Philip Casmer

Lord, Have Mercy…

by Philip Casmer on August 20th, 2023
Matthew 15:21–28

There’s a tendency people have with this text from Matthew, which I totally get…but it’s still weird. It goes like this: Jesus can’t be this rude! It just can’t be. This woman comes calling Jesus “Lord” asking for mercy… not even for herself but on her daughter possessed by the devil’s powers… The last thing you’d expect is the one who came to overpower the devil to ignore a request to do that very thing. The last thing you’d expect is the one who’d had mercy on all kinds of people to say nothing, right? Imagine if a store clerk or a waitress did that to you… it would be awkward and rude… So, we reason how it must have been instead… Instead perhaps he didn’t hear her, we might say… Except his disciples seemed to hear her and told Jesus so… Or instead there were lots of things going on, characteristically many people around…  Except Jesus had gone off to some Tyre & Sidon AirBnB to get away from people and it seems like nobody’s around… no one except this woman and her need. From Jesus: only awkward silence…

That’s not the worst, though – not of our weird reactions, nor of Jesus’ difficult responses. He did finally reply. Between his two replies, I think this is the most off-putting for us, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” Implication: you’re a dog; just a dog compared to the real family; can’t give the dinner to you… And that’s just offensive, right? So, you know what we do? We say things like this… You know, that Greek word Jesus used isn’t the same one that Paul used in Philippians for the unbelieving Judaizers – those “dogs” he called them – the mangy mutts, the rabies-having street dogs that gnash and growl and ravage… No, this word is more like “puppies”… “Jesus is just calling her a house-dog… You know, like Rover at home…” Except, you try that with your wife today – “Honey, I love you just like I love little Rover there…” Better, use the dog-voice while knuckling her head a bit, “Juss wike wittle Wover, I wuv you so much! Yes I do…” And Pastor Free and I will get some funeral times marked out on the calendar for next weekend… Because that’s just as offensive – let’s not pretend it isn’t. Being called any kind of dog – snarly dog or puppy dog – that’s demeaning… Yet, that’s what Jesus says…

Why is this troubling? That’s not hard, right? Perhaps because you can identify with her. Maybe you’ve experienced a dire circumstance where you needed help and someone didn’t provide it. Worse than that, you know what it’s like to be in need and you brought it to God who could supply it but he didn’t reply at all, didn’t do for you at all – as far as you could see anyway… It could be the Judeo-centric thing – “I’ve only come for the lost in Israel’s house…” Jesus said. And that’s not her – she’s a foreigner – actually, it’s not you either. Or maybe instead you find this most troubling: the woman doesn’t seem to be bothered at all. In fact, she keeps on no matter. And you look here and think, “I just couldn’t… It’s just offensive… I’d turn and walk away.” And, perhaps simplest of all, nobody deserves to be treated or talked to that way. Not me, not you, not anybody else… 

In fact, that’s sort of it, isn’t it? You’re only troubled by all of this if you think she / you deserve better…

I was reading a sermon by Martin Luther on this text this week. He said something that struck me strange. I had to really think about it: “Oh, how painful it is to nature and reason, that this woman should strip herself of self and forsake all that she experienced…until she experienced the contrary.” Luther encapsulates the discomfort we feel. Perhaps it’s not really the awkwardness that’s troubling, but having to set aside self – who I think I am and what I deserve. It’s not really the rudeness, but having to demote my experience – what I’m seeing and feeling… Set aside self; demote experience – until Jesus answers…

Of course, Luther’s conclusion wasn’t based on some sort of admirable stick-to-it-iveness in the woman – some sort of steadfastness you and I need to gin up… No, I left out his solutional clause. Luther said, “Oh, how painful it is to nature and reason, that this woman should strip herself of self and forsake all that she experienced, and cling alone to God’s bare Word, until she experienced the contrary.” 

