Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
There is a common thread in the three lessons appointed for today: the Church is not just for the Jews. It’s a theme as old as the Hebrews being a chosen nation, for when that nation was reduced to One—in the Person of Jesus Christ—He was called what the nation was supposed to be: “[A] light to bring revelation to the Gentiles.” (Luke 2:32a) Israel may have been a chosen nation, but the God who chose them was the God of all creation. He is a God who never changes, and just as He now wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, as revealed to St. Paul (cf. 1 Timothy 2:4), so He always wanted it so.
This is confirmed in today’s Old Testament lesson, where the prophet Isaiah says,
“Also the sons of the foreigner
Who join themselves to the LORD, to serve Him,
And to love the name of the LORD, to be His servants—
Everyone who keeps from defiling the Sabbath,
And holds fast My covenant—
Even them I will bring to My holy mountain,
And make them joyful in My house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
Will be accepted on My altar;
For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
The Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, says,
“Yet I will gather to him
Others besides those who are gathered to him.” (Isaiah 56:6-8)
It is that very same apostle Paul who, in today’s Epistle, magnifies his ministry, noting that it is to the Gentiles. (cf. Romans 11:13) For the Lord who revealed Himself to Paul as the God of all creation then sent him to gather Gentiles into the Church. That’s not to say that God has cast away His people, His chosen nation. “Certainly not,” Paul says. (Romans 11:1) On the contrary, Paul also states, “For God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all.” (Romans 11:32)
And it is this mercy that bring us to today’s Gospel reading. A Canaanite woman approaches Jesus seeking mercy for her demon-possessed daughter. For reasons that are not revealed, Jesus seems reluctant to show mercy on her. He first ignores her request, then tells her it’s not good to throw the food meant for the sheep to the little dogs.
He calls this Canaanite woman and her daughter little dogs. It’s a derogatory term for these outsiders, these Canaanites. It’s a term, kunariois, from which is derived the Latin term for dog, caninus, from which we get the term canine, which sounds an awful lot like Canaanite. It’s not so much a random slur as it is a play on words. And it’s not so much a play on words as it is an indication that these outsiders were considered underlings by the Jews.
The woman acknowledges it. “Yes, Lord, I am a little dog, as you say, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.”
Well and good. Give the scraps to the little dogs. That should satisfy them.
But, to get a good grasp on what she is saying, you also have to have a good idea of what’s going on around this text. Today’s pericope is nestled in the middle of two miraculous feedings.
The first, as we heard two weeks ago, is when Jesus fed 5000 men, not counting women and children, all Jews. With a couple of fish and a few loaves of bread, Jesus feeds this great multitude. And when they are done eating, His disciples gather 12 baskets full of scraps. That number is not a mistake; 12 is the number of the Church.
Later in St. Matthew’s 15th chapter, Jesus feeds 4000 men, not counting women and children, again, all Jews. Once again, with a small number of fish and loaves of bread, Jesus feeds another great multitude. And when they are done eating, His disciples gather 7 baskets full of scraps. As with 12, the number 7 is not a mistake; 7 is the number of holiness.
So, we have feedings with baskets full of scraps serving as bookends for today’s text. And, in this text, a Gentile woman is asking for scraps. The Jews are fed first, eating the meal prepared for them, leaving scraps for the little dogs. While it is not the first feeding, the scraps are still a choice fare—the fare of salvation that comes only from the Gospel—the good news of sins forgiven through Christ crucified. Even these scraps are a Gospel feast. It is as St. Paul wrote, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.” (Romans 1:16)
About this, Dr. Jeffrey Gibbs comments:
It’s not just that Jesus has come to give bread to feed the children, to feed Israel, and it “is not good”, not in accordance with God’s plan, if this woman is thinking that she should get what by right and by divine economy belongs to Israel. Jesus has just provided bread in the wilderness for five thousand men, with twelve baskets of fragments remaining, and he will soon provide bread for four thousand more. In Jesus, Israel’s God is feeding his ungrateful, uncomprehending people once again, as he had done during the forty years after their exodus from Egypt. Now Jesus wants to know this: does the Canaanite woman really know who he is, or are the things that have come out of her mouth just words and no more?
What did the woman say? She called Jesus, “Lord” and “Son of David,” terms by which the Messiah was identified. Did this Canaanite woman recognize Jesus as the Messiah, and in so doing, did she recognize Him as her Messiah. Did she know Jesus to be God of all creation?
