Under the Cross: She Only Calls Him Lord
By Harrison Goodman
And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon." But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, "Send her away, for she is crying out after us." He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." And he answered, "It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Then Jesus answered her, "O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire." And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15:-21-28)
For the most part, people are only interested in religion during two stages of their lives. The first is as a child, in wonder. We do our best to keep that one going as long as possible and prolong that sense of joy down in the heart. We talk about miracles. We reflect on the Jesus who loves baby sheep and playing with kids.. The other time, after hardship forces the child to grow up, we ask two questions: "Why would God ever tell me no?" and "How can I change His mind?" We in the Church usually try to shut that one down pretty quickly. It's not because we don't care. It's because we don't know the answers to those questions either. As a consequence, most people find the Church to be a quiet place the one time they need it to speak loudest. So after coming up empty on both questions, most wander off, calling the whole religious experience largely unsuccessful.
Most of us have met this woman in Matthew 15 in one way or another. Some of us have been where she is. She goes by a lot of names, but the pattern is always the same. She's that person who seemingly does everything right, but for whom everything goes wrong anyway. She prays. Goes to church. Tries to be a good person. The whole bit. But her loved one is still suffering.
We usually have no idea what to say. Because what advice is there really? What comfort is there in a God who says no? This woman's daughter is oppressed by a demon. That's bad. So she does all the right things. She goes to Jesus, who usually casts it out, who says He's there to conquer it. She prays. "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David." He seemingly ignores her.
The disciples get uncomfortable. Listen, Jesus, if you're not gonna help her, at least get her out of here. We don't know what to say. It's hard to feel the praise song when there's someone lamenting right next to us. But she comes and kneels before Him. She really prays from the bottom of her heart. "Lord, help me." Nope. This food is for Israel, not little dogs. This is not that easy, childlike, wonder stage. There is no gentle shepherd. The flashy miracle goes unperformed just a little bit too long to excuse it as dramatic effect. So it's time for the two big questions from us: "Why would God tell her no?" and "How did she manage to change His mind, so I can do it, too?" Except the truth is, most of our problems aren't solved after eight verses. Sometimes God says no.
When the Answer Is "No"
I've taken the easy way out for too long on that. What father doesn't say no sometimes? At least, what good one? No ice cream because it will spoil your dinner. "No" in this case isn't about being mean, but rather good. But I can't really get my head around the phrase, "No, I won't cure your cancer because it will spoil your dinner." It's a little less cute. Still, sometimes God says no. That "no" is enough to make us question God's very character. Who He is. What He cares about. The thing that makes the disciples so uncomfortable, though, is that despite the temptation to call Jesus a lot of things for what we perceive as injustice toward this woman, she only calls Him Lord.
We only want to deal with God according to our experiences, but she only wants to remember His promises. Son of David, have mercy. Lord, help. These are names taught by God. They make promises about who He is. What He'll do. She doesn't see a chance to argue her way to get what she wants. She sees the Son of David. She sees God in the flesh. If He's there, it's for a purpose. Even if she doesn't understand it. Even if she hates it at the moment. If He's here when He could be anywhere, it's for what He was promised to do. The Son of David is supposed to save.
So she won't let this rest on who she is. That doesn't matter. This is about who Jesus is. Canaanite? True. Little dog compared to God? Fine, I guess it's not wrong. But Jesus is still the Son of David, and the Son has mercy on sinners. That's what faith is at the end of the day. It's seeing the goodness of God through His Word, even in the face of our experiences. It's trust in His Word--both what it says about our not being enough, but also about Jesus' being the Savior for everyone who can't fix what's wrong. Faith is daring to beg from God because we actually trust Him when He promises to help. Faith is holding on to His promises because while He hasn't always gotten it done the way we want, He's never broken one yet. Faith wrestles with God. It grabs on and won't let go. Because if God is there to wrestle with, it's because He won't stand back from our problems or our sins.
Maybe It's Actually "Yes"
You can't wrestle with someone who won't be near you in the first place. In this Canaanite woman's time of need, there sits God. So she grabs on and won't let go. Faith sees a lot of "yes" hidden in God's "no" because it starts with the promise that God is good. It concludes that if God is near, He's here for good in the first place. Faith is willing to stop asking the why and the how long enough to consider the Who. This is about who God is. It's a question of His Being and not just His actions, because ultimately the actions must follow the Being. If God is good, the things He does must be good, too. Even when things look like this.
There's a lot of evil down here. Some of it's our fault. Some I'll put on the demons. It's not God's fault, but He makes it His to bear. He'll wade into it just to be near you. Work good inside it. Stories of wondrous miracles are great. The Good Shepherd who carries little children is fantastic. But if you really want to teach our religion, it can only be the Cross. The miracles were great for some, but if you're still missing yours, the Cross was already there for you. There God shows why He drew near to this woman and her daughter in need--not with gentle imagery, but with a sacrifice to save. It's good, even when it isn't gentle. Among evil and sin and suffering and death, God fulfills His promise. He died so that the power of demons would come undone, and this poor woman's daughter would be free from her curse. He died so that sinners would be forgiven, so that every awful name we can rightly be called would be left behind where God buries them in a tomb. He died so that every unanswered why would be overwhelmed by an all-merciful Who. Jesus died for you so that you will live. Jesus died for you so that you would find rescue, help, and even hope in the middle of the crosses of this life.
So wrestle with God. Hear His promise and dare to expect Him to be here for you. Hold on to His promises in the face of everything, because even when we can't for the life of us understand why, we're still told Who. Yours is the Son of David who has mercy on sinners. It's just who He is. Even when saying no, He's working towards the larger yes. Hold God to His promises. Expect good from Him. He dares you to in these words, because they're already fulfilled. It is finished. Christ has been crucified for you. You are the baptized child of the Father. Even now, He isn't far. He's here for you in Body and Blood. God won't be away from you in your time of need. And if He's here, it's for your good. Kneel here and wrestle. Lay your problems out and say simply Lord, help. Lord, have mercy on me. He promised to. He does. He will. Even in the word "no." He has mercy on sinners. He has mercy on you.
Rev. Harrison Goodman is the associate pastor at Mount Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church in San Antonio, Texas.
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