Saturday, August 12, 2017

Surprise, Surprise!

We say that we like surprises, but do we?  Especially when it comes to the subject of whom is admitted into the kingdom of God.  Perhaps the story of the Canaanite woman from Matthew 15:21-28, the gospel lesson for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, has more to teach us than we know.  It might also reveal to us surprises that come to Jesus.

(The following questions attempt to unearth some of the themes essential to Law and Gospel preachers.  These questions are not exhaustive; they come from the appendix in my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock. com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This is a unique text in that the Word - in this case, Jesus - functions, first as Law and then, finally, as Gospel.  At the outset Jesus resists the woman's claim to his favor, announcing that his favor is reserved for the children of Israel.  After she refuses to take no for an answer, he relents and announces God's mercy. The whole story is a dialogue between one who cries, "Have mercy," and the One who will say, "Let it be done for you as you wish."

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Again, the way the Word functions changes here. That's what makes this text so unique.  It is as if the writer is showing us the gradual unfolding of God's grand plan in our Lord's mind.  So in the end the Word does not function as Law, but as Gospel.  God's mercy is as wide as the world when all is said and done.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Usually it is important for us to identify with the ones whom the Word addresses, but here it might be important to identify with the disciples, for they are the ones who insist on excluding persons from the Lord's favor.  Like in the previous gospel story, (14:13-21) the disciples' words are "Send her away!"  If we are honest, this is also our tendency, to want to reserve God's favor for those we approve of.  It might be important to identify with both the ones who want to send the woman away, and the woman herself, announcing that it is God''s wide mercy that includes even us.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text? The call to obedience is implicit in this text.  The underlying message is, "If God has had mercy on you, then you are called to have mercy on others.  If God has forgiven you, then you are to forgive others.  If God has not excluded you, then you must not exclude others from God's grace."

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Several couplets readily come to mind:  rejected/accepted; excluded/embraced; condemned/forgiven.  This is a Law/Gospel story.

6.  Exegetical work:  If we look carefully at the details of this story we see all kinds of surprises:  1)  Jesus goes to the district of Tyre and Sidon.  If we look at the Hebrew Scriptures we see that all the prophets condemn these two cities, especially Ezekiel, who declares that Tyre and Sidon would drink to the dregs "the cup of the Lord's wrath"; 2)  A woman from a strange country would approach Jesus. Women had no clout, no status, no voice, and yet she insists on being heard; 3)  This is a Canaanite woman.  The Canaanites were the poster children for what Israel was to avoid - idolatry, lewd worship practices, and the like; 4)  Jesus does not answer the woman's cries.  Note that this would not have surprised anyone present, or anyone hearing this story.  Jesus was under no obligation to even acknowledge this foreign woman; 5)  When Jesus does answer her, he says that God's favor is not extended to her.  Again, this would not have surprised the first century Jews - this is what they believed.  We, however, are surprised by this; 6)  The woman persists.  This really surprised the disciples; 7)  Jesus announces that she is no better than the dogs.  Again, this would not have surprised the witnesses of this event; 8)  The BIG SURPRISE:  Jesus announces that God's mercy does extend to her.  He announces that she, even she is a person of faith!  Wow!

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Fred Craddock always insisted that our job as preachers was to bring the experience of the  text to the listener.  What a wonderful experience for our listeners if they could hear the words as addressed to them:  "Great is your faith.  Let it be done for you as you wish."

Blessings on your proclamation!

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