Sermon for August 16th, 2020
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28
Sermon begins at 10:23
There is a difference between a deep and sincere faith in God’s love and mercy and presumption.
There is a difference between believing that God does do something, and believing that God MUST do something.
I can have a sincere belief in God’s power and willingness to forgive wrongs that I have committed, but that is a very different thing than believing that God MUST forgive them. If we allow ourselves to think that God’s mercy and forgiveness are in any sense owed to us, that God is bound to show them, then we immediately turn God’s grace into something else. We turn God’s grace into a wage. Wages are owed, gifts are freely given. So, is God’s mercy and grace meant to be a gift or a wage? Do we think inclusion in God’s kingdom is something that we are owed or is it something that we know in our hearts we have no right to?
There is a huge difference between these two ways of thinking and acting, but the problem is, on the surface they can look very much alike. The line between them, although it is definite, can be quite fine. We really have to take a close look sometimes to see if someone’s actions, even our own actions, are a product of sincere faith or of presumption.
Are we approaching the Lord in sincere humility and trusting in his goodness, or do we think that God owes us something?
Today’s gospel passage is a difficult one for many, because Jesus doesn’t appear to be quite the pushover that we sometimes want him to be. I’ve heard plenty of creatively terrible interpretations of this passage, but what I think is on vivid display here in the actions of this Canaanite woman is the distinction between faith and presumption.
Jesus, spent most of his life and career preaching and teaching in the northern part of the Holy Land, in the region surrounding the sea of Galilee. Before the Babylonian captivity, when there were still two kingdoms, this region was known as the Kingdom of Israel. And before the Babylonians invaded and destroyed Jerusalem, the Assyrians invaded and destroyed the Northern kingdom of Israel, and the inhabitants of that kingdom were scattered and dispersed, most never to be heard from again. It was on the northern coast of this region, near the towns of Tyre and Sidon that Jesus is preaching in in today’s gospel.
And while Jesus is there, a Canaanite woman, comes up to him and begs for mercy for her daughter. Now the Canaanites were the ancient enemies of the Hebrew people. They were a different religion, a different race, and they had pretty much always been at war with the Hebrew tribes. This woman from the enemy camp comes up to Jesus, and calls him Lord and Son of David, and she asks for mercy. And Jesus says nothing at first. He doesn’t respond right away.
Now if Jesus’s disciples had their way, they would have just dismissed this woman and sent her packing. That’s what they want Jesus to do: just send her away. She’s annoying. She’s not one of us. She doesn’t belong here. But Jesus doesn’t do that either.
Jesus lets her speak. And when Jesus does respond, what he says to the woman, although it seems difficult to us, would have come as no surprise to either her or anyone else there: Jesus was a Hebrew. He was a law-abiding, observant Jew. His life was spent primarily preaching and teaching and healing and arguing with other Jews. What business does he have with this Canaanite woman? Is Jesus bound to listen to her and grant her requests? Is it fair for a Hebrew prophet to be showering God’s grace on people that are the historic enemies of the Hebrews? Does God owe this woman something? That is the real question here: does Jesus owe this woman anything?
And the answer is: NO. Jesus doesn’t owe this woman anything. That may make us a bit uncomfortable, because we don’t like it when Jesus doesn’t say yes to everything we ask, but it doesn’t seem to bother this woman too much. She doesn’t turn against Jesus or accuse him of being racist or unkind or unfair. This woman knows that Jesus doesn’t owe her anything. This woman knows that there is no reason why the Hebrew God should take any interest in her. She knows it isn’t fair for the Hebrew God to show mercy to the enemies of his chosen people, but she isn’t looking for fairness. She is looking for mercy. She is looking for something that she has absolutely no right to, but she believes inn her heart that this man Jesus will give it to her nonetheless. She trusts in Jesus’s love more than she trusts in the rightness of her own cause. That is faith in God’s love and mercy: knowing that you don’t deserve something, have no right to it, haven’t earned it, and believing that God will give it to you anyways. That is faith.
Presumption is a bit different. If this woman had been presumptuous this conversation might have taken a different turn. A presumptuous person would have tried to convince Jesus that he was in fact, being unfair. A presumptuous person would have told Jesus that it is unfair for their child to be possessed by a demon and suffering. A presumptuous person would have argued that God is supposed to be merciful all the time to everyone, regardless of their own actions. A presumptuous person would have tried to argue that God, in fact, owed this woman something. A presumptuous person wants to see Jesus’s mercy as a given, something that can be taken for granted, and not as what it truly is: a gift that we have no right to. Presumption is dangerous for all of God’s children, whether you are a Jew or a gentile. We can all fall into presumption. Let us remember that John the Baptist said to the Jews gathered at the Jordan river: “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘we have Abraham as our ancestor’: for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” It is possible to trust in God’s mercy without presuming upon it, or taking it for granted, but we must always be vigilant.
You know, we live in a world of people that are suffering. We live in a world where people feel hopeless and condemned. We live in a world, where people think that IF God exists, that he doesn’t really care about them or their lives. We need to be able to preach faith to that world. We need to be able to talk about and to witness to the love and mercy of Jesus Christ, but we also need to be careful that what we are preaching and what we are practicing is faith and not presumption. Let us be sure that we aren’t turning God’s free gift into something that is owed or earned. Maybe the best way to know the difference between faith and presumption is examining how we respond when God says “no.” If God doesn’t do things exactly the way we want, when we want; if Jesus doesn’t grant our every wish, if he doesn’t pat us on the back every hour of the day and tell us we are doing a good job, how do we respond? Because if our response to God’s “no” is to turn away from God, then I guess that says something about whose righteousness we actually have more faith in.
The fact that people of every race and nation are welcomed by this Hebrew Lord into God’s one kingdom, is a miracle. When God shows us grace and forgiveness and love and healing, it is a miracle. The fact that God doesn’t send us willful and sinful creatures immediately on our way, the fact that God doesn’t immediately dismiss us, but is willing to hear our cries for help, that is a miracle, because you know what, the truth is…God doesn’t owe us anything.
Not a thing. God doesn’t owe any of us, anything. That is what makes God’s love and mercy so amazing.
The Canaanite woman is not asking Jesus for something she deserves. She knows better than that. That is what makes her faith so amazing. She trusts that this God will bless her with something that she does not deserve. It is a powerful image that should always be in our heads whenever we approach God’s altar and say:
We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.