Today’s Gospel Reading is one of the most difficult ones we wrestle with all year. Not because of its doctrine or its interpretation, but because of the image of Jesus we receive. If you hold onto any image of Jesus being a fishing buddy or someone who is a cuddly friend, today sends that image right out the window. The first time this poor woman pleads for mercy for her daughter, Jesus ignores her. Then, the disciples tell Jesus to tell her to be quiet and go away, and Jesus’ response is that He wasn’t even sent for her. And then when Jesus finally speaks to her, He calls her a dog. And in first century life, dogs weren’t fur babies who get treated better than people. Dogs were filthy and mean and you didn’t want them around. They looked at dogs with all the affection that you and I have for rats. This is the equivalent of looking the sweetest grandmother in the eyes and sneering at her, you don’t even deserve the air you breathe. So, why? Why does Jesus do this? Why do we hear this account? Through this Canaanite woman Jesus is teaching us to put all of our trust in the Word of God and the truths it reveals. Do not rely on what your eyes see or your ears hear. They will deceive you. Trust only in what Holy Scripture reveals to you, because that is the only thing you can trust.
As this Canaanite woman pleads for her demon-possessed daughter, she is brought face to face with a harsh reality. She shouldn’t be alive. None of her family should exist. Through Moses God said: “But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded, that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God” (Dt. 20:16-18). So telling her that she doesn’t deserve the air she’s breathing is pretty accurate. She is standing in front of Jesus because the Israelites screwed up. They sinned and disobeyed God.
But this is where it all takes a turn. What does she do? Does she scream at Jesus? Does she call Him names? Does she take to social media to tell everyone what a jerk this guy is? No. She accepts it. She bows her head and agrees. In essence, she says, “I know. I’m vile and unworthy. I shouldn’t even exist.” She knows that as a complete truth. But she also clings ferociously to another truth she knows. God the Father is merciful. He delights in showing steadfast love. He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked should turn from his way and live. He is patient and desires that all reach repentance. “I know, Jesus, that my family is despicable. I know, Jesus, that I’m a worse sinner than my parents. But I know that You are merciful to those who repent. I know that You will cast all my sins into the deepest sea.” The Canaanite woman did not trust in what her ears heard that day with Jesus because she knew it was only half of the story. She knew what God said in His faithful Word. She believed it with every fiber of her being. She hoped against hope, knowing that He who promised is faithful and He will do it.
In this woman we must find ourselves. When we are in the hour of deepest need, when life is bad and is getting worse fast, when health fails, when everything goes wrong, when you suffer and it only seems to get worse, when there’s too much weight on your shoulders, when every earthly prop gives way, we have to confess like she did. “You’re right, God. Poor, miserable sinner doesn’t even scratch the surface. I sin and sin and sin. I don’t deserve the air I breathe. I don’t deserve the next heartbeat. I do deserve this cross, this trial, this affliction that is oppressing me. I do deserve death and hell and eternal torment. I know that this is the truest statement ever spoken.”
And that’s when Satan, the accuser, appears. He delights in this truth because he wants to turn it into despair. “Curse God and die,” he shouts. “If God has rightly declared you to be so awful, give up. For all you know He’ll do what He used to do and open the earth and swallow you up. You’re unforgiveable. You don’t deserve one ounce of pity.” Do not listen to that voice. It’s hard not to, because it’s true. As he dredges up every sin you’ve ever committed, do not give into the despair. Instead, with the last ounce of strength you have, say, “I know, but [point to crucifix]. I know that your accusation is true. I know what I deserve. But I know what Jesus did for me. I know that God is not a liar. Got will not break His Word. He has promised mercy and forgiveness for all who repent. And there, on that cross, in His Son, He kept His promise.”
That’s the most beautiful image we have as Christians because that’s the full story. It’s the sentence of condemnation that each one of us is under. But it’s also the statement of God’s love, God’s determination, God’s infinite mercy. In Jesus Christ the world received a Redeemer. There all of your sin was taken away. There He who promised mercy and salvation kept His promise. Because of Jesus you can plead for mercy that you do not deserve. Because of Jesus you have access to the Father. Because of Jesus you receive forgiveness and the relief of burdens here in this life. Not because you have deserved it, but because Jesus won it and gave it to you. He gives you gifts you can never deserve. But that’s the very definition of a gift—something given to you not because of your goodness but because of the gracious love of the giver.
The Holy Spirit caused this event to happen and to be recorded so that He can teach us through this. He takes what sounds completely awful to show us the mercy of God. He reveals what He will do in us, that He will create a faith that learns from the Canaanite woman. By His grace she trusted the one thing that is completely objective. She placed all of her trust and confidence outside of herself and in God’s revelation of His will. His will is that none should perish. His will is that He shows mercy. The Holy Spirit does the same thing in you. He works in the Means of Grace to cause you to place every ounce of confidence in God’s Word and in the truths it reveals, even if it goes against what your eyes see, especially if it goes against what your eyes see. Yes, you are a sinner, but your God delights in mercy. And He gives that mercy, not in crumbs, but in a rich feast of the richest meat and choicest wine. He doesn’t treat you as a dog under the table, but gives you a seat at the table. Jesus feeds you with Himself to teach you what you can trust, that you can trust His Word, that His Body is broken and His Blood is shed for the forgiveness of your sin. Because of that truth, because of that sin-forgiving sacrifice, faith will be rewarded with a full revelation of God’s mercy in heaven. There you will see that God has truly remembered His mercy and His steadfast love and that He has delivered you out of all your troubles.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.