Faith and Persistence make a Powerful Pair
Aug 16, 2020
11th Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Matthew 15:21-28
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
Today’s Gospel reading is about persistence and faith. It also raises an interesting question: was Jesus having a bad-mood-day, or was he making a point? (What do you think, could Jesus have a bad-mood-day?)
To consider that question, recall the topic of my sermon the week before last. Jesus had heard the horrible news of John the Baptist’s murder, and he intended to spend time in a deserted place, alone, grieving his cousin’s death. Instead, he climbed out of the boat and faced a crowd of hurting people on whom he had compassion, transforming their lives with his healing presence. Then, instead of sending them away to find food for themselves, as the disciples encouraged him to do, he provided food for the masses, with baskets of leftovers. If there was any potential bad-mood-day for Jesus, it seems that would have been it. Yet, Jesus pushed on even when doing so was difficult.
So, what about today’s account; he did, after all, call a woman a dog. Was this the bad-mood-day? Jesus and his disciples have gone to the district of Tyre and Sidon which are outside the boundaries of Israel. This is Gentile territory – people who live there are not Jews. They would have been considered pagans, unclean, outside of the covenant God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This is a ghetto of unbelief. (So…why go there?) The ones living there were “those people” to first-century Jews. Prejudice abounded.
When a loud, assertive, insistent Canaanite woman cries out to Jesus, requesting healing for her demon-possessed daughter, it does not seem as if compassion stirs in him or his disciples. In fact, Jesus is silent, which gives the disciples an opening to insist that she be sent away. I like the way commentator Scott Hoezee describes what happens next.
“And Jesus then says, either to himself or to the disciples, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.’ In the ears of the disciples that is equivalent to Jesus saying, ‘I agree! Let’s get rid of her because when it comes to our ministry, this woman doesn’t count.’ We don’t know whether or not she heard Jesus say that. Even if she did, it did not deter her in the least. Instead, she assumes a posture of worship, and she then again begs Jesus to help her.” (1)
That’s when Jesus says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” You see, he calls her a dog! Was Jesus in a bad mood or making a point?
If it is the latter, then what was the point? Could it be that Jesus was using this situation to point out prejudices so that later he could confront them? If so, the point was to challenge us to imitate him in being willing to extend God’s grace to all people, including those we are inclined to ignore or exclude.
But what if it was a bad-mood-day for Jesus? Could it be that the woman changed him that day, asks commentator Marilyn Salmon. Let me quote her: “After all, she shows willingness to be vulnerable by seeking help from a longstanding foe whom she knows despises her because of national and racial divisions. She asks for help for her daughter, not herself. She is persistent in the face of insults and rejection for her daughter’s sake. The Canaanite woman has the best lines in the story, especially her last one. ‘Call me a dog,’ she says, ‘but even the dogs get the crumbs that fall from the table.’ She is the clear underdog (pun intended) who wins the prize of the highest value of any mother, Jew, or despised Canaanite – her child’s health and well-being.” (2)
As I said earlier, this Gospel is about persistence and faith, both of which lead to grace. The Canaanite woman persists; she is not deterred. In his sermon on this text, Pastor Charles Henrickson also encourages us to think about the obstacles she fought. She was not deterred by Jesus’ initial silence. She was not deterred by the comments of the disciples, “Send her away.” She was not deterred by Jesus’ comment about being sent only to the lost sheep of Israel, nor by his remark about the dogs eating the bread of the children. She simply does not give up; she perseveres. (3)
Her persistence is easy to explain; her “cause” was good. She loved her daughter and would go to any lengths to relieve the child’s suffering. I am reminded of the commercial on TV for St. Jude Medical Center in which a mother says she would do anything to provide care for her sick child, including selling her home and everything in it. Thankfully, that was not required of her due to the outreach of St. Jude.
That 21st-century mother would understand this first-century mother who, evidently, had heard about the healing power of Jesus, and even though she did not “belong,” she believed he could help her daughter. And, so, she experiences grace. Just as Jesus did not send the crowd away on a previous day in a deserted place, he does not send her away in this desert of unbelief. In the end, her persistence was identified by Jesus as faith, and it led to her daughter’s healing. As one commentator noted, faith and persistence make a powerful pair.
Faith and persistence make a powerful pair. In mid-July long-time civil rights activist, congressman, and also Baptist minister, John Lewis died at the age of 80. His life illustrated that faith and persistence make a powerful pair.
An article in the New York Times by Katharine Q. Seelye (published July 17, 2020; updated August 4, 2020) described Mr. Lewis as one of the original 13 Freedom Riders who challenged segregated interstate travel in the South in 1961. He led demonstrations against racially segregated restrooms, hotels, restaurants, public parks, and swimming pools. At nearly every turn, she writes, he was beaten, spat upon, or burned with cigarettes.
In March 1965, he led one of the most famous marches in American history, in which marchers demanded voting rights they had been denied. Marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., into state troopers in riot gear, the protesters silently stood their ground. The troopers responded with tear gas and bullwhips and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire. A trooper cracked Mr. Lewis’s skull with a billy club, knocking him to the ground, then hit him again when he tried to get up.
Televised images of the beatings of Mr. Lewis and scores of others outraged the nation. They galvanized support for the Voting Rights Act, which President Lyndon B. Johnson presented to a joint session of Congress eight days later.
You probably knew all this, since the reporting at the time of his death was extensive. The point is that like the Canaanite woman of today’s text, Mr. Lewis and others were persistent, and faith and persistence make a powerful pair. He put it this way on Twitter in 2018: “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
The Canaanite woman and Jesus teach us some important lessons today. One is to be persistent when the cause is good. Another is to follow Jesus in being willing to extend God’s grace to all people. And, the third is that faith and persistence are so powerful that they can change the world.
Was Jesus having a bad-mood day? Perhaps, yet grace had the last word. AMEN
(1) Proper 15A, August 10, 2020, Matthew 15:21-28 by Scott Hoezee, cep.calvinseminary.edu
(2) “Jesus and the Canaanite Woman” by Pastor Charles Henrickson, August 20, 2017, stmatthewbt.org
(3) “Commentary on Matthew 15:21-28 by Marilyn Salmon, workingpreacher.org