Now that’s telling. That’s actually the thing… Matthew would agree, I think. Did you know, we skipped a chunk in Matthew from last Sunday to this? Last week you estimated faith with Pastor Kolander – the disciples in the storm, Jesus walking on water. Interestingly, before you get to this woman’s faith, we have a little interchange with the religious leaders about what faith is actually like. In the first part of Matthew 15, those leaders were upset that Jesus’ disciples didn’t wash hands before eating – unclean! they said. But Jesus exposed them for what they were: people only concerned with their own rules and their own experiences. In fact, he called them hypocrites just as Isaiah of old had, “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’” If we paired up Luther and Matthew, we might identify the problem this way: people cling to the story they make up for themselves – about life – how it should go; problems – whether they should exist; pleasure – how it ought to feel; existence – what constitutes it; and so on…they cling to those instead of clinging to God’s Word.

Well, what word was this woman clinging to? Not to any word about herself – who she thought she was and what she deserved. She was clinging to one thing only… Mark’s gospel tells this story and includes this: Jesus had gone into Canaan, into a house to be alone/hidden, but “as soon as she heard about [Jesus]” this woman came running and calling, bowing and asking… Why? Because someone told her the story about Jesus – perhaps the fullness: “This one is the Son of David – our Messiah – a Savior”; but also probably: “and he’s full of mercy – he heals the sick and drives out demons – surely he’d do the same for you!” And so, even when Jesus seemed unmerciful and deaf to her cries and Judeo-centric and even demeaning, she trusted that that Word she’d heard about Jesus was more true than even what she was experiencing…

In fact, I think that’s exactly the story Matthew’s sharing – that Jesus is hunting out the lost “in the house of Israel” – the people of God’s family, whoever and wherever they are. Who are they? They’re not necessarily the “super-religious” looking people like the religious leaders early in this chapter – they were only really concerned about their own words, their own rules, their own story… It’s those who recognize that God’s Word about life is the key – those who put their trust in that Word no matter what… Perhaps Matthew’s recording how Jesus showed that very thing to his own disciples so that they should see it, “Ah! Here is the house of Israel – here’s God’s Church…” in a foreign woman who would bow down before King Jesus, persistent in prayer, knowing that she didn’t deserve to receive at all, but trusting that she would receive exactly what she needed. Over and over she cried, “Lord, have mercy,” and, as Jesus said, that is “great faith”.  

It’s exactly that way for us too… In fact, most often when we gather, we worship exactly this way. Most often right near the start of worship. Some have wondered if we say it too much lately, but I say it’s exactly what we need – here is “great faith”.

  • We say, “Lord, have mercy…” because we know, as St. Paul said, no matter who we are, we were outside of God’s family in all our sins. As we might confess: “I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” (Ps 51:3-4) We are each “by nature sinful…guilty of many sins…distressed by the sins that trouble [us].” Certainly not the well-behaved children… more like dogs, perhaps… And yet, as St. Paul said, “now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” (Eph 2:13) Christ’s blood, his payment of death at his cross, washes sins away… We cry, “Lord, have mercy…” and he does – forgiveness and pardon and gracious love – he says, “Christ himself is our peace.” (2:14)
  • And so we cry, “Lord, have mercy; even if it’s crumbs you give, that food we need.” In our needs we cry. And he may not answer as quickly as we like, perhaps not in the specific way we’ve asked, perhaps in a way – as for this woman – that will hunt up our faith (as Luther said) and show us and/or others whom it is we trust, which Word it is we follow… but he will answer. Because (setting aside all our self-focused offense) that is what Jesus did with this woman – never turned her away, never sent her off, finally answered her pleas… So also he will do for you…
  • So that you can cry, “The Lord has mercy on me… and on you… and you… and you…” For he intends that you who know his mercy, you who trust his Word, would go out and tell others about him: those just like us – people who don’t deserve it, who really need it, who are waiting to hear it.

Because that’s what God’s Church is like – no matter who they are, what they’ve experienced, where they’re from, what they look like, what they have or don’t – it’s made up of people who need to hear this and trust what they have heard: that the Lord Jesus has mercy on us all…

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