As Lutherans we know a lot about God’s grace: we know that it is through that grace that we are saved and “not through good works lest any man should boast.” What we may be less clear about is whether there are limits to that grace: a question echoing through time – and even haunting the Scripture itself.
It is very tempting to say that there are no limits, for the word “grace” itself would seem to contradict that. If “grace” is the defining description of how God deals with humanity, then grace would seem to overcome all boundaries. However, if we are not careful we find ourselves down a road which leads to a pluralism which suggests that God saves all, regardless of who they are and regardless of what they have done. That being the case our faith is indeed in vain.
In the Old Testament, with Abraham, the limits of God’s grace begin to become clear. His descendants were identified by the tribal ties of blood and by specific ways of living and worship the boundaries of which Moses drew quite clearly under God’s guidance.
Thus the grace of God became identified with a particular people and a defining way of life and worship. Even so there was always an awareness that God’s grace could reach far beyond such narrow confines. The Psalm of the Day is clear that God can be identified by the way he relates to “the nations of the earth.” (Psalm 67:4) The Psalmist says, “May God be merciful to us and bless us and make his face shine upon us, that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations.” And the prophet speaking in the First Lesson for today insists there will be “foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve him, to love the name of the Lord, and to worship him. . . . These I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer…………. for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” This becomes particularly relevant in our Gospel reading this morning as a Gentile woman approaches Jesus for help.
Grace is discussed in Isaiah in the Psalms and now in Paul’s letter to the Romans: Paul is frustrated because the Jews have failed to recognize the Messiah. In today’s reading he changes course. “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles,” says Paul. Israel’s rejection of the Gospel, as Paul declares it, has led to the reconciliation of the Gentiles and beyond them to the whole world, as they knew it. Paul sees the acceptance of Jesus through baptism as the reality of finding new life after death. But, of course, Paul was writing with the benefit of hindsight and we are ahead of ourselves.
Though Matthew stresses that the primary mission of Jesus was to the “house of Israel,” in today’s Gospel a non-Jewish supplicant draws him to a more universalistic vision. This supplicant, as the pronoun makes clear, is a woman – one who is not to speak to a man in public. Not only does she approach Jesus, though, she nags him, she makes a public scene around him. This story of courageous faith and boundary-crossing challenges the church today.
The woman is a Canaanite, a foreigner to the kingdom of God, an intrusion into the tidy boundaries with which the disciples were comfortable and within which Jesus focuses his basic arena of activity. This woman comes alone to Jesus, crying, “Have pity (“mercy”) on me Lord, Son of David.” a term which would hardly have meant much to anyone other than the Jews. Yet she has such an address on her lips from the beginning suggesting a degree of knowledge and understanding of Jesus that he and the Disciples should have taken more notice of from the outset.
Since illness was thought to arise from demonic attack, she begs release and healing for her daughter. Jesus meets her request with stony silence and this peculiar initial unresponsiveness to her appeal is very strange. This is the same man who responded so willingly to another Gentile, a centurion who pleaded for the welfare of a sick servant, only a few chapters earlier. There was no reluctance or hesitancy then. Why should there be so now? Is it because she is a woman? Is it because she is a Canaanite and the centurion was a Roman? There is no answer to the question “why?” There is only this strange, surprising silence from Jesus. Not so from the disciples who demand, “Get rid of her, for she keeps yelling at us.” Maybe she’d been nagging them before she got to Jesus, and they have had enough. The woman certainly seems to have got under the skin of the disciples. Still Jesus seemingly remains unmoved and again he rebuffs her: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In no other miracle story has a petitioner been treated so harshly. He claims to have a clear goal, a fixation – an all-consuming passion, in fact – on where he is to direct his attention and his energies. The woman is not in that vision, for she is a Canaanite.
But the woman seizes on this immediately! Now he is in conversation with her and she will not let the opportunity pass by. His silence had been terrifying, but now his words open a new door! Again it is an oddity that she should be so bold, so brave, so challenging that she presses her case with force. She has been reduced to desperation, to be sure, but she will not give up now. She hangs on for all she is worth.
The narrative changes now: this woman, disadvantaged, an outsider because she is a Gentile and a woman who is alone in public, challenges this rebuff by “worshiping” Jesus (something no disciple does prior to the resurrection) She started with the plea, “Have mercy on me,” but now she kneels before him in worship and supplication: “Lord, help me,” she says. “You are my only hope. You can’t turn me down, for you are the only One to whom I can look.”
Then the most extraordinary thing of all occurs. This merciful One, this man filled with grace, this Prince of Peace, speaks in terms that sound harshly rude, and no matter how one wants to put a positive gloss on it, Jesus is speaking as an Israelite spoke of Gentiles. “It is not right to take the food of children (Jews) and give it to dogs” (Gentiles). They were “dogs,” and there is no way to change that offensive sense. Yet the woman grabs hold of this very rejection and turns it into a response against which Jesus can no longer argue! “Yes, Lord,” she says. “I know! I am not of the house and lineage of those from whom you come. Nor am I worthy to approach you as I have. Even so I still make bold to say that even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table. You are correct that it would not be right or proper to take the bread of the children and give it to dogs like me. Yet I, as a dog, ask only that you let me have the crumbs that fall from your table.”
