Does God Play Favorites? (Sermon)
Rev. Dr. Eric Moeller
Text: Matt. 15:21-28
11th Sunday after Pentecost
Trinity Lutheran Church, Portland, OR
August 16, 2020
This is such a difficult text, so easily misunderstood. Why doesn´t Jesus answer the woman right away? Is he cold and hard towards her? Why does he say such seemingly harsh things in the face of her plight? First, he seems to exclude her from the sphere of his concern. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Then he seems to be saying she is less worthy of his concern because she is a Gentile. “It is not right to take the children´s bread and toss it to their dogs.” What is going on here? And most importantly, what does it mean for us, for our relationship to God and our relationship to others around us? May God illuminate our hearts and minds today that we may more fully appreciate the wonder of his grace and more firmly grasp his gift with the hand of faith.
In the end, Jesus makes clear that in no way does he look down on this poor woman because he gives the highest praise for her faith that anyone receives in the Gospels. While he often chides his disciples for the smallness of their faith he says to this woman, “O woman, great is your faith!” However, this is definitely not a politically correct Scripture reading. It doesn´t tell us the same story as modern ideas of human rights and equality. It´s not a text about these things at all. It is about grace, something more strange, wonderful, and transforming than our political rhetoric and ideas of fairness. The question the story raises might be, “Does God play favorites?” Are there some people that he blesses with loving homes and good parenting, success in school and the workplace? Some to whom he gives knowledge of his truth and others he keeps in darkness and ignorance. How can we understand the deep and terrible mystery of the world in which we live, in which some are so richly blessed and others are deprived of so much?
Today we have the problem of entitlements. The biggest long-term problems in the federal budget come from the steep rises in the cost of medical care and Social Security as the baby boomers retire. Decades ago, in the economic boom of the 90´s, none of that seemed to matter. Back then the attitude was, we´ll resolve those problems when we come to them; for now, let´s enjoy our economic prosperity. Now the bills are coming due. The question is, who will pay?
The truth is, of course, that we have to tighten our belts and raise revenues. WE have to cut costs and pay more taxes. But it seems that nobody on either side of the controversies wants to face the issues honestly, some refuse to pay more taxes and others want to keep all government services and benefits untouched.
You see, we have this huge sense of entitlement in our society. It´s my money, I earned it, we say. We believe that we deserve prosperous middle-class lives, the best health care available, efficient, honest, and courteous civil servants, and top-notch educational opportunity. These are our rights as citizens. And by the way, don´t expect us to pay for these things. We want them to be given to us.
There is a culture of entitlement in our society. The problem is, of course, that reality is different than the assumptions of the culture of entitlement. Prosperity is not a given. Resources and wealth come from hard work and sacrifice from all of us, not just from a few. The culture of entitlement undermines the very things that make possible a prosperous and generous society. 1) Gratitude and an appreciation for the legacy others have left for us. The schooling, the prosperity, the order, the opportunities that have nurtured me in my life came to me as a gift. I am not entitled to them. And my hard work is only part of the reason I am where I am. Much has come about because of the hard work and sacrifice of others. 2) Responsibility: The only way we can continue to have a healthy society where people can enjoy together the blessings of God is when we recognize our common responsibilities to work and to sacrifice for the good of all. We must not only care for ourselves and our families, but we must care for others around us, our communities. No one is an island. We are in this together.
The culture of entitlement says I deserve a good life because I am me. Because I am an American, or a human, or whatever the case may be.
And here comes the Canaanite woman experiencing the wretchedness of the human condition. Her daughter is possessed by a demon. The culture of entitlement has no answer to the problem of demon possession. The reality of the devil is something we have been taught to forget, and so rather than recognize the power and reality of evil in the world and its mysterious operation in our lives, we demonize one another and point our fingers at everyone we think is to blame for our problems. We are loath to admit the problem of evil in ourselves.
