But if we walk in the light, just as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanses us from all sin. 1 John 1:7

Lent 2 – 2023

Matthew 15:21-28

We think of Jesus as a Savior who loves us and accepts us, and who takes a very personal interest in each one of us. And we think of him as a Savior who treats everyone in this way – without the bigotries that so often taint us, and the way we feel about and treat others.

It might surprise us, then, to hear what we hear in today’s Gospel from St. Matthew. Jesus seems to be treating the woman who approached him in an uncaring and unkind manner – not as we would expect from a loving and compassionate Savior. We read:

“Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, ‘Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.’ But He answered her not a word. ”

“And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she cries out after us.’ But He answered and said, ‘I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, ‘Lord, help me!’ But He answered and said, ‘It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.’”

What are we to make of this? Well, Jesus does explain why he hesitated to involve himself in this woman’s problem. He told her: “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

What we see here is his recognition of what his unique calling was, at this time in his life. Our calling, or our vocation, is the duty or set of duties that God has entrusted to us, for a specific period of time, within certain parameters, and for the fulfilling of certain purposes.

We are often tempted to overstep the lines of our vocation, and in so doing not to pay adequate attention to what God has actually called us to do. Jesus shows here that he was not prepared to do that.

During the time of our Lord’s earthly ministry, while he was living in the land of Israel – under the law of God and in the form of a servant – certain parameters had been established for his work, by the heavenly Father who had sent him to do this work.

Jesus was a Jew. He was, in fact, the epitome of what it meant, or should have meant, to be a Jew. And as the Jewish Messiah, he embodied the fulfillment of all the dreams and hopes of all the faithful men and women of Israel, of all preceding generations.

He was the true teacher and spokesman for God, toward whom Moses and all the prophets had pointed. He was the true Lamb of God, toward whom all of the temple sacrifices had pointed.

He was the true King of God’s people, toward whom David and all of his royal progeny had pointed. Jesus was, quite simply, the apex and the culmination of all of Hebrew history.

Everything that had gone before was a preparation for him. All that had transpired among God’s Old Testament people through the centuries, now found its true meaning and ultimate purpose in him.

This was the context in which those who knew Jesus according to the flesh did in fact know him. He walked the earth, preached to the crowds, performed his miracles, and did everything that he did, precisely as Israel’s Messiah: the true successor of Moses, the great high priest, and the ultimate royal son of David.

Before his death and resurrection, Jesus did not have a calling from his Father to be anything else, or to do anything else. It was therefore important for him not to be distracted from the singular pathway that the Hebrew Scriptures had laid out for him to follow.

He was a part of that one special nation on earth to which the oracles of God had been entrusted. For the Jews, therefore, what Jesus did and said would have made sense – or at least it was supposed to make sense. But within the unbelieving pagan nations of the world, nothing about Jesus would have made sense.

At best, he would have intrigued them as a mysterious wonder-worker. At worst, he would have frightened them – which is in fact what happened on another occasion when Jesus paid a visit to a largely Gentile area.

In the country of the Gergesenes, after a dramatic exorcism – when Jesus sent a legion of demons into a herd of pigs that then stampeded off a cliff – we are told that “the whole city came out to meet Jesus. And when they saw Him, they begged Him to depart from their region.”

The Gentile nations were, quite simply, not ready for Jesus. And Jesus, during the time of his earthly ministry, was not sent to them.

This doesn’t mean that he had no concern for people who were not a part of Israel. He knew that the time would come when his calling would in fact bring him into regular contact with all the nations of the earth.

But that time had not yet come. That was not yet his calling. And this, my friends, is the meaning of the point he is making in today’s text, when he tells the Canaanite woman: “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

Jesus was not pleased that this woman’s daughter was oppressed by a demon. He was not happy to think about how the whole Canaanite nation was under the domination of the devil – the “ruler of this world” – in any number of ways.

And someday he was going to do something about that. But not yet.

Some of us are no doubt troubled also by the comment that Jesus made in this text, describing Gentiles such as the Canaanite woman as the equivalent of little dogs – to whom a father will not throw his children’s bread. This seemingly disparaging remark would suggest that even the long-term benefits of Jesus’ ministry were intended exclusively for the people of Israel – the children of God – and not for the Canaanites or any other un-chosen nation.

But let’s not take too much offense at his use of the word “dogs” to describe the non-Jewish peoples. He uses the diminutive form of the word, which is indeed more precisely translate as “little dogs.” The word he uses could also refer to puppies.

The image that would be conjured up in his listeners’ minds would not be of large, threatening and growling dogs. Instead, their thoughts would be directed to cute yappy dogs – the kind that we wouldn’t mind having around the house, and that we might in fact be tempted to feed from the table.

And the analogy from the animal world that he uses to describe his own people wasn’t really much of a compliment to them, either. Not only does he refer to the nation of Israel, as a whole, as “sheep” – animals well-known for their lack of intelligence – but he calls the ones that he is particularly concerned about, “lost sheep.”

Sheep who are lost are the least intelligent sheep of all! Even with their general lack of intelligence, most sheep usually do at least know how to stay in the flock where they belong, heeding and following the voice of their shepherd.

In contrast, many of the people of Israel at this time in history didn’t know where they belonged. In their hearts they had wandered away from God and from the true meaning of his Word.

One of the tasks that Jesus was fulfilling during his earthly ministry was to call this nation to repentance, and to a renewed faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And he certainly had enough work to do in that respect, in the three years that elapsed between his baptism and his crucifixion.

