There was a somewhat unusual man who attended our weekly worship services at the seminary. Every Thursday night he would come and sit in one of the pews toward the back. He was not a student, something that anyone would readily notice by the way he dressed; an old coat about five sizes too big, pants, also meant for someone much larger. He was not a homeless man, though most people might have thought so from his looks. He lived in the community where the seminary is located and he wanted to worship with us. So he did.
He greeted everyone, smiled a lot and even pretended to look at the hymnal, and sang a bit. However, he did not go up for communion. Each week, he would politely smile and nod as he waved the other people in his row on past. Finally, someone asked him if he wanted to come up for communion and his polite, sheepish response was—no no, that’s ok. To my knowledge, he never went up for communion the entire year he worshiped with us.
Now, much as I would love to tell you what a wonderful and welcoming community the seminary is (and in truth, it really is welcoming) however, I cannot say that everyone was comfortable with this man’s attendance each Thursday night. We all got use to him eventually, but the truth is, he didn’t fit in. He wasn’t one of us. It didn’t seem like he belonged there. But, he liked us anyway, and kept on coming.
It is hard to admit it, but we all have this kind of exclusionary thinking and often times it is involuntary. A woman I knew some years ago once said, “well, if people don’t know how to use a hymnal, they don’t belong in a church!” She didn’t even realize what she was saying until it was out of her mouth. It is so easy to think of it as “our church” or “our faith” which is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. Yet, it is just a quick step over to “our kind of people” and “us and them” ways of thinking about things.
Non Christians sometimes even think this way, too. A friend of mine told me a story once about a woman who stopped her in the parking lot of a hospital. My friend had on her clerical collar because she had been visiting a parishioner and the woman said to her “please, please, can you pray for my son? I know your God can heal him.” She was like the lady in our gospel lesson for today. She is a stranger to God. She is a stranger to Jesus. But she knows he can help. Imagine what courage it must have taken for her to come to Jesus. She sure seems persistent, doesn’t she?
Jesus is actually trying to keep a low profile and people just will not let him be. Everywhere he goes there are people in need, people wanting to see a miracle, people wanting free bread. There are people who want to argue with him or question why his disciples don’t wash their hands in the same ritual way as everyone else. Even here—here in this Gentile, predominantly non-Jewish area, he cannot get by unseen.
He is in a house alone, trying to sort of catch his breath a bit, and in comes this lady. Her daughter has been possessed by an evil spirit and she has come to Jesus for help. She, this Greek lady, bows down before Jesus and begs for her daughter. She didn’t need to be a Jew to believe Jesus could help her. She had faith and her faith believed it. And then, a very strange thing happens. At least, it sure seems strange to many of us who are hearing this story. Jesus tells her no.
What? WHAT? Jesus says no??!!
Truth is, I really did not want to preach on this text for today. It makes me very uncomfortable in a lot of ways. What sense can we make of this? Jesus tells this woman No. How bizarre. Actually it gets even stranger as we go along because he tells her that the children, meaning the Jews, get fed first, not the little doggies. It is not fair, he says, to toss the children’s food to their dogs.
Umm. Does this sound really harsh to anyone else? Sure does to me. But there has got to be something else going on here that we just do not see at first. So, let’s keep going.
Well, and this Lady also kept going, too. She wasn’t going to just say, ok well, thanks anyway, or well, that sure was an abrupt way to answer but I guess I’m just not one of your kind of people, I guess we can’t get help from you because we are different. She wasn’t going to leave without getting help for her daughter. She knew that He, that the God of the Jews from which Jesus came, could work a miracle for her. She would not take no for an answer even though she didn’t fit in, didn’t look like “one of us”, wasn’t from the right family or household. Even though she was completely different.
Instead of giving up, she takes Jesus’ metaphor and turns it around on him in her appeal for mercy. Jesus’ use of children and dogs was a way of talking about the Messiah’s first call to go to the Jews; to save them, to restore their relationship with God, to fulfill the words of the prophets. Implicit in his statement, as in some places in the Old Testament, is the fact that the rest of the peoples of the world are to be, in a manner of speaking, second. Not left out, but second in a kind of logical order. House of Israel first, then everybody else through them.
But this lady responds by saying: even the little dogs under the table get the crumbs of the children during the meal. Mercy, she is saying. Mercy for my daughter and me. If even the dogs do not have to wait for the end of the meal to have something to eat, then surely you could spare this one act of mercy for my daughter. She was so sure that this man whom she did not know, who came from a God she did not know, could, with a word, help her daughter.
