Surprised by Grace

Written by Joel on August 18th, 2011

Aug 14, 2011
Proper 15
Matthew 15:21-28

Have you ever been surprised by grace? Have you ever seen grace ever shown up in unexpected places? Grace: unmerited, undeserved, unearned favor from God. Have you ever seen grace show up in unexpected people? Not people who were not expecting grace themselves; have you ever been surprised at who was receiving grace? That’s the tricky thing about grace- you can’t earn grace, by definition you receive it because you don’t deserve it, and yet people seem to get uneasy when they see undeserving people receiving favor from God.

I think our Gospel story is about being surprised by grace – specifically being surprised by who is seeking God’s mercy, how they seek it, and all they represent. It would seem, from this Gospel text, that even Jesus is surprised by just how far his grace extends – even to a Canaanite! Jesus is 100 percent God, but also 100 percent man, and he was conditioned by his upbringing. Growing up, he probably heard the stories about the Israelites who were told by God to conquer the Canaanites under the faithful leadership of Joshua; about how the Canaanites made war against Israel. He may recall the story of Noah, how Noah fell asleep drunk and naked and his youngest son Ham saw him. Noah, embarrassed, pronounced a curse on Ham the father of the Canaanites. “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers. Praise be to the Lord, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. May God extend Japheth’s territory; may Japheth live in the tents of Shem, and may Canaan be the slave of Japheth.” (Gen 9:25-27) You may begin to see that there is some bad blood between Israelites and Canaanites; in fact they are cursed by God in Holy Scriptures – how can you argue with that? And now how surprising that the accursed, a Canaanite woman is able to call Jesus Lord, and recognize him as the son of David.

This is not Jesus’ first encounter with non-Jews. He has even healed Gentiles just by saying a word. In fact, this encounter might remind you of the faith of the Centurion. Again, a non-Jew approached Jesus and asked for healing on behalf of another – his servant. Jesus was quick to respond in that encounter saying “Shall I go to him.” The Centurion said, I am not worthy to receive you into my house, but only say the word and my servant shall be healed. And it was so, and Jesus even commended the Centurion on his faith. But grace does not seem so abundant for the Canaanite woman, with very similar circumstances – she approached Jesus, asked for grace, this time for a daughter, but she was ignored – this is asking too much! And today’s Gospel reading is put right in the middle of not one, but two miraculous feeding stories. Jesus fed 5000 people (not including women and children) with just five loaves of bread and 2 little fishes! After this encounter Jesus feeds 4000; and this woman literally asks for crumbs. Why so much grace for so many, and so little grace for this one?

It’s hard to apply the saying “What Would Jesus Do?” to today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus begins by just ignoring the woman, and then calls her a dog. Maybe he was having a bad day, after what must have been a quite tiring time of healing and teaching he was just seeking some peace and quiet and then this woman intrudes. Maybe Jesus was having a bad day. Maybe grace was easier in theory for the faceless crowd, but more difficult when face to face with your ancestral enemy.

But the woman persists, shamelessly so. This is not a simple passing request. She cried for mercy! She kneels down and pleads “Lord!” three times. Much like our opening litany this morning: Lord have mercy! Christ have mercy! Lord have mercy! She was not just reading from paper, she was pleading with all her heart. She cries for crumbs. What would you do in the face of such a passionate plea?

One time, while at scripture study with other pastors in Woodstock – we were sitting in the church basement office, eating lunch, talking about our Sunday sermons and ministries, enjoying each others company. A timid knock comes and the door and a young woman with frizzy red hair shows her self in. Her eyes getting a bit big, I wonder that she wasn’t expecting so many people in that church during a weekday. She cautiously asked for the pastor, and someone mentioned we were all pastors- I’m not sure if this was good news or a bit overwhelming for her. We waited patiently as she struggled to find the words to explain why she had walked in that day. She was looking for financial assistance. Specifically gas money. There was some awkward silence, we glanced around the table. And finally someone spoke up – offering her names of assistance agencies and phone numbers; those really were the right places to get that kind of help right? What could we do? How were we to know if she was abusing the system? So we sent her away, we did what the disciples wanted to do with the Canaanite woman. We were short on grace that day. The Canaanite woman was not as timid as the Woodstock woman. The Canaanite woman cried and pleaded. I wonder what would have happened, what would we have done if she started to cry, what if she were able to point out to us how we were discussing how to preach grace on Sunday, but found it hard to offer grace on Tuesday. Even the dogs eat crumbs that fall from the children’s table, the Canaanite woman said. The Canaanite woman pointed out the hypocrisy: “you are treating me worse than a dog.”

I don’t know what exactly changed for Christ, that he would move from outright ignoring the woman, to name calling, and then to grace. In her passionate plea, her recognition that Jesus is the Christ, son of David, he saw her faith. Perhaps he was confronted with what he had been taught his whole life about Canaanites and had to reconcile it with what he knew now about this one woman before him – that faith is possible even in the most unlikely, and that his grace could be poured out for her. Prejudice is much easier in theory when you don’t have to look a person in the eye to see their tears, to see their humanity. I wonder that Jesus was surprised by grace that day, surprised at just how far his grace could extend. He did come for the lost sheep of Israel – and yet his grace overflowed. Thank God that his grace overflowed to Gentiles, even such as us.

Where might you not expect grace? Who would you be surprised to receive grace? Who is the Canaanite for us – that type of person we have been raised to be weary of? Would you be surprised to find them with grace? Do illegal immigrants deserve Gods grace? Arabs? Gays and Lesbians? Those who are disabled?

Who deserves God’s grace? You might be surprised.


Leave a Comment