Of course, we can’t fail to notice that in the end, Jesus did decide to help the woman in today’s story. She was a Canaanite – a descendant of the historic enemies of Jesus’ human ancestors. She certainly was not one of his “parishioners,” as it were.

But even so, in his compassion he finally did address her need, and by his power brought deliverance to her daughter. In mercy he made an exception for her – similar to the exception he also made for another Gentile, the Roman centurion, when he healed his servant.

The woman in today’s text said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.

I mentioned Christ’s crucifixion a minute ago. His crucifixion – and the resurrection that followed – certainly were pivotal events. In dying, he destroyed the power of death; and in rising again on the third day, he opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.

The preaching and miracle-working that Jesus did during his earthly ministry, were not intended for everyone in every nation. These pastoral activities were directed to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

But, the atoning sacrifice that Jesus offered on the cross, at the end of his earthly ministry, was offered not only for the sins of Israel, but for the sins of the whole world.

As Jesus died, his forgiving and redeeming love embraced all people of all nations: Israelites and Canaanites, Africans and Europeans, Asians and Americans. In that time of agony, as he bore the weight of all human sin on behalf of all humanity, he was beginning the fulfillment of this pledge and promise, which Jesus had made in another time and place, as recorded in St. John’s Gospel:

“Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.” This He said, signifying by what death He would die.

The death of Christ brought to an end the specific and limited calling that God the Father had given him for the time of his earthly ministry. And the death of Christ ushered in the beginning of a new calling – a calling that had, and still has, all the peoples of the world in view.

The resurrected and ascended Lord will now never bypass a Gentile simply because she is a Gentile. In his Word and sacraments – to which he has mystically united himself – he now makes himself available to everyone.

And Jesus fulfills his new calling through the instrumentality of his church, and through the instrumentality of the ministers of his church, as he sends them – as he sends us – to people like the Canaanite woman.

Previously, under his former calling, Jesus had said this to the Canaanite woman: “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Now, under his new calling, he says this to us:

“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

All nations are now the “lost sheep” that Jesus seeks. All nations are now the “little dogs” to which he is willing to give the children’s bread.

Those of us who are of non-Jewish, Gentile ancestry, need to realize that if Jesus had had occasion to meet any of us during the time of his earthly ministry, it is extremely unlikely that he would have been willing to have very much to do with us. He certainly would not have been willing to take us into the circle of his disciples.

If you want to have the assurance that Jesus does in fact want to be a part of your life, and to embrace you with his saving grace, you should not imagine yourself sentimentally to be transported back in time to the days when Jesus was visibly walking this earth. If you could somehow go to him, in the first century, by means of some kind of time machine, the Christ you would find would be the Christ that the Canaanite woman found.

Instead, the focus of your faith – especially if your faith is a struggling and doubting faith – needs to be on Christ as he comes to you now: in the gospel that is preached in our midst, and in the sacraments that are administered in our midst.

Just before his ascension, the risen Christ promised his disciples that he would be with them always, even to the end of the age, as they bring his Word and sacraments to the nations. That’s a promise to which the Canaanite woman could later cling. That’s a promise to which we can cling.

The Biblical revelation of the many things that Jesus said and did during his earthly ministry, as recorded in the Four Gospels, is certainly intended for us, and for the strengthening of our Christian hope. But this revelation, and the blessings of Christ to which it testifies, are funneled to us – across time – through the means of grace.

We were not, and could not have been, among Jesus’ original audience, on the hillsides and seashore of first-century Galilee, or in the upper rooms and gardens of first-century Jerusalem.

We encounter this revelation – and are impacted by the love and acceptance of Christ through this revelation – in the fellowship of his church, where Jesus has promised to be present for us whenever two or three are gathered together in his name.

To call the church of Jesus “international,” is not to say enough. The church absorbs and transcends all nations of this earth. It is itself a new, holy nation. Within this church there is no room for the ethnic bigotries and racial prejudices that so often afflict people in this fallen world.

And, we have been made a part of this new nation, and this new people of God, by the new birth that God’s Spirit has worked in us. Baptized and instructed believers from all nations are now invited to sit at the Lord’s eucharistic table, where we are fed with God’s grace and life as full members of his household, and not merely as pets within his household.

When we plead for Jesus’ help, we will receive it. When we trust in him, he will comfort and heal us – not because he is making an exception, but because we have become heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, through faith in his gospel.

Jesus loved the Canaanite woman, her daughter, and her whole nation. Even when he hesitated to overstep the boundaries of his calling at that time of his life, and to provide the miracle that had been asked of him, it was not because of a lack of love.

God’s plan of redemption for the Canaanites – and for all the benighted pagan nations – was a plan conceived in nothing but love. God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son.

And since the Day of Pentecost, that loving divine plan is now fully operative: among us, and among every people to whom the message of repentance and the forgiveness of sins is being preached. The resurrected and ascended Jesus is in that preaching. He is in his church. He is in us.

When the message of Christ crucified is proclaimed now, we do not, in that proclamation, hear Jesus mutter softly that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. That limitation no longer applies to the calling under which he now operates.

Instead, we hear him say boldly and loudly, that when he is lifted up on the cross – and when the message of the cross is lifted up before men – he will draw all people to himself. He will draw the Canaanite woman, and those like her.

And whoever you are – regardless of where you come from, or who your ancestors were – he will draw you. Amen.