Text: Matthew 15:21-28
Date: Pentecost XIV + 8/17/08
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI
In the hymn, “Beautiful Savior,” we sing of our Savior Jesus Christ calling him “Lord of the nations.” The scripture readings appointed for today all point to the universality of God’s plan of salvation; that God so loved the world; and that God’s plan was worked out in a particular way that can be known as he has communicated it through the inspired Prophetic and Apostolic Scriptures: namely, the covenant begun in Abraham, through the descendents of Israel, culminating in the promised Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. As God promised Abraham, “by your descendents will all the nations of the earth be blessed,” so Jesus concluded his earthly ministry with the command to make known this Good News and make disciples “of all nations.” This day we affirm again the Way, the Truth and the Life: Jesus who said, “no one comes to the Father but by me,” boldly testifying that “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Now, that should come as a shock to no one. Yet, today we make that age-old affirmation in the face of a new situation. For, especially with today’s heightened awareness of the religion of Islam, and in the mix of a nation founded, in part, on the principle of freedom of religion and religious tolerance, that principle itself seems to have become a religion of sorts, one which will not tolerate the idea that any one religion is more or less true than any other. In other words, either all religions are true, at least to some extent (which is the false doctrine called universalism) or all religions are false (which attitude is called atheism).
God’s love for the world and everyone in it is demonstrated over and over again throughout the scriptures. The prayer has been on the lips of all of God’s people ever since Psalm 67 has been prayed around the world, “May God be gracious…that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations…. Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you…guide the nations upon earth. Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you!”
Ever since the temple of God’s Presence was constructed in Jerusalem, the invitation and command was always there, as reflected in today’s Old Testament reading, “‘the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord…these I will bring to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer…for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.’ The Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, ‘I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered’” (Isaiah 56:6-8). Along the same line, Jesus said, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16).
The genealogy of Jesus as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel is witness to the universality of God’s salvation. For there we find, besides the Old Testament fathers of faith and royalty, women and Gentiles included in the house and lineage of David, the history of salvation. Today’s Gospel emphasizes how the Jews were the first to receive the Christ. When Jesus said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he meant that he was commissioned to work out redemption in the Jewish nation, as the Jewish Messiah, and only after that this invitation would be carried officially to all the world. Nevertheless, beginning already with the attraction of the Gentile Wise Men from the East at his birth, and now this Canaanite woman pleading for mercy, and so many others, faith happened even in non-Jewish hearts and was not denied. “O woman, great is your faith!” In fact, the climax of St. Matthew’s Gospel is in the confession of the Gentile centurion who having witnessed Jesus’ death on the Cross, said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Mt. 27:54).
Now you can see how today’s Epistle fits in to the picture, as the 9th through 11th chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans is all about how the nation of Israel was disobedient in rejecting their Messiah. “But it is not as though the word of God has failed,” he says. With the coming of the Messiah, the reality is that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Rom. 9:6). Listen to that again, “not all who are descended from Israel” (those with Jewish backgrounds) “belong to Israel.” Clearly, he is emphasizing the original and spiritual meaning of the word “Israel,” meaning all people, regardless of genealogy, who have been made members of the household of God by faith in Christ, God’s people of faith. The faith and salvation of God has nothing to do with the modern, secular State of Israel—except to say that Christ died for all the people who live there, too. “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all” (Rom. 11:32). There is no favoritism. There is only one way. The only way of salvation for all is by repentance of sin and faith in Christ by the mercy of God.
Which brings us to our day and our current situation when to make such an exclusive claim is judged by many as unloving, bigoted and even un-American. Christ meant no disrespect when he appeared to be rejecting the Canaanite woman. It was, rather, a moment and opportunity for faith. If there had been no faith in the woman’s heart, we could expect her to have either quietly and humbly given up and retreated, or, maybe even huffing and stomping away saying, “Well! Of all the arrogance!” But true faith knows and perceives the love of God in Christ as the fulfillment of all of God’s promises through the Jews to the whole world. Therefore it was her faith that prompted her to step a little closer and to kneel before him, saying, simply, “Lord, help me.”
In the same way, we mean no disrespect toward anyone when we say there is only one God and only one way of salvation. But neither can we disrespect God by hiding the light of the Gospel or by even giving the impression that we can ignore the First Commandment: You shall have no other gods. When the Apostle Paul tells us, “do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers” (2 Cor. 6:14-16), he in no way means to say we are to ignore them. God would have “all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). By witnessing to the truth of Jesus Christ and by preaching his Word, there is created the opportunity for faith. And those who the Lord himself calls and gathers are then to be directed to the Word and Baptism into Christ.
Alongside the Canaanite woman, therefore, let us kneel, and invite others to kneel with us, saying, simply, “Lord, help us.” We confess to you our failings and unworthiness. Yet we claim you as our Master, as you have claimed the whole world the object of your love. Hear our cry for your mercy and protection and save us.