Sunday, August 14, 2011
Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (August 14, 2011)
“Faith Under the Table” (Matthew 15:21-28)
When I was a child growing up at home, we had a dog. His name was “Flip.” Mom and Dad named him that because he flipped his tail constantly. If you stood too close, he would beat your leg to a pulp with that tail. I think it also had something to do with the fact that the comedian Flip Wilson was popular at the time they got him.
Flip was an outdoor dog. He never came inside the house. But when we did happen to eat outside for a summer barbecue, I can remember Flip waiting patiently for any item of food that would fall from the TV trays that served as our tables. He would sit on his haunches and longingly watch every bit of food that went from plate to fork to mouth. When something did fall, he would quickly get up, bend his head down to where the food had fallen, and his tongue would go into action. And if there was something on my plate that I didn’t like, Flip was there to make it disappear as I fed it to him when mom and dad weren’t watching.
The Jews had a word for non-Jews. It was “dog.” But although the Jews considered Gentiles to be the filthiest kind of stray dogs, rummaging around for food in the garbage heap, we mustn’t think that Jesus thought this way. And so, when the Canaanite woman in our text asked Jesus to heal her daughter, and he responded, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” I imagine he said it with a smile and a twinkle in his eye, waiting to see how she would respond. Jesus wanted to see if this woman would persist in her request, in spite of the fact that she was a despised outcast. Even the disciples begged Jesus, “Send her away! We’re tired of hearing her whimpering!” Would she continue to request the bread that was meant for the Jews, and not Gentile dogs?
You see, the initial mission of Jesus was to bring the Gospel “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the salvation of the Gentiles – people like you and me – was already in view in the Old Testament. Isaiah wrote in today’s OT lesson, “The Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, ‘I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.’ ” (Is. 56:8) And St. Paul, in today’s reading from Romans declares that even though the Jews have rejected Christ, God has not ultimately rejected them. Their rejection of Christ brought the message of reconciliation to the Gentiles. And then, things come full circle. Those who are Jews now may also receive mercy … not through their bloodline, not through the blood of bulls and goats, but through faith in the blood of Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
The woman replied to Jesus, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Jesus honored this woman’s faith and healed her daughter. I’m calling this woman’s faith an “Under-the-table” kind of faith. It’s “Faith Under the Table.” Just as dogs patiently wait for the crumbs that fall from their owner’s table, this Canaanite – this outcast Gentile woman – had a faith that recognized her humble status, yet still was bold to ask for help.
“Faith Under the Table” prays the prayer of faith: “Have mercy on me, O Lord.” You and I pray it in the liturgy this way: “Lord, have mercy.” That is the proper prayer of Christians as they gather together and bring their petitions before the Lord. Each time we pray “Lord, Have Mercy,” we express our humble status before the Lord. We acknowledge our weakness and our need.” (Reed, The Lutheran Liturgy, p. 267)
The Canaanite woman’s daughter was demon possessed. So you can clearly understand why she cried out for the Lord to “Have mercy.” You and I may not be demon possessed, but we are all suffering from the consequences of sin in the world. Sickness, disease, hardships, and ultimately death may not be the immediate result of anything we have done in our lives. Nevertheless, they are our common lot because of our sinful state. How many of you, in whatever condition you are in, whatever your situation may be, have felt like you have had about as much as you could handle, and wanted to cry out, “Lord, have mercy”? How many of you recognize your sin and know that you cannot overcome it by your own strength, and cry out to God, “Lord, have mercy”?
To say, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me” is a prayer of faith. This “Under-the-table kind of faith” is humble, persistent, and confident.
It is humble because it recognizes its “beggar status.” When Luther died, there was found in one of his pockets a slip of paper on which was written, “We are all beggars.” He knew that none of us had anything to offer God, especially as he lay dying, helpless to help himself.
