The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost   /  August 14, 2005

Text:  Matthew 15: 21 – 28  /  Rev. Carol Kniseley

Resurrection Lutheran Church   /  Title:  Amazing Grace


“We can take only twelve.”    Those were the words I heard as the coach came over to where we were all sitting.    Practice had gone well that day as we were getting ready to take on the reigning champs in our region for girl’s basketball.    It was my freshman year in High School…and I had joined the team just a few months before being moved to the point position.    And even though I wasn’t the tallest nor the fastest…I could at least hold my own as a freshman, or so I thought.     This was going to be my first road trip with the team…and I was pumped.     When the coach came out and told us that only twelve people could go on the trip because of some regulation…we all started doing the math.     There were thirteen people on the team.     One would have to stay behind.     After a few moments of silence, the coach said there was nothing he could do to change the rule…and that the one staying behind would be…me.   


Even to this day, I can remember how hurt I felt as a kid.   I wanted to cry, but didn’t, at least not on the outside.    I just remember sitting there in the midst of the whole team…and feeling like I wanted to be a million miles away.     No one…likes to be excluded.      There are few joys in life like being wanted, chosen, even embraced.    There are few pains like being excluded, rejected, left out.     At the core of who and whose we profess to be as a “Christian community” is this choice between exclusion…and embrace. 


Today’s Gospel lesson…is one of the most memorable in all of the New Testament partly because it deals with this very timely subject of “inclusion”.    In his book, ‘Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them’, teaching Pastor John Ortberg states that in every society, in every school and church and workplace, there are little groups of people (cliques) who are on the so-called “inside”, leaving everyone else on the so-called “outside”.    We see this reality being played out in today’s lesson when Jesus is suddenly confronted with a woman who for all intents and purposes is said to be on the “outside”.    She is “outside” of the Jewish faith because of where she was born and where she now lives which automatically places her “outside” of Jesus’ jurisdiction.   Because she is a Gentile, she is said to be ‘unclean’.     And again, according to his ‘tradition’, Jesus has been told to have nothing to do with her…in hopes of keeping those on the inside “clean”.    


Even Jesus reaction to all of this, or should we say ‘non-reaction’, ends up being very telling.    As the woman follows them from place to place…shouting as loud as she can and begging for mercy…Jesus did not answer a word.    And so when the disciples can’t take it anymore, they approach Jesus in hopes that he too has had enough and urge him to send her away.    (Notice how they want Jesus to do the dirty work).    


But when Jesus turns to the Twelve…still not acknowledging that she is even present…and states:  ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel’, Matthew is the one who assures us that their ears weren’t the only ones listening.    Because it is then that the woman practically falls at Jesus’ feet, forcing him to look at her, and states very clearly her whole reason for being there:   “Lord, help me!”    And now…she has Jesus’ undivided attention.


What happens next, according to Ortberg, is something that I had never before considered.    Jesus commences to giving a test…to two sets of people.   He is testing his own disciples (which includes us), and he is testing the woman.    Jesus knows that experience is always the best teacher, and so in lieu of giving his disciples a lecture about their smug, exclusive attitudes…he decides to try a different approach.    Jesus appears to agree with them when he looks the woman straight in the eye and says some of the most hurt-filled words to ever come out of Jesus’ mouth:


            ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food…

and throw it to the dogs.’


The meaning is clear.     By children, Jesus is alluding to the people of Israel.   By dogs, he means Gentiles…people like this woman…people like you and me.      There are two main words available for dogs, and thankfully Jesus uses the word that means a little dog…a doggy…a pet.     What we need to understand is that Jesus is not painting a picture of a malicious attack dog, but rather that of a little puppy.    He uses the word “dogs” for the disciples sake.    Again, the disciples aren’t the only ones listening.  


This is the hardest part of the test for the woman.    Will she run away?   She probably would like to at this point, and yet…something makes her hang in there with this strange tug-of-war.    She may even be thinking:   ‘Who do you and your disciples think you are?   And where do you get off talking to me like this?’   And yet, what comes out of her mouth only betrays her love for her daughter and her trust in Jesus’ to see beyond her circumstance.   


            “Yes, Lord,” she says, calling him Lord

for the third time,

yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall

from the master’s table.”


She knows.    She knows that she is not one of God’s chosen people and seems to accept fully, like Jesus, that his first call is to the people of Israel.    And yet she also senses…deep down in her heart of hearts…that God’s love was never meant to be exclusive.     All she is asking for…is for Jesus to move his hand across this table of grace…and allow the crumbs to fall into the hands of those still waiting on the outside.    


It is purely an act of grace…that she alone…and not the disciples…understands the lesson for today.   And that is why Jesus says (and not in a small way):   


“Wow! O Woman (says the Greek translation)…

mega-great is your faith!” 


May we in the church of our day…choose to not exclude…but to embrace all people.     Knowing that it is only by grace…that any of us are saved.    Amazing grace…how sweet the sound.    Amen