And he did. Because of what you have said, he replies, your daughter is now free of the demon. And it was so. Actually, when Jesus heals the woman’s daughter, he is doing what God has always done: find ways to include everyone in his promises, his healing, his salvation, his Kingdom. In spite of his terse reply, his initial ‘no’, he does not hesitate to respond to the plea for mercy. In fact, he responds so quickly and powerfully that he says that the demon has ‘already left’ the daughter. It is clearer to see in the Greek language, but Jesus actually says it in the past tense. It had already occurred.
Perhaps Jesus’ conversation with this woman was a little like God’s conversation with Abraham over Sodom and Gomorrah. The story in Genesis tells us that God had a plan all along, but he chose to share it with Abraham. In their conversation, Abraham asks for mercy for the people, mostly because he has family living there. If you find only just so many people there who are not evil, will you spare it? God says, yes, I will show mercy. And again, Abraham asks, what if there are just a few less than that, will you spare it? And again, God says, yes, I will show mercy. God cared about what Abraham thought and heard his request for mercy.
Perhaps Jesus had this little debate with the Greek lady because, ultimately, Jesus is neither Santa Clause nor a miracle vending machine. Perhaps he cared about who she was and why she was there. Perhaps he respected her courage and ability to debate with him; he was, after all, a man who never lost a debate! Except, maybe, this one. Perhaps when Jesus told her that the demon had ‘already left’ her daughter it was because he had already worked this miracle before their discussion of it was even over.
There are many ‘perhaps’ ideas we can think about, but what we do know is this: Jesus did not and does not limit his mercy, his grace, to only those who seem like they ought to receive it or to those on a special list. Christians have a somewhat bad reputation for this idea of “our God” as though we own him, but it has been something that the people of God have struggled with for a long time. Even the Jews felt this way. They had many careful restrictions upon who was able to be called a Jew, who could worship at the temple, who could give offerings, etc. But God was careful to remind them over and over that, yes, they were his people—the people with whom he made an everlasting covenant—but that it was his intention that all people would be saved through them.
In many places in the Old Testament, we hear God reminding his people, the Israelites, that it is faith in God that matters most to him. He says things like—My house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples. And—you shall be a light for all the nations. I will draw all people to myself.
A friend of mine from some years ago had a very difficult time thinking of God as gracious and merciful because of the way we often think of God from Old Testament stories. It’s the same God, he would say, so he’s got the same rules! God doesn’t change. Yes, that is true, God does not change his nature. God keeps his promises. But God does change the world. This gospel lesson is a great example of God’s changing the world. It is true that both the mother and the daughter Jesus healed were not Jews, but her faith, a faith that only comes from God, made her part of God’s people.
Even though most likely none of us were born into Jewish families, through Christ’s death and resurrection, we are made part of God’s covenant people. It is not that God changed his mind and decided to go with something altogether new and abandon his promises. Rather, he changed the world so that all can come to him and all may be his people.
For all of us, there are times in our lives where we feel like the outsider or foreigner. When we feel like saying, as the man who came to our weekly worship at seminary, no no, that’s ok—I don’t need to go up for communion. I know I don’t belong. There are times when we feel that we aren’t good enough to be part of God’s people. We might feel like if everyone knew the things we’d done or said to our family, if they knew what we were really like, no one would want us in the church. We may feel like we don’t belong here because we’ve made mistakes, we haven’t acted like God’s people, we might even wonder if God would recognize us.
But through our baptism, through the gift of faith we are given in the waters of that baptism into Christ’s life, death and resurrection, we are never an outsider. But there is something else here too. When we think about people we meet who seem like they don’t belong in our church or they don’t fit in with the people of God, we must remember what God’s intention is for all of us. God’s desire is that all people will worship him and that all people will have faith in him. We must remember that the grace and mercy of Jesus are for all people. We remember that we were, in a sense, foreigners to God at one time and were brought into God’s covenant family. We are like the woman Jesus met in the Gospel lesson and like her daughter, like the woman in the parking lot begging for prayer for her sick son, I know your God can heal him, we were outsiders and by God’s gift of faith, we have been made people of God. So when we see someone who doesn’t fit in with us, someone who makes us uncomfortable, we know ultimately that is us, too! We don’t really belong here any more than anyone else except for the fact that God has made us his own. God reaches out through us, his people, and brings all of them, All Of Us, to him.