Lord, have mercy

A sermon on Matthew 15:10-28; Isaiah 56:1, 6-8

Lord, have mercy.
“Lord, have mercy.” It’s one of those phrases that suits so many situations and can be taken so many different ways.  Sometimes we utter it in exasperation, in disbelief or sarcasm, with an eye roll for good measure.  Perhaps more often these days, we say it in grief, shock, or surrender.  It’s a line for when we are at a loss for words or when words are simply insufficient.

The Canaanite woman of Matthew 15 yells this phrase at the top of her lungs.  “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented.”  Jesus doesn’t answer, but we know that he heard her, for the disciples sidled up to Jesus and urged him to send her away.  “She keeps shouting.  Her voice is shrill.”

Jesus weighs the situation, doesn’t say she can’t be there, and sort of diplomatically says, “Sorry, can’t help. You’re not in my constituency. Not my responsibility.”

The woman, of course, persists.  She jostles forward, using her body to block his forward progress.  “Help me, Rabbi.”

Again, with the excuse that the healing salve he has developed only works in certain cases, Jesus denies her access – he doesn’t have enough to spare, and it won’t work for her type.

Yet she remains, unmoving at his feet.  “Yes, Lord, yet even my type are healed by a drop of this balm for which we would scour the rubbish heaps at the edge of town.”

Jesus, whether in mock or true surprise, responds, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”

Her wish, the desire of her heart, in contrast the Pharisees earlier in chapter 15, is pure and life-giving.  What comes out of her mouth is the hope of her daughter’s healing.  And her daughter is healed instantly.

Healings in the Gospel of Matthew
Looking at the Gospel of Matthew as a whole, healings like this are commonplace. Generally, you can separate the healing stories into two themes or categories. 

The first category is the smaller of the two. These healing stories are grouped because they’re the ones where Jesus is the proactive actor.  There’s Peter’s mother-in-law in ch. 8, who is ill and Jesus goes in to heal her.  She does not, in the text, ask for healing and yet receives it.  Or there’s the man with a withered hand who Jesus encounters upon entering the synagogue in ch.12.  Again, the man does not ask for healing but receives it.  The healing of these stories reflects a proactive grace or proactive salvation – these are the people whom Jesus seeks out or whom he seems to just encounter along the way and offers healing.

The second category is the bigger group: healings that occur because people have sought out Jesus.  If the first group shows the proactive healings of Jesus, these stories show the responsive grace of Jesus.  Certainly, the Canaanite woman of Matthew 15 falls in this camp, but this group also includes the crowds who are constantly following Jesus around. Who materialize instantaneously as he walks into towns, or gets off a boat, or comes down a mountain.  Many are healed or cured because they have sought out Jesus.

As a whole, the Gospel of Matthew encapsulates both proactive and responsive healings and grace. There are those who seek Jesus out and those whom he encounters along the way, and the end result is the same: healing.

Seeking Jesus Out
Given today’s text, I want to take a closer look at those who seek Jesus out.  The story of the Canaanite woman connects closely with three other healing stories in Matthew.

Two of them involve two blind men – so four blind men in total – and the third is a father who advocates for his epileptic son.  In each of these four stories, the ones-seeking-healing enter the story with the same line: Lord, have mercy!  And they all do so with equal gusto and persistence, for they are portrayed as speaking this line, “Lord, have mercy,” while “crying loudly,” or “shouting” or jostling through a crowd.  All, inevitably, find healing in Jesus’ response.

But the Canaanite woman’s story diverges here.  The first distinction is that while all experience some level of marginalization because of being affected by illness, the Canaanite woman has two additional stigmas. She’s a woman, of course, an unfortunate gender in that context. And the fact that she makes herself known in public through shouting is serious faux pas.

And, she’s Canaanite. The ethnic backgrounds of the others are not mentioned, from which we can infer that the men were Jewish.  She’s a woman…from the wrong tribe.  So the first divergence is that she should not be there; or, if she’s going to be there, she should know her place and stay in the background.

The other detail that is unique is that she is the only one who meets resistance from Jesus and the disciples when she cries out for mercy.  The disciples–silent in the other three stories–openly voice their desire for her to shut up and go away.  Not only is her voice not welcome, but they also want her to leave.  Jesus also puts up a barrier for healing that he does not construct for the others.

She did nothing different from the others who approached Jesus for healing, crying out, “Lord, have mercy!”  Yet she encounters resistance.  The relevance of how this still plays out today–even at the highest rungs of social and political power–should not be overlooked.

The “Foreigner” of Isaiah
Commentaries pitch a variety of hypotheses on what is happening between the Canaanite woman and Jesus.  In drawing in Isaiah 56, my sense is that the Canaanite woman is the example par excellence of the “foreigner” in Isaiah 56, whom God has committed to “gather in.”  Her body and her embodiment of covenant faithfulness bridge the good news of the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus’ teaching.

Hear again the words of Isaiah 56:6-7:

And the foreigners who join themselves to me,
Ministering to me,
Loving the name of YHWH and worshipping me–
All who observe the Sabbath and do not profane it,
And cling to my Covenant–
These I will bring to my holy mountain
And make them joyful in my house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
Will be acceptable on my altar

The Canaanite woman persistently joins herself to the Son of David, who shares Canaanite blood with her through their common foremothers Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth.  She ministers to Jesus with her wisdom and tenacity, acknowledging Jesus’ authority, and throws herself at Jesus’ feet like a servant.

She is committed, in her own way, to the law of the Sabbath, setting aside her daily labors to seek restoration, renewal, and healing for those in her care. The desire of her heart is a worthy offering.

She knows that she is one who, while an outcast of Israel, deserves a welcome at the house of prayer.  In fact, she will not be kept from it, even if she has to scour the rubbish heaps at the edge of town or sweep up the crumbs from the communion table.  I Am Who I Am has promised to gather all those in – the outcasts who seek the Holy One and the ones the Holy One encounters on the way.

Have Mercy, O God
For what or for whom do you seek healing?  When have you received healing as a gift? 

Whether we have sought out Jesus or unexpectedly encountered him on our journeys, our status as foreigners or even imposters will not be a barrier to the welcome table. 

As we see others drawn in, perhaps throwing elbows and shouting for mercy, may we not stand in their path, or ask them to be quiet and leave. May we instead step out of the way, for all deserve healing and a place at the table.  The Spirit is at work, gathering us to the holy mountain, where there is enough bread and wine for us all.  

Prayer of Petition, in preparation for Communion

Have mercy on us, O God, Son of David.
If we might but taste the crumbs which fall to the ground,
that will be enough to feed our faith,
to make us whole.
Draw us in, we who were once far off,
to your holy mountain,
to your house of prayer –
not only for our healing,
but for the healing of our children,
our siblings, our community,
for the healing of all nations. Amen.


Featured Image: Bazzi Rahib, Ilyas Basim Khuri. The Canaanite Woman Asks for Healing for Her Daughter, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57555 [retrieved August 18, 2020]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ilyas_Basim_Khuri_Bazzi_Rahib_-_Jesus_and_the_Canaanite_Woman_-_Walters_W59243A_-_Full_Page.jpg.

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