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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 8/17

Jesus’ Mission is Expansive

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 17, 2008
Matthew 15:10-28
Bethany Lutheran Church

Name calling: I am not sure if it was a part of every child’s educational experience, but it certainly was a part of mine. Name calling is commonly used among bullies, but it is used by many other children as well. It is an innate social reaction of a child that often begins with playful teasing, but then changes into a manipulative weapon of power. Name calling erodes the feelings of children and diminishes their self-confidence. Name calling identifies who is popular and who is not. Having been given the name “Luke the puke” and many other worse titles, I was definitely not among the cool crowd. Agh, but that’s kid’s stuff right? The primary question we are posed with from today’s text is why did Jesus call the Canaanite woman a dog?

I do not recall ever learning this lesson when I was in Sunday School as a child and it is one of those stories that you read and think surely there is something missing. There must be some logical explanation for Jesus calling this woman a dog. Surely he didn’t mean that. Perhaps he was just trying to make a point to his disciples. But look closely at what else happens in the text.

The gospel begins with a lecture from Jesus to the crowds about that which is clean versus that which is unclean. Whereas in the gospel of Mark the primary focus is on abiding to the laws of the Torah, Matthew’s gospel emphasizes the tradition of the elders. In Jesus’ little speech, explaining a new understanding of clean and unclean, he is in fact challenging the tradition of the elders. The new determining factor of cleanliness seems to be based upon that which comes out of the mouth. He draws close connections between a person’s words, their actions, and their heart.

But then the gospel text shifts. The text tells us that Jesus moves toward the district of Tyre and Sidon when he is approached by a Canaanite woman shouting Kyrie Eleison, Lord have mercy. These words Kyrie Eleison, should have sounded familiar to Jesus. Kyrie Eleison cried the disciples when their boat was being rocked back and forth by tempestuous waves. Kyrie Eleison cried the father of a boy who had epilepsy. Kyrie Eleison cried Peter just last week when he attempted to walk on water toward Jesus and began to sink. They all cried Kyrie Eleison and in each case Jesus rescued and healed those who were in need. And in each case he expressed his disappointment over their little faith.

Throughout the entire gospel of Matthew, when someone calls out to Jesus, Kyrie Eleison, Lord have mercy, Jesus almost instantly grants healing. But in today’s text, Jesus’ actively ignores her, for the text reads “he did not answer her at all.” This is the only instance in any of the four gospels where Jesus ignores a person who comes to him in need. Only after the disciples become annoyed by the woman’s begging does Jesus make any verbal response. Neither the disciples nor Jesus are interested in helping this woman. But she remains persistent in seeking healing, not for herself but on behalf of her daughter.

The whole problem is that she is a Canaanite. Canaanites were enemies of the Israelites, fighting over the same land. And while she calls out to Jesus using his Jewish title, “Son of David” his response is that he came for the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Had she been an Israelite, Jesus would have probably healed her instantly. As a Canaanite, Jesus reminds her that she is indeed a dog. She does not know the teachings of the Torah. She does not know the teachings of the elders. She is a Gentile. And still she cries out Kyrie Eleison, Lord have mercy. She makes three separate appeals to Jesus, constantly professing her faith in him. She makes confession of who she is, acknowledging that she is indeed a dog, acknowledging that she is unworthy and undeserving of anything Jesus has to offer. She utters her complete dependence upon Jesus. And without seeing her daughter be healed she proclaims her faith in this Jesus, the Son of David and his power to heal and to save.

In all her faith, this Canaanite woman challenged Jesus to expand his mission, to include even the Gentiles, the non-Jews, the Canaanites and the dogs. This is one of the most distinctive turning points in the gospel of Matthew. Jesus suddenly develops a new understanding of his identity and mission. And since I will be delving deep into my theological books in a couple of weeks and into the corridors of academia it is important that I struggle to understand Jesus as both fully human and fully divine. Those two dimensions cannot be separated out from one another. And so, I wonder, is it possible to conceive that Jesus learned just like the rest of us? Did Jesus really initially believe that his mission was only for the Israelites? I think so.

Jesus would have been raised within the Jewish community. He would have initially understood his mission as being exclusively for his fellow Jews and Israelites. And if you read through the chapters of Matthew’s gospel that precede today’s text, you will discover that today we have the first instance of an outsider seeking Jesus for healing. This text is a turning point for Jesus. Jesus’ own understanding of love is transformed as he recognizes its limitless nature. His mission now seeks to include all people and embraces the diversity that exists throughout the world.

That limitless mission of Jesus is timeless. In the society for which Matthew’s gospel was first written the local faith community was struggling to understand their own sense of mission. The local community struggled to understand how the Gentile people could also be recipients of the grace and love that the Jewish God was bringing. And if the Gentiles were going to suddenly be receiving Jewish promises, there was also the question of whether the Gentiles should be following Jewish law and customs as prescribed by the Torah.

Our societies continue to cry out Kyrie Eleison, Lord have mercy, after all these years. Individuals within our own churches continue to be more concerned with determining who is in and who is out. I won’t name the issues, you know what the hot ones are. The fact of the matter is that we are all dogs. Martin Luther would agree, he wrote, “we are all beggars.” We are all dogs, every last one of us. We are all undeserving and unworthy of God’s promises. We are all outsiders. And on almost every Sunday we sing Kyrie Eleison, Lord have mercy. And just before receiving communion when we pray for the church, those in need, and all of God’s creation, we cry out Kyrie Eleison. And sometimes, it even seems as if God is silent until the limitlessness of God’s grace and love expands even farther.

Jesus could not have imagined how grand and magnificent his mission really was until he met some of the very people he was sent to serve. Our church is still seeking to understand how grand and magnificent Christ’s mission really is as we learn to recognize and celebrate the diversity that exists among us. And sometimes, all that we can do in our faith is cry out Kyrie Eleison, Lord have mercy.

I too am still learning to recognize how grand and magnificent Christ’s mission is. And it is difficult to comprehend everything that has happened in this past year. In seminary as future pastors we are urged to be open to God’s call, to serving the church anywhere and in any capacity. That means being open to serving any and all of God’s people. Okay – I knew this. But what I did not know one year ago and what I know now is that this requires love.

I think that most of you know that I had never been to the U.P. prior to starting my internship. My first impressions, mostly based upon rumors I had heard, made me imagine you all as something like the seven dwarfs. Dirty from working underground in the mine, you have washing machines at the laundry mat specifically for your mining clothes. Everyone is covered in hair, including the women, so as to keep you warm through the long cold winter and to serve as camouflage for all the hunting you do. Since you hunt so much the grocery stores are small and perhaps the strangest thing is that you call yourselves Yoopers and have odd accents.

One year ago I traversed through the woods in my moving truck to Da U.P., “God’s country.” I entered your town somewhat terrified and in the matter of a few short weeks and months, amidst both joys and frustrations, I ended up falling in love you people. And I can only hope that some of you ended up falling in love with me since I am the outsider among you.

The story of the Canaanite woman is a story about inclusivity. It invites us to embrace a Jesus who comes to recognize all people, even the foreigner, even us dogs as recipients of God’s grace and love. The story reminds us to be persistent even in the face of rejection, to absorb pain and insult by clinging to faith. The Canaanite woman is indeed a model of God’s persistent and constant care for the needy, speaking out even while being ignored, insulted and disregarded. She gives voice to the helpless and urges us to reach out to the most vulnerable in our world. We are all dogs and yet we are all children of God’s promises. May we, like Jesus, learn to recognize the outsider among us by who they are and come to call them sister and brother.

Vicar Luke Smetters


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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