Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
- Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
- Psalm 67
- Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
- Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28
Preached at Nativity Lutheran Church, Brandon, MS, during my Clinical Pastoral Education in Jackson.
This may, or may not be hard to believe, but I was never a part of the “in” crowd in school. Sure, things got better later on, but those early years were spent being one of many outcasts in my class. My grade school covered grades K-8, and when you spend 9 years with the same 20 people, those class distinctions never really change.
So when I look at today’s readings, I have no trouble figuring out who I relate to. When Isaiah speaks of “foreigners” who will come and worship the Lord, the “outcasts of Israel” who will be gathered by God, that speaks to my experience. When the Canaanite woman begs with Jesus for healing, I empathize with her. And it’s NOT because of her faith—I relate to her because she is not one of the House of Israel, but a “dog.”
The separating of God’s chosen people from the rest of humanity goes all the way back to Genesis, with the calling of Abraham. From Abraham, down to Isaac, down to Jacob and to the 12 tribes of Israel, God chose a certain people to be the favorites. For the next few thousand years, the Israelites were the chosen favorites of God. That pretty much meant that the rest of the world were outcasts, you and me especially.
Of course, that didn’t mean that Israel had it easy either. The covenant relationship with God was always rocky, because as human beings, we aren’t particularly good at maintaining relationships. If we can’t relate to each other faithfully, how in the heck are we going to relate to God? Israel had a lot of expectations put on them. The covenant was very specific and required their utmost devotion. They had to be justified by their works and their deeds.
Human beings are TERRIBLE when we have to justify ourselves. How many of us today would feel comfortable going to God right now, this afternoon, and boasting about how we are a good person, how we’ve kept every single law, how we’ve never sinned?
We can’t follow God’s regulations no matter how hard we try. We couldn’t do it today, a thousand years ago, two thousand, three thousand, four thousand, and on and on. What’s worse, is that we here today, we are the outcasts. At least God remained faithful to the chosen people. Now, that’s love—no matter how many times God was betrayed, God reestablished the covenant. Jesus spent almost all of his ministry among his own people, the Judeans, the “lost sheep of the house of Israel”. What about us?
Isaiah’s words seem to offer some comfort. The foreigners and outcasts who follow the laws of the covenant will be gathered with the chosen people and treated the same way. I don’t think we always realize just how remarkable that is. Foreigners and outcasts, welcome at the altar of the Lord? That’s pretty significant, especially when we consider that these words were written thousands of years ago.
But on the other hand, the foreigners and outcasts must also be accountable for their works and deeds. Even though God has no covenant with them, they must still follow the covenant in order to be counted with the chosen people. Again, our works redeem us, and since we are incapable of redeeming ourselves through our works, we are set up again for failure.
So where is our hope? Well, if you ask a child a question in a children’s sermon, chances are the answer will be Jesus, and in THIS case, that just so happens to be true. Jesus.
The first thing Jesus does is get rid of any notion that the deeds of the covenant law have any affect on our righteousness. Food laws, purity laws, sacrificial laws—none of them matter. Thanks be to God!
Of course, what does matter is what is in our hearts. And wouldn’t you know it, he’s made our job harder, actually, if we are trying to redeem ourselves. Even our thoughts condemn us. Worse still, we are still outsiders, foreigners, no better than the Canaanite woman who could not get Jesus’ attention because she was not of the house of Israel.
Well that doesn’t sound much like hope. BUT! What does justify the Canaanite woman? Did she adhere to the covenant law, as the foreigners and outcasts of Isaiah do? Perhaps, perhaps not. The text doesn’t really say one way or the other.
But even if she did, is it her works, deeds, or renown that convince Jesus to heal her daughter? NO! It is her FAITH that puts her on equal footing with the chosen people in Jesus eyes, worthy of the same divine attention and care.
Where does this faith come from? Nothing less than by the mercy of God. We don’t deserve a single good word from God. God’s own CHOSEN PEOPLE don’t deserve a single good word from God. Our disobedience condemns us before we even have the chance to defend ourselves. Our guilt is painfully, painfully obvious.
Yet Jesus did not come into the world to condemn us for our guilt, but to save us FROM it. Do you think that God went through all of that–being incarnated, growing up, experiencing INTENSE suffering, dying—do you think God would have done that if it was only for a few chosen people? God doesn’t do anything half way. “For God has imprisoned ALL in disobedience so that he may be merciful to ALL.” No longer is the mercy of God reserved for the few, but for the many.
Jesus didn’t find himself in Canaanite lands by accident. He went there on purpose. The majority of his ministry was confined to Judea, but in this case, he went out of his way to meet a foreigner, an outcast, yet one who had faith. Because of Jesus, we are no longer separated from God’s love and mercy. The chosen people and the outcasts are examples to each other of the mercy and grace of God.
God’s plan would not be complete if it did not include everyone. As Paul asks, “Has God rejected his people? By no means!” God’s promises, God’s gifts, are irrevocable. Jesus once and for all secured the grace and mercy of God for all people—they will not be taken back.