Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28
Robert L. Getty, Ph.D.
August 20, 2017
The mercy of God is a difficult concept for our human understanding. One of the best illustrations that I have read over the years goes like this:
A mother sought the pardon of her son from the first Napoleon. The emperor said it was his second offense, and justice demanded his death. “I don’t ask for justice,” demanded his mother, “I plead for mercy.” “But,” said the emperor, “he does not deserve mercy.” “Sire,” cried the mother, “it would
not be mercy if he deserved it, and mercy is all I ask for.” “Well, then,” said the emperor, “I will have mercy.” And her son was saved.
This illustration may give us a clearer idea of the meaning of mercy. We think of clemency as another word for mercy, but mercy is the `gracious attitude of one who sits in the seat of authority toward one who has given offence by breaking of the law, or by some violation of those standards of conduct which establish the offence.’ This is at least part of its meaning. Grace is the unmerited favor of God toward the undeserving: mercy is God’s compassionate kindness toward the hell-deserving. Grace bestows what we do not deserve: mercy does not mete out to us what we do deserve.
The last verse of the previous chapter in Romans before our text today reads, “But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.” So now Paul gets down to brass tacks and poses the question bluntly, “Has God rejected his people?” Our Bibles give a polite answer, “By no means!” or “Absolutely not!” But the expression is mē genoito, a most emphatic denial, that Paul utters nine other times in Romans after posing an absurd theological question. We need to know why the question is so important, if we are to know why the emphatic denial is utterly crucial, for Christians and Jews alike. Clearly, it is all about mercy.
If God will not prove faithful to promises made throughout Israel’s history, Christians have no good reason to expect God will keep the ones made to us through Christ. The fidelity of God remains a bedrock of Paul’s theology, something he learned early as a Jew and had confirmed through his encounter with Christ. It is more about God’s faithfulness, rather than about the successes and failures of people’s faith. Charles Cousar observed:
Israel remains the object of God’s love and retains a place in God’s saving purposes. It is not because Israel has demonstrated or will demonstrate tenacious fidelity that it continues to be God’s chosen people, but because God has demonstrated and will demonstrate such fidelity.i
Mercy wins and is emphatically shown by Paul. In the end, God is merciful. We might not understand how it all will work out, but God will be faithful and our faith rests on hopes like this. Paul leaves the details up to God. The primary impetus of anyone’s salvation, in every case, is the mercy of God. Paul does not conclude with a theological argument, but with praise. The emphasis is on God’s faithfulness, God’s mercy, and God’s mysteries that will endure and sustain us.
Now God can show mercy to all alike. Paul speaks of the mercy shown to the Gentiles to bring about Israel’s recovery. God’s mercy will work through believing Gentiles, then Israel as a nation will at some point, “look on Him whom they have pierced and mourn for Him,” and so to “obtain mercy.” God’s purpose was for these divisions of people to first experience the humbled, condemned state, without Christ, and then to the experience God’s mercy in Christ. Along with the Gospel lesson for this week, this portion of Romans guides us to a clearer understanding of the identity of “God’s people.” God’s people as a group are known by its DNA or by its heart-felt faith in God’s mercy.
Before we move to the Gospel lesson, let me tell a story on myself. Once when I wanted to preach the gospel to all that I could, I was invited to a rescue mission where men from the streets were fed with the understanding that they would sit through a service. I wanted to express God’s love and mercy to these men. So, I started out by saying, “There are some people that look down on you and would even call you dogs.” At that point, the director stopped me and told me to sit down and that he would not tolerate anyone calling these fine men dogs. Of course, I was devastated, and felt, if he only would have let me finish, I would have continued with, “but God loves you and showed his love by sending his son to die on the cross for your sins.”
Whenever I read this story in Matthew 15 it is very troubling, and brings back this experience, when I made a poor choice of words. A Canaanite woman cries out to Jesus to heal her daughter. By the end of the story, her daughter has been healed — but between the crying and the healing, Jesus says some terrible things. He’s arrogant, racist and just plain mean.
We believe that Jesus was “truly human,” but we don’t want him to be too human. So, over the years, people have tried to clean up this story. One attempt goes something like this: Jesus was testing this woman to see if she had enough faith. When she passed the test, Jesus said, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” That verse has caused plenty of pain because some people have heard Jesus saying, “If you had more faith your husband or wife, your mother or father or child would not have died.” But the woman in this story doesn’t make any confession of faith. That is the reason this story focuses on God’s unlimited mercy.
