For the past few months, we have been hearing examples of our Lord’s heartfelt compassion for the lost and helpless sheep who have no shepherd. We saw that deep compassion of Christ our Good Shepherd especially in His Feeding of the Five Thousand two weeks ago. His tender mercy toward the people and His power to feed them are indicative of His identity as the Messiah.
According to the Word and will of God, Israel should likewise have demonstrated that sort of mercy and compassion toward its neighbors in the world; and so should the mercy and compassion of our Lord be evident in the life of His Church today. That is the main point, for example, in the Word of our Lord from His Prophet this morning. The Lord will gather foreigners to Himself by calling them to His Church, His Holy Mountain, and giving them joy within His House of Prayer. As He restores the exiles of Israel, so does He deal kindly with the nations through His people.
But at this point, the Son of David, Christ Jesus — the Savior of Israel — has met with rejection from even His own people, from the very ones He has come to gather to Himself and save. So He withdraws from the Scribes and Pharisees, and He goes to the Gentile regions of Tyre and Sidon.
Now, Tyre and Sidon are familiar names in Holy Scripture, but not popular ones. They are known especially as pagan territory. Sidon, for example, was the home of wicked Queen Jezebel in the Old Testament. Yet, it was another woman from that same territory who received miraculous food and healing from the Prophet Elijah. And it was the king and craftsmen from Tyre who helped King David build his royal palace, and who helped his son, King Solomon, build the Temple in Jerusalem. Today, the Son of David comes to them, whose own Body is the true Temple of God.
The “Bread” of grace and mercy, life and salvation, which Jesus has given to the Jews, He now also gives to the Gentiles. Which is good news, of course, for all of us — though I suspect that we may take it too easily for granted. It was not always so obvious to the first Christians; the vast majority of them were Jews, and it was difficult for them at first to welcome the Gentiles into the Church of Christ, or to know how that should work and what it should look like in practice.
Nevertheless, while it is true that “Salvation is from the Jews,” it is for both Jews and Gentiles alike. For the Salvation of Christ Jesus is not only “the Glory of His people Israel,” but also “a Light to lighten the Gentiles.” Sadly, many of the Jews rejected that grace and glory of God. Yet many of the Gentiles were hungry for the mercy and salvation of the Jewish Messiah, Jesus Christ.
That hunger is vividly portrayed in this Holy Gospel. Indeed, the Canaanite woman is a beautiful example of those very “stones” that begin to “cry out” when the people of God do not. And as many of the Jews rejected the Son of David, including especially the Scribes and Pharisees, the Lord’s mercy was extended to those who had been nothing: to pagans, dogs, and sinners like you.
The Canaanites were among the most hated and despised of Israel’s enemies, the descendants of those who were driven out of the Promised Land by Joshua and the other Old Testament Judges. The very name, “Canaanite,” is practically synonymous with paganism, Baal-worship, and hostility against the people of Yahweh. So among these people is the last place one might expect to find such great faith in Jesus as that which is demonstrated and confessed by this woman.
But of course, the hunger of this Canaanite woman is quite specific and concrete. Her great faith and her persistent cries for mercy are driven by her desperate need; just as you must sometimes hit rock bottom before you seek the Lord where He is to be found. She turns to Him for mercy and compassion, that her daughter might be healed of her demon possession. There’s nothing abstract or generic about her situation. Surely some of you moms can identify with the anxiety of a mother for her child. But all of you have similar needs and similar hungers in your own body and life.
So the hunger of her need is easy to comprehend. But how does she come to have such faith and confidence in Christ Jesus, by which she seeks the food that she needs from His hand?
St. Mark supplies the answer in his Gospel, when he indicates that the woman had heard some news about Jesus. It was that good news, that Word of Christ, which called forth such great faith in her heart. And so she clings to that Gospel, to that Word which had called her and brought her to Jesus in the first place; that good news which identified Him as the “Lord” and “Son of David.” To that Gospel she clings desperately for help, in spite of His initially off-putting response.
God grant you such a faith, and such a hunger for Jesus in your own heart! A faith that clings to the Gospel and refuses to let go, even when Christ Himself seems to be ignoring you and rejecting your fervent pleas for help. That you should have a faith so hungry for His grace and His healing forgiveness, that you would argue and debate with the Lord Himself until He feeds you.
Now, English translations typically state that the woman “knelt” or “bowed down” before Jesus in her second attempt to gain His help. More accurately, she prostrated herself on the ground at His feet. Which is to say that this Gentile woman rightly worshiped Jesus as her Lord and God. And this worship, too, like her persistent prayer, was a confession of her great faith in Christ Jesus.
But how, then, shall we understand the troublesome reply of Jesus to this Canaanite woman?
