Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 5, 2021
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
This morning we find Jesus leaving his familiar environment in Galilee and traveling into the region of Tyre, which was Gentile territory. He wasn’t in Tyre too long before he was approached by a Syrophoenician woman. This woman was desperate. Her little girl was in distress, plagued by an unclean spirit. The precise nature of this little girl’s problem is unclear, but she was battling some kind of demon. She was experiencing something that was not of God. She was in the power of something terrible. This desperate mother came and fell at Jesus’ feet. She begged Jesus to help her. She had heard stories about the things Jesus had done, the healings he had performed, the demons he had cast out. She had nowhere else to turn, and so, although she was a Gentile, a non-Jew, she turned to Jesus for help.
And Jesus, at least at first, said no! In fact, not only did Jesus say no, he said to her: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Scholars have long tried to make sense of Jesus’ words here, and especially struggle to do so today in our hypersensitive, just-waiting-to-be-offended age. Some have suggested Jesus was testing her. Some say he was testing the disciples. Some say he had a sparkle in his eye when he said it and was only joking. Some say he was tired, and this illustrates his humanity. Some have said Jesus was just reflecting the stereotypes and derogatory language of his time and culture. Some have said he was only trying to follow God’s timeline, which was Jews first, Gentiles later. Some point out that he uses the term for little dog instead of the term for street dog, so it isn’t as bad as it sounds.
Some of those explanations are more theologically viable than others, but I like Martin Luther’s explanation the best. Luther acknowledges that Jesus appeared to be rude to her, but he said there was a purpose in it. He argues that Jesus was talking this way in order to provoke faith in her. Luther argues that Jesus was stirring up faith in her like a hunter flushes a pheasant out of the bushes.
And boy did he ever flush out her faith – because this woman responds with one of the most powerful and bold demonstrations of faith in all of scripture! This woman doesn’t get offended and she won’t be deterred. She doesn’t deny the position that she is in. She doesn’t deny that as a Gentile she has no right to demand anything of Jesus. She doesn’t try to argue that she deserves anything from him. Instead, she cleverly holds Jesus to his own words, trusting that even the smallest bit from him will be enough. “Sir,” she says, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” You’ve heard of mustard seed faith – well this is table crumb faith! She trusts Jesus in spite what seems like his initial cruelty. She trusts him spite of his appearance of rudeness. She trusts him in spite of his initial “no.” She trusts that Jesus will come through for her. She won’t let go of that hope so easily! This woman has faith, and it is on full display!
And so Jesus said to her: “For saying that you may go – the demon has left your daughter.” And she went home and found her daughter lying in her bed, and the demon gone.
As I was working through this story this past week, I couldn’t help but think about all the people I’ve talked to lately who have been or are still in situations like the Syrophoenician woman. I couldn’t help but think about the parents I spoke with recently who told me about their son who struggles with the demon of addiction. They don’t know where he is and haven’t heard from him in several days. There have been sleepless nights spent crying out to Jesus for help, and the only response so far has been a cruel silence. I couldn’t help but think about another parent whose daughter is battling the demon of stage four ovarian cancer, and whose prayers for remission have been rudely denied. I couldn’t help but think of another parent I spoke with who has been cut off by her daughter-in-law for inexplicable reasons, and whose prayers for reconciliation haven’t been answered. I could go on. I have more stories like this. There are all kinds of people in our congregation who are facing similar circumstances very similar to that of the Syrophoenician woman. They could be sitting next to you in this sanctuary this morning.
There is a special kind of pain that parents feel for their children, but even if you’re not a parent or have never been in that kind of situation with your kids, probably all of us have had times when God seems to be hidden from us, when God seems to be ignoring us, when Jesus seems to be brushing us off.
But this Syrophoenician woman doesn’t just echo the desperation of what seem to be our unanswered prayers. She also shows us what faith looks like. Christian faith understands that we have no right to demand anything from Jesus. It understands that we don’t deserve anything from him. But at the same time, Christian faith boldly holds on to hope. Christian faith boldly holds Jesus to his Word. Christian faith trusts in the goodness and mercy of Christ even when it cannot be seen. Christian faith trusts that even table crumbs from him are enough.
As we hold Jesus to his Word, he reveals himself to us. As we look beyond the silence, beyond the seeming cruelty, and cling to Christ, God is no longer hidden. As we trust in Christ even when he still seems to be ignoring us, he ultimately shows us his goodness and mercy. He gives us more than table crumbs. He gives us himself. He gives us his body and blood. He gives us his Spirit. He gives us peace. He gives us life. Even as we bear our crosses, he assures us that our present pain will not continue forever.
With the last words Martin Luther spoke before he died, he said: “We are all beggars, this is true.” And it is true. We are all beggars, looking for table scraps of mercy. We are all like the Syrophoenician woman, desperate for help from God. We still contend with demons – in our own lives and in the lives of the people we love. We still beg for help. We still beg for deliverance from those demons.
But our Lord Jesus doesn’t leave us as beggars. Instead, Jesus comes to us in Word and Sacrament to assure us that he has ultimately defeated every demon we face. He assures us that through his death and resurrection, he has defeated the biggest demons of all. He has conquered sin, death, and the devil, and he will freely and graciously and generously share that victory with us. He assures us that we are more than beggars. We are his beloved children, and we have a place at his table, today and forever.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church