Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September, 6th 2015
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
The woman in this morning’s gospel does not deserve Jesus’s attention. Let’s just start there. In the first place, she is from a different race and religion. Now we tend to think of race and religion as separate things, but in the ancient world they often would have been looked at as the same or at least closely related. This woman isn’t Jewish: not in her faith, and not in her ethnic origin. Jesus came first and foremost to preach to the Jews and she’s not Jewish. In the second place, Jesus is looking to get away from some of the public attention for a while. He’s trying to lie low, and this woman won’t leave him alone.
It is true that she is suffering…or at least her daughter is. And because she is suffering from some demon, we might assume that her suffering was not self-inflicted. She is innocent. But in a world that is filled with innocent people suffering, what makes this woman and her daughter special? Why should she get Jesus’s attention? If there are so many of his own people suffering and in need why should he be spending his precious time on this foreigner?
This seems to be what Jesus is saying to her isn’t it? “Would this be fair?”
The woman’s response is profound. She doesn’t come up with some long line of reasoning as to why this would be fair. She doesn’t claim that she is seeking justice. She doesn’t make some argument as to why Jesus should pay any attention to her, because deep down she recognizes that there is no good reason why Jesus should acknowledge her at all. She says to him: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Her statement is not a claim for justice, it is a plea for mercy. She knows that she doesn’t deserve God’s grace and blessing, but she asks for it anyways and is ready to accept even the crumbs he is prepared to give.
Jesus grants her request. He heals her little daughter. Did he do it because it was the fair thing to do? No. Did he do it because she proved herself to be more deserving than others? No. He did it because he is merciful and is one with the merciful God. You see there is a big difference between Justice and Mercy. Justice always involves someone making a judgment about right and wrong or fair and unfair. When we say someone is a just person we mean that we believe they are a fair person; when we say someone is unjust we mean that they are unfair or make decisions or judgments unfairly. Justice always involves someone making a judgment, and as you are all aware, humans don’t always make the best judges when it comes to right and wrong or fair and unfair. There is only one in this universe capable of being a righteous judge and that is God.
Mercy, on the other hand, isn’t about making a judgment at all. Mercy is about being moved by love, not by judgment. If justice is having a gun and knowing when it is right or wrong to pull the trigger, mercy is about deciding to put the gun down even if you know you are right. What we need in the world is more mercy, not more justice.
The woman in this morning’s gospel asks for mercy from Christ and that is what she receives. If he only gave her what was fair, or what she deserved, the story might have ended quite differently, but Christ shows us what Saint James later proclaims in his epistle: “Mercy triumphs over judgment.”
You won’t hear me use the phrase social justice very often. It is very popular among many in mainstream Christian denominations, especially in our own, but I dislike it greatly. I dislike it because whenever we start talking about justice we get distracted by making judgments about who is right and who is wrong and we separate into factions and parties and then start trying to control each other; first through arguments, then through insults and finally by brute force. With mercy there is no need to be distracted by worrying about who is right or wrong. With mercy we are all wrong. We are all sinners, underserving and unworthy of God’s love, and yet we are shown that love anyways. That Syro-Phonecian woman’s daughter is healed not because she deserved to be, but because God is merciful. If we are honest with ourselves, truly honest, we will admit that most of the blessings in our lives have come to us, not because we are better people, or more deserving, but simply because God is merciful. I know that it is certainly true in my life.
There is so much suffering in this world and, like the people who champion social justice, I believe that we as Christians have a special role on this earth of trying to alleviate that suffering. Like them, I am also fond of the quote from the prophet Micah where he says: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice and love mercy and to walk humbly with your God?” But I don’t believe that those three things can be separated. I think in order to do justice we must first love mercy and walk humbly with God.
If we are lovers of mercy then we need to be able to show that love whenever we see people suffering. We don’t need to distract ourselves with questions about whether or not these people deserve our help, whether they caused their own problems, whether their problems are our concern. We need only remember the many times when we were each that Syro-Phonecian woman, receiving grace that we didn’t deserve and then be prepared to share that grace with others.
This week I was moved to tears by the images of refugees fleeing the war-torn middle east, seeking safety anywhere they can find it across Europe and across the world. Perhaps the most heartbreaking image was that of a toddler who’s lifeless drowned body had washed up on the beach in Turkey. I don’t think that it is any coincidence that one of the central figures in our gospel this morning is a woman from Syria pleading for her child…that is after all what Syro-Phonecian means…that she’s from Syria. I can offer no concrete solutions in the context of a short sermon to so much complicated suffering in the world, but I can only hope that Christians will remember that we, like that woman pleading with Christ, have received more mercy from God than judgment. May we be able to offer others who are suffering in this sinful world the same. Amen.