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Remember Your Mercy, O Lord (St. Matthew 15.21-28)

Reminiscere – The Second Sunday in Lent


“Remember Your Mercy, O Lord”
Philip G. Meyer, Pastor Emeritus        

St. Matthew 15.21-28

13 March 2022



The Lenten season focuses on the Word of God. Last week’s Gospel records the temptation of of Jesus. After each temptation by the devil our Lord answered, “It is written,” pointing out that the Word of God must be the key thing. [Matt. 4.1-11]. The Apostle Paul reminds us, 

“So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” [Rom. 10.17].

Faith begins when the Word about Christ is proclaimed and heard. Yet, there were many Jews who listened very carefully to Christ’s own words yet never believed them. They should have because they had the prophets and the whole Old Testament. This woman had never entered a synagogue to hear the Word. It was relayed to her by others. 

What she knew of Jesus could only have come from the Word of God. St. Mark tells us that she had heard about Jesus and sought him out. Here was a man who could help her in her desperate need. The word about Jesus created faith in her heart. It was a small faith but Jesus would soon make it a great faith. 

This woman is an example of the kind of faith that you and I covet. She approaches Jesus crying out, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” Just like centurion in chapter 8, this woman begs mercy.The first remarkable thing we should notice is that she addresses Jesus by his messianic title, “Son of David,” even though she is not a Jew.

What happened next was truly miraculous. She pleaded but Jesus answered her not a word. Jesus continues as if she weren’t there. She believed Jesus could help her but Jesus says not one word to her. He is as silent as a stone.

Many of us would have given up at that. Think of the times when God has been silent to your prayers. I know. I’ve been there! What does one do when God himself is silent? Why is God hiding himself from me? Why doesn’t he answer?

But this woman is not deterred. She enlists the disciples to plead with Jesus for her. This was repetitive pleading because the disciples complain to Jesus:

“Send her away, for she is crying out after us.”

If she cannot get Jesus to answer her she’ll get his disciples to plead on her behalf. She sacrifices all her pride because her need is so great. It is her dearest daughter who needs healing and only Jesus can heal her. The disciples had intervened on behalf of others before, even for a Roman centurion. We do that, too. We get others to pray for us in our need. Prayer chains have been popular. Get as many people pleading with Jesus for your cause and it surely will help. Gang up on Jesus! Surely, he hears the prayers of others more righteous than ourselves! Surely, Christ will not ignore the prayers of the saints, or even of the pastor!

But that’s exactly what happens. Jesus doesn’t even address this woman. He tells his disciples that his mission is not to Gentiles. He’s been sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. He has come to save the Jews. Gentiles are out of the question. The prayers of the disciples are rebuffed as well. A perceptive person would have given up at this point. What’s the use? He’s not answering and he’s not listening to those closest to him. Her prayer and the prayers of the saints have hit a brick wall. Jesus is not moving. 

But she doesn’t give up! This woman hears this and bravely follows Jesus into the house, as Mark records [Mark 7.24-25]. She comes forward and kneels at Jesus’ feet. He has not spoken to her directly. He has ignored her. He has rebuffed her appeals through his disciples, and yet, she is like a pesky gnat that cannot be swatted away! She will not be deterred. Again she pleads, in three short words, “Lord, help me.”

This woman clings solely to the Word of God. It’s all she has and she uses it again. The only thing this woman has is the Word and she will not let go of it. But then comes the deathblow. Jesus responds by telling her, You’re a dog and not worthy of anything! The worst insult a Jew could give to a non-Jew was to call him a dog, a scavenger. Dogs were considered unclean by Jews. This verse from Leviticus seals it:

And all that walk on their paws, among the animals that go on all fours, are unclean to you. [Lev. 11.27]

This woman is ceremonially unclean. She has no right to anything holy. In reality, she is one of the damned—lost—never to be rescued. Amazingly, this woman does not argue. She does not get huffy and stomp off at having been so insulted by Christ. She stays. She clings to the Word. She admits that she is indeed a dog, one who is unclean, but she asks no more than what a dog gets, the crumbs off the master’s table. 

Luther remarks, “Is that not a masterpiece?” [Luther’s Works, vol. 76, p. 380]. She grabs hold of Christ’s own words and turns them back on him. The children’s bread must be given to them but she will take the crumbs that fall from the children’s table. And at that, Christ answers her prayer with words that live on forever: 

“O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” 

It might seem as if this woman has been manipulating Jesus but it is really the opposite. We must first confess that God is righteous in his judgment of us as unworthy people. We have no right to ask anything from God because of our sins. He will give us everything by grace but we must first recognize our sin. This account is one of pure grace. This woman earned nothing. She simply clung to Christ. She would not let go of him. 

We Lutherans call this Law and Gospel. The Law must first be proclaimed before we can realize our need for a Savior. In this Lenten season we emphasize repentance and prayer. We must confess with this woman, “Yes, Lord, it is true. I am unworthy of your grace and forgiveness. I have nothing to present to you, but you have come to seek and to save the lost. You have come to save sinners. I am a sinner who pleads your mercy.” The Pharisees and religious leaders never saw themselves that way. They were not unworthy, unclean dogs in their own eyes They were privileged, better than all the rest, but they were self-deluded. 

In Divine Services 1 & 2 we confess corporately by saying “we,” but in Divine Service 3 it becomes more personal, 

I, a poor miserable sinner, confess unto You all my sins and inquiries with which I have ever offended You and justly deserved Your temporal and eternal punishment.”

You and I have only God’s mercy to plead, nothing else. We don’t deserve forgiveness and we can’t earn it. Sometimes in the dire circumstances of your lives we have prayed together only these words, “Lord, have mercy.” All other words seem useless. In the face of great tragedy what else can one pray? What greater gift can one ask than to receive the mercy of God?

We have only the Word to which we can cling, the promises of God proclaimed into our ears in Word and Sacrament. On many occasions Luther said that our Lord loves to be caught on his promises. Yet, he tests us as he did this Canaanite woman. He tempers us as steel in the fire to become stronger. He turns us back to his Word, the only sure thing in this world. 

Indeed, we are not dogs, but adopted children of God through Holy Baptism. In the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit God the Holy Spirit made us his own in Christ. Into his death and resurrection we have been baptized. God has us as his own and we have Christ as our Savior. We can come to him as dear children ask their dear Father for Christ’s sake. 

Many times in the Divine Service we invoke God’s boundless mercy for us. Four times in the Kyrie we ask God to have mercy on us [DS 1 & 2]. Again in the Agnus Dei we plead for God to have mercy on us. In the Post-Communion Collect we thank God for delivering his mercy again to us in the Sacrament. 

We must always come back to the sure Word of God because God cannot go back on what he has promised. We hold God accountable for his promise of mercy to us in Christ. We remind him of his promises to help and see us through our life’s difficulties and know that he will bring us safely to himself at the last.

“Remember Your Mercy, O Lord!”

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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