Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Boundless Mercy

Boundless Mercy
Matt. 15:15-31[1]
One of the unfortunate aspects of religion--all religion--is that it tends to engender an attitude of special privilege. Those who are a part of the group--whatever group it may be-- are God’s “chosen ones,” while those on the outside are rejected. It’s a tendency that runs the gamut of human religions. And one of the most tragic consequences of this kind of thinking is that if “we’re” God’s favorites and the others are outcasts, then we can treat them however we please. Or we can mistreat them however we please. Or we can even justify cruelty and violence against them. After all, “we” are on God’s side, and they are outside God’s love. At least that’s the line of thinking that all too often prevails
But the message of the Scriptures is that there is no one who is outside of God’s love. Time and time again, God’s “chosen ones” are startled and even offended by the boundless nature of God’s mercy toward all his children--and that means the whole human family. In the Gospel story, it seems that Jesus’ disciples weren’t much different. They wanted to send the crowd away and he said to feed them. He just finished telling them that their notions of “clean” and “unclean” as regards to food really don’t make one holy in God’s sight. One might think they would get the hint that maybe this kind of thinking also no longer applies to people. And yet, when they encountered a gentile woman who approached Jesus asking him to heal her daughter, they responded in typical fashion: “Tell her to leave. She is bothering us with all her begging” (Mt. 15:23, NLT).
The interaction with Jesus that follows is nothing if not confusing. We would expect Jesus to immediately offer her assistance. But instead he ignored her. And when she continued to ask him for help, he responded in a strange way: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt. 15:24). It sounds like Jesus is saying he’s here for God’s favorites and outsiders have to go to the back of the line! That doesn’t seem to be consistent with what we hear from Jesus in the rest of the Gospels. And when the woman still continued to ask for his help, he seemed to insult her: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mt. 15:26). Now we’ve moved past favorites and outsiders; now we’re calling those who are “other” stray dogs![2]
All of this is very confusing, mainly because it is so out of character not only with Jesus but also with the rest of the Scriptures. Even biblical scholars don’t quite know what to make of it. Some think Jesus was testing the woman to see if her faith was genuine. But I don’t buy that. When she approached him, she not only called him “Son of David,” she also called him “Lord.” As one scholar points out, she not only acknowledged him as the Messiah (while the Jewish leaders rejected that claim), she also called him “Lord,” which only those with genuine faith do in Matthew’s Gospel.[3] And when he ignored her she came and assumed a posture of worship by kneeling before him. I don’t think there is any question about this woman’s faith in Jesus.
Others have suggested that maybe this was a test for Jesus. They take him literally when he says that he was “sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” and assume that Jesus believed he was not meant to share God’s blessings with gentiles.[4] And yet this flies in the face of most of what we learn about Jesus in the Gospels. It seems fairly clear that Jesus knew his mission was to benefit the whole world, not just the Jewish people. The only option left is to conclude that there must have been some irony in those confusing statements Jesus made to the woman.
So why this elaborate and confusing interaction. Well, the only people left to test are the disciples. And, in fact, I think that this whole strange interaction between Jesus and this desperate mother was learning opportunity for the disciples who wanted to send her away. I think Jesus was trying to demonstrate in a dramatic way the boundless nature of God’s mercy. I think that the sentiments he expressed were not his, but rather he knew these were the kinds of things that they were thinking. They were thinking that he was a Jewish savior, not a savior for the world. They were thinking that it wasn’t right to take what belonged to the Jewish people and share it with Gentiles, who in their minds were no better than stray dogs.[5] And the reason why Jesus staged this dramatic confrontation was so that they could see that her faith was greater than many of those among the Jewish people who had rejected him outright!
Unfortunately, things haven’t changed much from that day until now. We still tend to think that “we” are God’s favorites and “they” are outside God’s mercy. We’re very much like Jesus’ disciples in lacking the understanding that God’s mercy is truly boundless. We need to be reminded of that, sometimes again and again. I find it interesting that the Gospel goes on to tell the story of a great crowd of people who came to Jesus with people suffering from all kinds of illnesses. While there probably were some Jewish people among the crowd, there were just as many Gentiles, because he was still in “foreign” country. And Jesus healed them all, without checking the color of their skin or their belief system, or their identity papers, or any of the other things we still use to divide between “us” and “them.” Sometimes it takes a dramatic encounter like the one with this woman of great faith to really learn the lesson that God’s mercy is truly boundless. But once we’ve learned it, we cannot help but share with others the boundless mercy God has given us. In fact, I would say that is precisely our calling.

[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/17/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church in Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, 176.
[3] Cf. John P. Meier, “Matthew 15:21-28,” Interpretation 40 (Oct 1986), 398: “In Matthew, ‘Lord’ is addressed to Jesus only by true believers, and ‘Son of David’ is used by the marginalized of society, the no-accounts who recognize the Messiah of Israel, whom the leaders of Israel reject.” Cf. also Hare, Matthew, 178.
[4] Cf. J. Duncan M. Derrett, “Law In The New Testament: The Syro-Phoenician Woman And The Centurion Of Capernaum,” in Novum Testamentum 15 (July 1973), p. 169: “Would it not compromise his mission if he neglected the objects of it, God’s ‘household’—would this not be disobedience to God? Jesus is not merely testing her faith—he is represented as in a quandary.” Cf. also Judith Gundry-Volf, “Spirit, Mercy, And The Other,” in Theology Today 51 (Jan 1995): 517-18; J├╝rgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 111, 146; and Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 14-28, 442-43.
[5] Cf. Robert W. Dahlen, “The Savior and the Dog: An Exercise in Hearing,” Word & World 17 (Summer 1997) : 270, where he points out that “the only thing worse than Canaan’s dogs were the black hogs that rooted through the garbage outside every Gentile town.” Contrast Ulrich Luz, Matthew: A Commentary, 340, where he argues that this is “a household image and has nothing to do with the despised wild dogs. Only with the household pet does the contrast between dogs and children make sense.”

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