At first, there is only silence. In response to this poor woman’s fervent prayer, Jesus does not answer a word. He turns His back on her; He keeps on walking; and He seems to ignore her request. His behavior is shocking, because we know our Lord to be the God of tender mercy and compassion. How many others has He helped in similar situations? So why not here and now?
But aren’t you also sometimes confronted with a stony silence in response to your prayers? And then it would seem that even God has turned His back on you. The blood, sweat, and tears of your prayer bring no consolation or reprieve, and so you cannot help but wonder, Where is Jesus now?
What, then, shall you do? Well, like that Canaanite woman, go on clinging to the Gospel. Ignore the silence, and trust the Word that you have already heard. Like a little child who simply will not go away, hang on to Jesus, and pester Him with your prayer. Call upon the Name of the Lord, as the Liturgy has taught you: “Lord, have mercy! Christ, have mercy! Lord, have mercy!”
Before long, the Disciples are moved to intercede for the woman. Their request that Jesus should send her away implies that He should do something for her, even if only to get her to leave them alone. But then, what is worse than His previous silence, there is apparent rejection: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel,” He says. And so, it would seem, He is not for her.
What might have gone through that poor woman’s mind? What did she hear between the lines in His answer? “This Jesus might be the Savior of others, but apparently not for someone like me.” And how often have you felt the same way? That Jesus is for others, but evidently not for you.
And yet, it is at that very point when the woman falls on her face before the Lord. With contrite humility, she worships Him. Shutting out the “no” she might have heard, she remembers only the “yes” that she has heard from His Gospel. With hungry faith she pleads again, “Lord, help me!”
Then comes the final blow, the utter humiliation: “The Bread of Christ is not for the dogs, but for the children of His House.” Such is the crushing condemnation of the Law, which turns the poor woman into a dog and pushes her down from the Table. Just as the Law of God reduces you and all your pride to nothing more than dust and ashes. You can almost hear the slamming of the door.
Where, then, shall you turn? What more can you do or say in response to that Word of the Law? Shall a dog raise its whimpering head before the Almighty God, and go on begging for Bread from His Table? How should you stand firm in the face of such words from the Lord Himself?
Rare is the faith that could. And yet, by the grace of God, the Canaanite woman did stand firm.
In her reparteé with Jesus, this woman is given the opportunity to demonstrate and confess with her lips the great faith of her heart. In fact, she not only confesses that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel, but she also worships Him as her Lord and Master, and she expresses confidence that, even as a “dog,” she is already in His House and waiting at the foot of His Table for crumbs of bread.
The persistence of this woman recalls the story of Jacob, Israel himself, who wrestled through the night with the Angel of Yahweh, refusing to let go until the Lord would bless him with His Name.
Israel did receive the blessing he desired; and in the end, of course, so did the Canaanite woman. According to His mercy, the Son of David granted her request: “Be it done for you as you believe,” He said. And at the Word of Jesus, the woman’s daughter was healed; the demon was cast out.
Thus do we also discover that this Canaanite woman actually is one of the “lost sheep of the House of Israel,” whom Jesus now brings home to Himself. Not a child of Abraham according to the flesh, but a sheep of the same Good Shepherd, gathered by His Word into His flock.
This Holy Gospel thus fulfills, not only the Prophecy of Isaiah that you have heard this morning, but also the earlier, similar story of the Gentile Centurion. Remember how Jesus was approached by that man, who prayed that his servant might be healed. In that case, Jesus declared that many Gentiles would come from East and West to sit down at the Table of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And sure enough, today this Canaanite woman has taken her seat at that very Table with those Jewish Patriarchs. Having prayed for crumbs, she has been granted the full Feast of Christ Jesus, the Bread of His forgiveness and the gift of His eternal life through faith in His Gospel.
In this woman Jesus demonstrates that He is Himself the new Temple of a new Israel, the new “House of Prayer” for all people, including both Jews and Gentiles. All who believe and trust in Christ Jesus are welcomed and fed at His Table. For the Lord is merciful to all who call upon Him, to all who believe in Him through His Word, who confess with their lips the faith of their hearts.
In the mercy and compassion of Christ, the hunger of their faith is fed in the House of the Lord.
Which means for you, as well, that you need not be content with scraps that fall from your Master’s Table. As you have been taught to pray that our Father in heaven would feed you with daily bread, you may be certain that He will indeed provide you with all that you need and far more, for this body and life, and for the life everlasting. For you are invited to feast with Him as a beloved son or daughter at His Table, even as He feeds you once again this morning with the Body and Blood of Christ Jesus, King David’s greater Son, who is indeed your own dear Savior and your God.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.