Desperate for Mercy

 A Sermon for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 15 – 17 August 2014

Eleanor Lee Wellford, Associate Rector


Jesus left Gennesaret and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.  – Matthew 15: 21-28

Have you ever been in a position to receive the benefit of something that wasn’t directly meant for you?  For example have you ever been close enough to overhear someone else’s golf or tennis lesson?  Or have you enjoyed listening to the music coming from a neighbor’s party that you didn’t happen to be invited to?

Last year my family and I were at the River over the 4th of July and for some reason hadn’t thought to bring even a sparkler with us.  But it didn’t matter because when we had finished dinner and were sitting out on our porch looking out across the Rappahannock River, we were mesmerized for about 20 minutes by the most amazing fireworks display – the kind where each burst looked like the grand finale!

If I had known who the people were who entertained us so well, I would have written them a thank-you note.  Those fireworks weren’t meant for us but that didn’t stop us from enjoying them!

In today’s story from Matthew, the Canaanite woman found something that most people of her day wouldn’t have thought was meant for her, either.  What she found was mercy – God’s mercy extended through Jesus.   But first, here is the context for this story so it might begin to make some sense to us hearing it today.

Jesus and his disciples, all Jews, were traveling in the predominantly Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon.  As you might remember from the Old Testament, the Canaanites were pagans and specifically the people whom the Israelites had to conquer before they could get to the Promised Land and with whom they were forbidden to mingle once they got there.

Somehow, the Canaanite woman in Matthew’s story knew who Jesus was and surprisingly called out to him as the Son of David, which was a very Jewish reference.  She had done her homework when it came to Jesus, (or as we might say, she had looked him up on the Internet) and when she found out that he had been curing people of demons, she knew what she had to do.

So, she tracked him down and shouted at him to get his attention because her own daughter was possessed by a demon and the woman was desperate to have Jesus cast it out of her.   At first, Jesus ignored her, and his disciples advised him to keep ignoring her because as Jews traveling in a foreign country, they didn’t want to be noticed by having someone shouting at them.

She didn’t let Jesus’ silence stop her, though.  She kept tracking him until she finally got close enough to fall on her knees and pray fervently: “Lord, help me!” (Matthew 15:25).

And then came this strange dialogue.  Jesus told her: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  To which the Canaanite woman was quick to answer: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  Something in Jesus must have shifted as a result of what she said and out of compassion he answered her, “Woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.”  And then Matthew wrote that her daughter was healed instantly.  (Matthew 15:26-28).

What seems to be at stake here is the nature of God’s mercy: just how far does it extend through Jesus?  Should it be “wasted” on pagans such as the Canaanite woman or kept just for the Jews?

In Jesus’ day, the term “children” was a reference to the children of Israel, and apparently pagans were sometimes referred to as “dogs” which to our ears sounds demeaning and insulting no matter how much we love dogs.  Yet despite the unworthiness of her nationality and social position in the eyes of any self-respecting Jew, the Canaanite woman risked her dignity and appealed to Jesus on behalf of her daughter.   It makes me think that Jesus must have recognized the extent of her faith in the sheer brazenness of what she said and did.

The Canaanite woman must have known that she was out of her element in asking for Jesus’ healing power of mercy, but she somehow felt the wideness in it – that it didn’t stop with Jews alone.   Whether she was entitled to those crumbs or not, she sensed that through Jesus, they were within her grasp.  So she opened her hands and her heart and gathered them in.

In her book called Traveling Mercies (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999), Anne Lamott also experienced something that wasn’t meant for her; yet that didn’t stop her from benefiting from it.  In her writing, she makes no secret of the fact that when she was in her early 3  0s, she struggled with alcohol and drug addictions and lived in a ghetto section of affluent Marin County, California.   By virtue of her middle class upbringing, she shouldn’t have been living there.

Her addictions, however, were in full control of her life and she eked out an existence, writing and buying what she needed at flea markets.  One Sunday she was wandering around the streets of the ghetto, mingling with the dusty people at the flea market and feeling terribly hung over.

It was around 11:00 o’clock that morning when she heard gospel music coming from a church across the street.  It was called St. Andrew Presbyterian Church.  “It looked homely and impoverished” she wrote,  “a ramshackle building with a cross on top, terrible brown linoleum inside and … plastic stained glass windows” (pg 46).

The music wafting out of the open door caught her attention and she stopped and listened to it.  It reminded her of a happy time in her childhood when she would go to church with her grandparents and sing gospel music.  She knew, though, that the music and singing were clearly not meant for her.  She wasn’t a member there.  She was an outsider, a bystander lost in the dust and bustle of the ghetto.

Yet she approached the doorway of the church, anyway.  And during the part of the service when the people were greeting and hugging each other, she found herself shaking hands with complete strangers and being drawn into their circle of warmth.

Instead of judgment, there was complete wideness in their acceptance of her.  “No matter how bad I am feeling” she wrote, “or how lost or lonely or frightened, when I see the faces of the people at my church and hear their tawny voices, I can always find my way home” (p. 48).

Maybe in the same way, the Canaanite woman in Matthew’s gospel, found her way home by reaching out for something that wasn’t meant for her.  She, too, was an outsider looking in upon a circle of people who were doing their best to ignore her.  But she would have none of that.  There was something in that circle that she needed desperately – even if it meant risking her dignity to receive it.

Have you ever been so desperate for something that you were willing to risk being shamed or losing your dignity to receive it?  Forgiveness might fall into that category; but as the Canaanite woman proved and as did Ann Lamott, so might mercy.  Like grace, mercy is not something we earn or deserve but seeks us out when we are most open and in need of it.

Mercy is defined as “a disposition to be kind and forgiving; the feeling that motivates compassion” (Word Book app).  The Canaanite woman’s presence and persistent faith must have appealed to Jesus’ compassion and he healed her daughter.  And there was something in Anne Lamott’s surrender to the presence of the Holy Spirit on the doorstep of St. Andrew Presbyterian that stirred up compassion among the members of that congregation.   As she described it, their hospitality and mercy became both breath and food to her.

So there are two examples of God’s mercy that span a period of time of over 2000 years.  And the good news is that it hasn’t run out yet and like God’s love and grace, I can’t imagine that it ever will.