Dr. Gibbs comments again, “She believes, both in Jesus’ mission to Israel’s lost sheep and in Jesus’ abundance, which also provides for the dogs who are under their masters’ table.” As Martin Luther once preached,
What a superb and wonderful object lesson this is, therefore, to teach us what a mighty, powerful, all-availing thing faith is. Faith takes Christ captive in his word, when he’s angriest, and makes out of his cruel words a comforting inversion, as we see here. “You say,” the woman responds, “that I am a dog. Let it be, I will gladly be a dog; now give me the consideration that you give a dog.” Thus she catches Christ with his own words, and he is happy to be caught. “Very well,” she says, “if I am a dog, I ask no more than a dog’s rights. I am not a child nor am I of Abraham’s seed, but you are a rich Lord and set a lavish table. Give your children the bread and a place at the table; I do not wish that. Let me, merely like a dog, pick up the crumbs under the table, allowing me that which the children don’t need or even miss, the crumbs, and I will be content therewith.”
“Give me the crumbs—the scraps—and that is feast enough,” she tells Jesus.
She catches the Lord in His own words. He calls her a dog; she acknowledges that she is and that what she is due as a dog is enough for her and her daughter. “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire,” Jesus replies; and by this we know that she believes both in Jesus’ mission to Israel’s lost sheep and in His abundance, as Dr. Gibbs pointed out.
What do we learn from this? There is enough holiness—enough of God, enough of Jesus who is the Bread of Life—to go around for the entire Church—Jew and Gentile. After all, as was mentioned, God is the God of all creation, and His will is to have mercy on all. St. Paul did write, “For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all...” (1 Timothy 2:3-6a)
That brings us to another interesting note about today’s text. You’ll note that when the disciples complained about the Canaanite woman they tell Jesus that she is crying out after them. That is to say that she is following them. What’s so interesting about that? The fact that behind Him is exactly where Jesus tells His disciples to be. “Follow me,” Jesus often says to those who seek to learn and receive from Him. Furthermore, confronted by Peter who was preventing His going into Jerusalem to die, Jesus tells him, “Get behind me.”
And therein is the point. From behind, there is no confrontation. People who seek to confront Jesus and prevent Him from accomplishing the salvation of the world are always in front of Him. Those seeking to stop Him do so in front of Him, as He makes His way to the cross.
To confront Jesus and prevent His way to the cross is to get in front of Him and place oneself between God and Jesus. In other words, it is to deny the salvation Jesus has come to bring. It is to stand between God and Jesus and argue for your own salvation based on your own merits. It removes from your path the Mediator you would otherwise have in Jesus. And, let’s face it, it’s a place we often wish we could be, for it gives us a sense of pride and accomplishment to be able to stand before the Master and tout our good works.
However, it is not the place to be. Because Jesus still makes His way to the cross, and there suffers the full wrath of God for the sins of man. Those who follow Him do so only by faith; they are safe and secure behind Him, finding that He has placed Himself between them and God—the Mediator who takes God’s full wrath for them. Those who would not follow Him—who have no faith in Him—only condemn themselves; their good works are as filthy rags and avail them nothing, as Isaiah is keen to remind us. (cf. Isaiah 64:6)
Behind Jesus is the place where the Canaanite woman found herself. By faith, she was given to, and her daughter was healed. And like those two little dogs, it’s the place the rest of us little dogs find ourselves, too. Here we are gathered to be given to as Christ our Mediator gives of His sacrifice for our salvation. Here, at this table, we receive the finest feast ever spread before man in this fallen world. For, here, be you Jew or Gentile, you receive the foretaste of the feast to come, the Bread of Life given for you for the forgiveness of your sins. It is the right of children—of the lost sheep that Christ came for—that you enjoy; a place for you at His table.
It is as St. Paul wrote, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:27-29) Or, as Martin Luther also preached in that sermon, “So she catches Christ, the Lord, in his own words and with that wins not only the right of a dog, but also that of the children.”
Dear Baptized, you may be like the Canaanite woman and be a little dog, or you may be of the Jews, but you are all here as one body under our Head, the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Bread of Life, and He is abundant in His giving, to Jew and Gentile alike, for they are all, by faith, Abraham’s seed. Jesus is your Bread of Life, dear Baptized, and He gives of His abundance for your salvation. You are a part of His Bride, the Church, and He has enough holiness for you—be you Jew or Gentile, you are all Abraham’s seed—even as He has sheltered you behind Himself, safe from His Father’s wrath, as He hung on the cross. By faith, you take Christ captive at His Word, which declares that for His sake by faith you are forgiven for all of your sins.