Matthew doesn’t clean up this story. Matthew dares to give us a very human Jesus and he paints a specific picture of this woman. She is a Canaanite woman. She is not one of Jesus’ people. Should he be surprised? Jesus has gone into the region of Tyre and Sidon. This is her home. She may not be Jewish but she calls out to Jesus in language of the Jewish prayer: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” But Jesus isn’t swayed by familiar language. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,” he tells her.
She won’t give up. “Lord, help me,” she begs. This is where Jesus goes to the dogs: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But the Canaanite woman is feisty and stubborn. The life of her daughter is at stake. She picks up his words and throws them right back: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” When Jesus hears this, he says, “Woman, great is your faith!” But she hasn’t made any confession of faith. Even at best, Jesus’ remarks still strike the modern reader as condescending. Jesus apparently wants to demonstrate this woman’s faith and encourage her to articulate her faith.
The woman accepts that she has no claim to be put on a par with the Jewish people in benefiting from God’s special blessing for his people. But she declares, even the dogs get scraps, and that is all she asks for. Jesus responds to the woman’s faith. not on the healing. Surprisingly, Jesus breaks his pattern of immediately responding to requests for healing. His silence seems deliberate and dramatic. The interaction between Christ and this pagan woman makes her the first among the hundreds of millions of Gentiles who now make up the Church. Jesus had looked for faith in Israel, and upon finding none, turned to a land he knew would be filled with brokenness and sin.
Let us consider the plight of this woman and notice how desperate she was. But what we see next seems out of character for Jesus. After her passionate and agonizing plea for help, the Bible says – he refused to answer. He said nothing, though before him stood the most desperate of women. We see a dramatic display of her determination and her persistence. The disciples soon grew tired of it, “Send her away,” they said. “She’s wearing us out!” Though Jesus was too kind to send her away, notice his odd response: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Jesus said she had no right to God’s grace, but that did not stop her persistence. It says a lot about her! She loved her little girl to the point of enduring public humiliation. She believed that if anybody could make a difference, it was Jesus.
Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. What you see is a woman who didn’t doubt Christ for one minute; one word from Jesus was enough to satisfy her. She was persuaded that, “More than anything else, greater than my need for food, shelter, family, success, and money, I – need – Jesus in my heart and home.” This woman didn’t give up. This story brings me under conviction for all those times I have given up and given in to my circumstances so quickly – all those times I went forward in my own strength because God didn’t respond when I wanted him too. This woman challenges us to keep pressing on, persisting in prayer, even when our situation seems hopeless and the heavens remain unmoved. It reminds us that, we just need Jesus, even more than we need an answer.
One more thing we must note – when God does his perfect, gracious work in us, our need will be met, like we never imagined possible. May the peace of God that came over that lady come over us, and may the chaos and storms of our lives, subside. Can you imagine how life had changed for this woman and her family? Storms come to all of us – none have exceptions to the problems of life. But thank God, we have a helper in the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ!
Maybe you are going through a prolonged spiritual drought, and you have found yourself impatient with God’s timing, feeling that prayer is a waste of time. Perhaps, this woman has challenged you again – to keep pushing forward, following the Lord even when the way is unclear. Even when it appears that Jesus is not going to answer, we must keep submitting to his timing, trusting his faithfulness, and maintaining faith in his mercy.
I will close with the poem, God’s Unlimited Mercy by Louise Nelson ii
Why do you think God grants mercy?
Why does He give this gift?
What have you done to deserve His mercy?
What in your nature has shifted?
God only requires that you come to Him with an open mind,
and a willingness to become transformed and sinless for all time.
His mercy is unlimited, it’s not judgmental nor condemning,
and as for the children of God, to them He is most forgiving.
When you come to God repent and a new chapter will begin.
His unlimited grace and mercy will embrace you all over again.
Let God change your perspective on life and alter your reality.
Let God purify your heart and mind with a positive mentality.
May we come to God with total dependence on his love and unlimited mercy shown to us through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
i Charles B. Cousar, The Letters of Paul (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 115
ii Louise Nelson, https://www.poetrysoup.com/poem/gods_unlimited_mercy_59614