You can almost imagine the frisson of shock rippling through the crowd. But after a pause that must have seemed like a lifetime to the crowd, in a startling turn of events, Jesus replies: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” Her daughter is healed at that moment. He who has fed five thousand from Israel only a short time before and who will feed another four thousand only a short time hereafter grants to this woman the “crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Do not the feeding of the five and four thousand serve as a great parenthesis around this story? He who feeds Israel, to whom he is sent, has given an “appetizer,” as it were, to a Gentile woman in the “crumbs from the master’s table.”
She comes with no appeal for justice, no claim based on her rights or merit: only a plea for mercy, an undeserved help. She has nothing to bring with which to barter for her daughter’s wellbeing. She simply brings the faith and confidence that in Jesus alone she finds hope for herself and her daughter. In this way she broke through the barriers that could have hindered her. In this way she signalled the way to the future as Gentiles flooded into the church, being carried on waves of faith that in Jesus salvation had come.
Two interpretations have accompanied this narrative through history. Building on the first reading, which foresees that the Gentiles will come to Israel’s God to form a house of prayer for all nations, the Canaanite woman is a symbol of those nations that will hear the message of the Gospel. The courageous faith of the woman is a second major theme. But neither of these captures the shock and surprise of the exchange between the woman and Jesus. The woman’s brash courage actually seems to convert Jesus and develop his understanding of his mission. In Matthew’s Gospel we have so far seen a Jesus who has limited his mission to the sons and daughters of Israel, yet here he crosses this self-imposed boundary to bring merciful healing to a Gentile.
The woman brings to him the full implications of his mission.
Out of this long tradition of boundaries to God’s grace established within Judaism came this man Jesus. He knew that his task was to take up this long history of Israel, making it his own, filtering it through his life and body, filling it full of new meaning that could, at least initially, only be understood from within that story of God’s people, from within Israel. He would eventually broaden those “boundaries” in ways unimaginable to the disciples around him – and unthinkable in general to those out of whose midst he was arising. It took an immense struggle to expand the horizon of thinking about these boundaries on the part of his disciples and those who followed them.
Nor has this struggle been overcome to this day. Over and over the people of God have had to recognize anew how old limits are pushed out by the grace of God to include still others. Sometimes the struggle has been obvious: racial divisions, gender differences, issues of sexuality, national and cultural differences have had to be overcome time after time in order to recognize the far-reaching nature of God’s grace. At other times they have been much more subtle. But we keep wanting to establish limits on God’s grace and God keeps pushing on them. We like neat, cosy, clear-cut boundaries to our lives, and God’s grace challenges them at every turn.
Today the deepest meaning of the Gospel is often disclosed by the courage of the “outsider,” who is driven by loving concern for innocent victims of disease or injustice: Bonheoffer, Luther-King, Mother Theresa, Desmond Tutu and others. Often they have been met by stony silence or rude rebuff by Jesus’ followers.
The great faith of this mother who breaks all boundaries out of love is a model and challenge for our time. The Canaanite women would not accept the idea that Jesus was only sent for certain people. Her faith melted that barrier. It calls all of us to receive what Jesus has to offer and to push the limits and boundaries ourselves as we present that same Jesus and what he offers to others. We need to make the church a place to which a modern Canaanite woman, disadvantaged, despised and marginalised within society can come with her plea, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And we need to make that church a place from which the word goes out, as from the Lord himself, “You have great faith. Your request is granted!”
We can’t afford to be triumphalist in relation to God’s grace. I regularly meet Christians who are so certain that they know the mind of God that they are incredibly confident about the fate of others come the final judgement. People they have never met, including a fair few Christians, are all consigned to eternal damnation in their view because those people don’t accept to the letter their understanding of Christianity. I am a great fan of the English writer C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books. For those of you who are unfamiliar with them, Lewis writes a series of what appear to be children’s adventure stories, set in the land of Narnia, the most famous of which is “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”. However, Lewis wasn’t simply a children’s writer but a theologian and the Narnia stories are a Christian allegory: in “The Last Battle”, which is an eschatological story dealing with the end times and judgement, there is an exchange between Aslan, the Christian God figure, and Emeth, a follower of the God Tash, who is surprised to find himself on the right side of Aslan’s judgement. In this allegory of the Christian story Lewis is suggesting that God’s grace is, indeed, extended beyond the limits we might expect. But that is down to God’s grace and not our judgement. God may well choose to act towards others in ways which surprise us and it is not for us to set limits on God’s grace.
Emeth says to Aslan: “Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine, but a servant of Tash.” Aslan answered “Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. If any man swears an oath to Tash and keeps the oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he knew it not and it is I who reward him.” Emeth replied “Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days.” “Beloved”, said the Glorious one, “unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”
I think many of us would do well to ponder on that idea.