Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
1I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2aGod has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.
... 29for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. 30Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, 31so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. 32For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.
Matthew 15:(10-20) 21-28
10Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: 11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” 12Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” 13He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” 15But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” 16Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
This conversation between Jesus and the Canaanite woman has always bothered me. I’m so used to Jesus being all about welcoming people and here he is calling this woman and her daughter dogs. It’s not a very nice story, and I’m not quite sure what to make of it.
Still, this time through Matthew’s Gospel the story makes a little more sense to me. Jesus was always clear about his mission. God sent him to call sinners to repentance, to look for people left out of the community. But before this passage he sees his mission as part of his religion: he is a Jew and his mission is to Israel.
We see that clearly a few chapters earlier when Jesus sends his disciples out to preach and heal. He tells them not to go to the gentiles or Samaritans. Instead he sends them out to the “lost sheep of Israel.” The gospel is about welcome for those who didn’t feel welcome in synagogue because of their past or their occupation or other things that kept them away from God. But Jesus felt that the gospel was for the people of Israel, for God’s chosen nation.
Then Jesus meets this Canaanite woman who begs him to heal her daughter. It seems like Jesus doesn’t think she fits into his mission, but at first doesn’t know what to do. Finally he stops to tell her he was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel.
She’s not interested in his limits. She’s a mother and she cares about two things: her daughter needs help and Jesus can help her. Instead of being discouraged she simply kneels and repeats her plea for help.
That’s when Jesus tells her it’s not right to give the children’s bread to dogs. Maybe Jesus feels the pressure of too much to do in too little time. He knows the cross is on the horizon and getting closer. Maybe he’s concerned that there are so many lost sheep in Israel that he might not have time to get to all of them.
If I were that woman I would have taken offense. Maybe I would have said something hateful and walked away disappointed. But the woman turns Jesus’ words around. She knows she and her daughter are not the focus of Jesus’ ministry. She is not an Israelite, not a child sitting at God’s table. But even dogs can eat what falls on the floor. This woman knows enough about Jesus to know her daughter only needs a few crumbs from his table to be healed.
Jesus is amazed at the woman’s faith and maybe her words stick with him as he and the disciples continue down the road. I can’t prove it, but I like the idea that Jesus learned something about his mission from the Canaanite mother. After this encounter his perspective seems to open wider. He recognizes that many of the people he is preaching to are not going to listen, but others he didn’t preach to at first will follow joyfully.
Jesus continues to tell parables about the mystery, the surprises and the glory of the kingdom of God. But he also tells harsh parables about bad tenants and guests refusing to go to a feast.
These parables are about how Israel’s leaders have turned away from God; how they have rejected God’s rule and taken power for themselves. These parables are also about how God will welcome new people who will appreciate the gift of grace and respond with love. Jesus was sent to the lost sheep of Israel, but his calling goes out also to the lost sheep of every nation, to you and to me. His calling goes out to others who have never heard of Jesus before.
In two of the most important stories toward the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus seems to have moved completely beyond the limits of family and boundary. In Matthew 25 Jesus describes what will happen when he judges all the nations of the world. He will separate the world’s population into two groups, not based on nationality or religion but based on how they have treated the poor, the hungry, the sick and those in prison. In his final words to the disciples after his resurrection Jesus tells them to make disciples of all nations.
I won’t go all the way and say this Canaanite mother is the key to this change in Jesus’ language, but she is part of the story. Maybe Jesus finds out that the dogs are more grateful for the crumbs on the floor than the children are for fresh bread hot from the oven. Maybe you’ve had a similar experience with kids; I know I once took my mother’s wonderful cooking for granted.
A father told me his oldest son was visiting after his first year living on his own. The son went to the refrigerator to get something to drink and was shocked at the abundance and variety he had always taken for granted. Because he now knew what it was like to provide for himself, he could appreciate in a new way how much his parents had provided for him all his life.
The same thing happens with our faith. Those of us who have grown up believing in Jesus, sometimes take his love and grace for granted because it’s always been a part of our life. Sometimes we even feel like faith is an obligation and burden. We feel like kids, bored by the table we eat at everyday.
Meanwhile there are hungry dogs drooling for a crumb of good news, a crumb of Christ’s hope. There are people you know who wake up each day longing for something more in life. People are starving for hope and love and community, but they don’t know where to look for it.
Often I’ve noticed the people most excited about their faith are people who meet Jesus later in life. The most excited disciples are people who weren’t used to the bread of life so they can still recognize what an amazing gift it is.
For a congregation like ours, where most of us have grown up in a church it’s a challenge to recapture our sense of wonder. It can be hard to feel the joy of God’s amazing grace because it’s just what we’re used to.
The best way to rekindle our joy is to bring new people into the community who can share their wonder with us. I don’t mean just bringing people from a different church into our church, though of course, every disciple of Jesus brings important gifts to a new community. I mean bring people who don’t know Jesus at all into the community of faith. Think about how to introduce people to Jesus for the first time and start a new relationship; then watch as the spark of interest becomes a flame of faith. Be inspired by the amazing things Christ can do in a new believer.
Another way to get excited about Jesus is to open our eyes to new perspectives. Just because we’ve grown up with Jesus doesn’t mean we can’t still see him with fresh eyes.
Each week at the Shake it Up Café, our vacation Bible school, there’s a “carry out,” something we ask the kids to do during the week ahead. It’s kind of like homework in faith building, but more fun. So here’s our carry out for this week: spend some time in prayer each day. Pray for God to shake up your life with joy and excitement. If you do that each day with an open heart I think you’ll be surprised by what you see at the end of the week.
Let’s give that process a jump-start right now. Pair off with someone sitting near you. Tell them one thing you would like prayer for so you can grow more enthusiastic in your faith. It can be really general like: “I want to feel God’s love in my heart.” Or it can be very specific like, “I need help dealing with the confusion I feel about miracles in scripture.”
After you’ve shared something, I’d like your partner to pray briefly with and for you out loud, but softly. Often, it helps to hold hands when you pray together. The prayer doesn’t need to be long or elaborate, but try to open you heart and spirit to each other and to God. Don’t worry if it feels uncomfortable to pray like that at first; many of us haven’t grown up with much intimacy or spontaneity in our prayer life. God will take whatever we offer and work with it. Once your partner has prayed switch roles so you both have a chance to share and to pray. Today, we’ll just take about two minutes each. Then I’ll close us in prayer together before we move on to the next part of our service.