggle with it because of Jesus’ attitude toward this Canaanite woman, at least initially. She is shouting at Jesus and his disciples, the text says. She is shouting – not being a quiet, submissive woman, as women were expected to be. Her yelling shows her desperation on behalf of her daughter, and her determination in getting Jesus to help. She’s shouting the ancient shout of God’s people: “Have mercy on me, Lord!”
The disciples and Jesus aren’t having it, and that’s what makes me uneasy in this story. Can they not see the woman’s worry? Can they not hear her shouts as desperate cries for help? Why do they have to be so…mean? Jesus doesn’t even answer her right away, and then the disciples want her sent away. Where’s the love? Where’s the mercy?
The woman keeps at it. “Lord, help me,” she says, now at the feet of Jesus. It’s another ancient plea – whispered on sickbeds and battlefields and in classrooms: “Lord, help me.”
So this is Jesus’ opportunity to help, but instead he answers her plea with a rebuttal: “It’s not fair,” he says, “to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs.” Here, at least, there is no love, there is no mercy.
Nevertheless, she persists. She persists out of her desperation and we begin to see her great faith emerge. She knows Jesus can help her, so she presses on: “Lord, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table.”
She is an incarnational (in-the-flesh) reminder to Jesus that God has enough mercy to go around.
And as so often happens in Scripture, there’s a sudden shift. Jesus sees the woman’s humanity and her faith, and her daughter is healed. Finally – there is love, and there is mercy.
For reasons that still escape me, when I began middle school in sixth grade, I was placed into advanced everything for my classes – including math. Now, I’m a pretty smart person, but there’s no way I needed to be in advanced math class, even in sixth grade.
I began struggling pretty early in the year. Our teacher – I’ll call her Mrs. L – was short and stout and loud. She was not a nurturer. She was more like some sort of middle school mathematics drill sergeant. She would give us these packets of worksheets – one each week – and it was up to us to keep up with the work, on our own. She’d check our packets from time to time, but if you fell behind, you really fell behind.
So – I fell really behind. And when progress reports came out – this was in the age when paper progress reports were given to students to take home to parents – I was failing math. Big time failing. It was a terrible feeling – so terrible that I made myself sick with worry about what my mom would say and do.
One evening, I realized I couldn’t take it anymore. I took my progress report into my mom, crying. She wasn’t mad; she was disappointed. She was also determined that we would meet with Mrs. L and figure out a way forward. I was mortified. There was no way Mrs. L would do anything to help me, I figured. She was a short, stout, mathematics drill sergeant, remember?
So, in we went, to meet with Mrs. L. I don’t remember the conversation much. I do remember that Mrs. L gave me time to catch up on my work, even letting me come in to her classroom so I could ask questions if I needed to outside of class. She had mercy on me.
To ask for mercy is a humbling experience, and I think that’s part of my discomfort with watching the scene play out between the Canaanite woman and Jesus. In this story, the woman is already starting from a humble place. As a Canaanite woman, she’s an outsider – she is The Other - and as a woman, she’s “just a humble woman.” Her shouts for mercy take her humility to an even lower place – in this story, we watch her descend from a humble outsider to a humble outsider supplicant. She is someone on the outside – she is An Other - who needs help.
And mercy isn’t always easily given, whether it’s by a middle school teacher or a disciple of Jesus or Jesus himself. Mercy sometimes takes some time and conversation. Maybe that’s partly why our world is so short of mercy – because it takes time and conversation. Do we have the schedule to be merciful? Do we have the time or the energy?
And yet, what the world needs now is mercy. Last weekend at our WELCA retreat, I asked the ladies what parts of our worship services are the most meaningful to each of them. Many answered with Communion, or the prayers, or the hymns. One person quietly answered, the “Kyrie” – the part of the service where, at certain times of year, we sing “Lord, have mercy” – the same words that the Canaanite woman shouted at Jesus.
What the world needs now is mercy, and we not only need it from one another, but from God. It is a good practice for us to say (or sing, or shout) the words asking God for mercy because it helps us remember not only that God is merciful, but that we are in need of mercy from God.
At times it seems as though God’s mercy will be stretched too thin by the world’s need. Every day, the news brings more need to the table. As people of faith, how do we respond? One response is a whisper - or a shout - of “Lord, have mercy!”
But mercy is also seen in how we live out the love of God. Just a few days after white supremacists marched through the University of Virginia bearing torches, the Charlottesville community took the campus back over with a candlelight vigil. There is still plenty of work to do in dismantling racism in our country, and it will take time, and conversation, and it is work that can only be done with love…and mercy.
There have been massive mudslides in Sierra Leone that have killed hundreds of people. This nation which has just begun to recover from the ebola outbreak has been devastated yet again. Our own Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana Synod has already sent funds to Lutherans there to help this nation recover. Recovery is – and it will be - the work of love…and mercy.
Mercy isn’t stylish, and it won’t get us elected to public office, but as followers of a merciful Savior, we are also called to be merciful. Like so many other things, mercy begins in our hearts. Mercy begins with seeing the person in front of us, and in taking the time to see their humanity.
And through God’s steadfast love for us, God’s mercies are new every morning. So there is always enough mercy to go around.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
+ SDG +