The Canaanite woman understood that she was a Gentile, and thus had no claim to the promises given to the Jews. In essence, her prayer was, “I know I’m not a Jew, but I come to you since you are the Son of David, the Messiah of the Jews, and ask you to help!” She recognized her “beggar status.” All she could do was come before the Lord and plead with him to help her. Jesus called her faith “great.” The greatness of this woman’s faith was not in the strength of her faith, but in her humility and submission to God’s plan and Christ’s mission as the Messiah.
We also, must recognize our “beggar status.” We must realize that we have nothing to offer God, nothing of our own merit to ask God to help us, nothing of our own merit to ask God to forgive us. “Nothing in my hand I bring; simply to thy cross I cling,” we sing in the hymn (LSB 761.3) Everything that God gives us in this life is truly a GIFT … in particular, the forgiveness of our sins through the death of his Son on the cross. It is all GIFT. Luther had it right. “We are all beggars.” But we have a God who loves to give.
“Faith Under the Table” is also persistent. Jesus seemed to ignore this woman’s pleas. Still, she continued to come before him in prayer and worship, as she knelt before him and cried, “Lord, help me!”
Some see in this passage that Jesus was purposely testing this woman’s faith, and that may be so. However, he is not trying her faith in the way that one would hold a piece of food up higher and higher to see how high the dog might jump before it gets the prize. If he was meaning to test her faith here, he only did it out of his love for her, to build up her faith even more.
The same goes for us when we come to the Lord in prayer. Sometimes it seems as though he is completely silent, as Jesus was initially with this woman. Sometimes his answers are not what we expect. Sometimes the answer is “No.” We need to understand that prayer is not merely for the sake of asking God for things, but to be in communication with him, to come before him in worship, to bring to him all your needs and your hurts. We may be going through some type of trial in our life, but God allows those things in his infinite wisdom to test our faith, and to develop perseverance (James 1:2-3) And that perseverance will carry over into our prayer life, too, as we are persistent in coming before the Lord in worship and prayer.
“Faith Under the Table” is not only humble and persistent. It is also confident. The woman in the Gospel lesson was humble and persistent only because she was confident that Jesus could help her and her daughter. Although a Gentile, she humbly knew that Jesus was able to give to her even from the “scraps” that were left over from his table. She knew that even the “scraps” were powerful enough to heal her demon possessed daughter.
This confidence is described by Luther so beautifully in his explanation to the introduction to the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father, Who Art in Heaven. What does this mean? With these words God tenderly invites us to believe that he is our true Father and that we are his true children, so that with all boldness and confidence we may ask him as dear children ask their dear father.” You can be sure of God’s goodness. You can come before your Heavenly Father in prayer and ask him for anything, trusting that he knows what is best for you, and accepting his will for your life.
The prayer of faith for the woman was, and is for us, “Lord, Have Mercy.” And what was the answer of Jesus? First silence. Then an apparent rebuff, which was really no rebuff at all. Then finally a gift of grace in answer to a cry for mercy. The woman’s faith was praised, and her daughter was healed.
How does Jesus answer our prayer of “Lord, Have Mercy”? It may be silence. It may be something we don’t expect at all. When it comes right down to it, we also have received a gift of grace in answer to our cries for mercy. Forgiveness, the cancellation of our debt to God, the washing away of all our sins … that is the ultimate, and very real answer to out cry for mercy. We may not have expected it. But it is a gift of grace nonetheless. Through Christ’s death on the cross and his rising to life again, through our Baptism where we are joined to him in his death and in his resurrection, through our faith in Him, we receive the GIFT of forgiveness, the GIFT of eternal life.
Christ answers our cry for mercy, and “Faith Under the Table” becomes “Faith At the Table.” In his life here on earth, Jesus often ate with manifest sinners. The religious leaders criticized him for this, because sitting down to a meal with someone in those days was one of the closest types of fellowship there was. You and I are sinners, but through Baptism and by faith, Jesus changes our status from beggars to “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God.” (1 Peter 2:9) He invites us to sit, not under, but at his Table, where we get much more than scraps. He has prepared a feast for us where we enjoy close personal fellowship with him, and where we receive his true body and blood for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of our faith. By His gracious love, “Faith Under the Table” has become “Faith At the Table.”