Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Merciful to All” (Matthew 15:21-28)
August 17, 2014
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In the 2000 comedy film Meet the Parents Ben Stiller plays Greg Focker, who is engaged to Pam Byrnes (Teri Polo) and has accompanied her to her childhood home to meet her parents, Jack and Dinah (Robert De Niro and Blythe Danner). One of the funniest scenes is when Greg is put on the spot to pray before dinner:
“Greg, would you like to say grace?” Jack asks.
Pam interjects, “Oh, uh, well, Greg’s Jewish, Dad.”
Instead of letting Greg off the hook, Jack presses the issue: “You’re telling me Jews don’t pray, honey?” Then turning to Greg he continues, “Unless you have some objection.”
“No, no, no, I’d love to,” Greg lies. “Pam, come on, it’s not like I’m a rabbi or something. I have said grace at many a dinner table.” He awkwardly folds his hands and grasping at what to say stumbles through the following prayer:
“Okay…Oh dear God…thank you. You are such a good God to us…a kind, and gentle, and… accommodating God. And we thank you oh sweet, sweet Lord of Hosts for the…smorgasbord you have so aptly laid at our table this day and each day…by day…” Then panicking about what to say next Greg recalls a song from the Broadway musical Godspell, “Day by day by day, oh Lord, three things we pray…to love thee more dearly, to see thee more clearly, to follow thee more nearly, day by day by day. Amen.”
There is a collective sigh of relief when Greg finally finishes. “Oh Greg that was lovely,” opines Dinah. “Thank you, Greg” Jack sarcastically adds, “That was interesting too.” The awkwardness is absolutely hysterical.
For some people today’s gospel passage, which features a similar mix of Jews and Gentiles and talk of the dinner table, is just as awkward.
Jesus and his disciples have journeyed to Tyre and Sidon, a region heavily populated by Gentiles, specifically Canaanites, historic enemies of the Jews. As they are walking along a Canaanite woman begins shouting at Jesus, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon!” Jesus answers her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
But the Canaanite woman continues shouting for help, and she kneels before Jesus and begs him, “Lord, help me.” Jesus responds to her in a way that makes many people uncomfortable, or even angry: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
This passage has to be interpreted within the wider context of the Bible. Matthew’s account of the gospel was intended for a Jewish audience, which is why he often demonstrates how Jesus specifically fulfilled both the law and prophecies of the Old Testament. Along these lines Matthew also emphasizes that Jesus’ mission was for the Jews first (“the children”) and then the Gentiles (“the dogs”).
Biblical scholar Robert Mounce puts it this way:
“We are dealing with a proverbial statement by which Jesus is pointing out no more than that his mission is directed to his own people. ‘Dog’ was a common Jewish term for Gentiles based on their making no distinction between clean and unclean foods. It is not necessarily a derogatory term” (Matthew, 153).
But in spite of Jesus’ initial response to her, the Canaanite woman would not be denied, and she continues, “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.”
Matthew concludes, “Her daughter was healed instantly”—and another biblical scholar, D. A. Carson, helpfully comments, “This woman is a pagan, a descendant of ancient enemies, and with no claim on the God of the covenant. Yet in the end she approaches the Jewish Messiah and with great faith asks only for grace; and her request is granted” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 8, 353).
The good news in this passage is that Jesus answered the Canaanite woman’s request, because Jesus had mercy on her and her daughter.
The reality is that you and I are just like the Canaanite woman. We are entitled to nothing from God, nothing at all, and yet Jesus gives us all, Jews and Gentiles, the same thing: mercy. We see this clearly in today’s passage from a New Testament letter written by Paul, a Jewish Christian, to the Romans, Gentile Christians:
“The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (Romans 11:29-32).
God is “merciful to all,” Paul writes—and Jesus gives mercy to us all, because he also gives something else to us all…love.
Like many people I was deeply saddened by the news of the death of Robin Williams, a true comic genius and first rate actor. As a boy I laughed at his antics on the TV show Mork and Mindy (1978-1982), as a teenager I laughed even harder at his performance as renegade disc jockey Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning Vietnam (1987), as a confused college student I was inspired by his performance as Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society (1989), and as a disillusioned twenty-eight year old I was completely blown away by his moving performance as Sean Maguire, the psychiatrist in Good Will Hunting (1997), a role that won him an Oscar.
One of the most famous scenes in Good Will Hunting involves Sean Maguire talking with Will Hunting, an orphan who continues to get in trouble with the law. They are sitting on a park bench on a beautiful sunny afternoon. Will is brilliant, and incredibly well-read, but Sean points Will to something that surpasses book knowledge:
“If I asked you about women,” Sean says, “you could probably give me a syllabus of your personal favorites…but you can’t tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy… If I ask you about love, I bet you’d quote me a sonnet, but you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable, known someone who could level you with her eyes, feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you, who could rescue you from the depths of hell. And you wouldn’t know what it’s like to be her angel, to have that love for her forever, through anything, through cancer.
And you wouldn’t know about sleeping sitting up in a hospital room for two months, holding her hand, because the doctors could see in your eyes that the terms ‘Visiting Hours’ don’t apply to you. You don’t know about real loss, because that only occurs when you love something more than you love yourself.”
Jesus loves you like that—Jesus loves you more than he loves himself—and in giving mercy to all of us Jesus experienced “real loss” as he died on the cross.
And while we live ever-changing lives in an ever-changing world, we can trust in the unchanging mercy of God. We see this clearly in the Prayer of Humble Access, which directly connects today’s gospel passage with the mercy of God:
“We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy” (BCP 337).
And regardless of what has occurred in your life, you are invited by Jesus to the supper table, not as a dog to struggle for the scraps under the table, but as a guest at the table—for as Jesus commanded, “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Luke 14:13)—which of course describes each of us in different ways.
One of my favorite song writers is Bill Mallonee, the former front man for the band Vigilantes of Love who got his start in Athens, Georgia. He describes how God in his unchanging mercy invites us all to his banqueting table:
You can count on your charm or revel in your wealth
Improve your appearance or hope in your health
But houses of cards tumble and reputations fail
Marriages crumble and interest rates sail…
We’re blind men, sad men, dreamers with wishes
Paralytics, lunatics, and the backstreet fringes
All find a place in Your home, at Your table
And You make them well ‘cause You’re willing and able
(From the song “Who Knows When the Sunrise Will Be?” on the 1990 album Jugular).
And the good news of the gospel is that God has mercy on us all—that God’s “property is always to have mercy.”
And even though none of us are worthy to gather even the crumbs from God’s table, God still invites us all to the table—both today at Holy Communion and in heaven where God’s saints feast forever.
I will close with a poem, Love (III), by the seventeenth century Anglican priest and poet, George Herbert that articulates our merciful God’s gracious invitation to all of us better than I ever could:
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked anything.
“A guest,” I answered, “worthy to be here”
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”
“Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.