The Canaanite woman was not a Jew. And yet she has come to know of the hope of Israel. She is one of the first in the Gospel to come to Jesus and call him “the Son of David.” God´s Word had come to her and she had reason to believe that her daughter could be set free by this Jewish rabbi.
We know that Jesus was not insensitive to her plight but had a deeper desire for her, the desire that she might by faith embrace all that he came to bring us and also the desire to teach his disciples, still bound up in the prejudices and false sense of entitlement of the Jewish people.
If this woman had been part of our culture of entitlement, she might have turned away from Jesus after his first word, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But no, she does not have a sense of entitlement. She is not indignant. She does not come to Jesus thinking she deserves his attention. But she comes in the hope that he might help her. And so she cries out with a naked cry for mercy, “Lord, help me.” Here Jesus engages her in a dialogue that on the surface could appear to be a harsh rebuke, but in fact contains an invitation to believe. “It is not right to take the children´s bread and toss it to their dogs.” He speaks of the house pets who have a place in the children´s house, not of the dogs of the street, loathed and despised in the ancient Near East. He is not closing the door to her plea but rather engaging in a conversation, inviting her to take another step forward in faith. And she does, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters´ table.”
She believes in the mercy and grace of God in Christ Jesus. It is not a sense of entitlement that brings her to this point, for a sense of entitlement would say, “I deserve this, Lord.” She knows she does not deserve the Lord´s help but she believes in his mercy.
Christianity is not about entitlement. The Bible is very clear about what we deserve. “The wages of sin is death.” The message is hard and cold, as hard and cold as the reality of life and death in our sin-stricken world. You want what is coming to you, think twice! The wages of sin is death. That offends our selfish sense of entitlement. Sometimes we think God ought to save us. He owes it to us, we think. But we conveniently forget the mystery of our sin, our consuming selfishness, our lack of trust in God, and the absence of true love for him and for others.
The wages of sin is death, says the Word of God. Death is the “No” which crushes our self-centered claims to deserve life and prosperity and everything else we desire. The answer is “No!” You will not return to Eden. No, you cannot live without God. No, your will will not be done. Nor will your private selfish kingdom come. Without God you are lost.
But thanks be to God, “the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” It is God´s gift that rescues us from the grip of Satan, from our own selfish madness. We were dead in trespasses and sins in which we used to live, following the ways of this world and of the ruler of this world, the devil. We are not entitled to eternal life. But God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but rather have eternal life.
Faith receives that gift. And in doing so recognizes that it is a gift, not an entitlement. Faith is by definition grateful and humble, for if it is not, it is not faith. If we think we deserve the gift of God, we cannot receive it. If we come with our hands full of good works to offer to God for our salvation, then our hands are closed and full and they are not open to receive the gift.
Does God play favorites? NO! He gives the priceless gift of life. He gives the gift of saving faith. It is precious beyond anything we can imagine. It was paid for by the blood of Jesus. It is not an entitlement. It is not something we can claim for ourselves and hold onto as if we deserved it. It is not an anything goes amnesty. It is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes.
The Canaanite woman shows us the way. We come to Jesus, oppressed by the evil one, by the struggle of this earthly life, above all by our own sin and unworthiness, and he has promised us, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” We come with the empty hand of faith and we leave with the gift of life. We leave with freedom from the bondage of Satan and with a heart of gratitude and love.
When we forget how truly precious grace is we can lose the gift. We start to think we are entitled to it. We look at those who are not part of our fellowship as less than us. People try our patience, they come with their agendas, their hypocrisy, their imperfections. Like the disciples, we say to our Master, “Send them away.” But he does not send them away. He calls them to himself. May we also call them to Jesus.
The grace of our Lord Jesus does not have limits. His death paid for our sins, past, present and future. He is the Lamb of God who has taken away the world’s sin. He sees our need and has compassion upon us. He pours the riches of his grace into the empty hands of our faith. May we, therefore, like the Canaanite woman, trust Him boldly. Amen.