Matthew 15:21-31 – Sense the Urgency

Woman of Canaan by Sadao Watanabe, 1965

Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”

Jesus did not answer a word. So, his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

Jesus left there and went along the Sea of Galilee. Then he went up on a mountainside and sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them. The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel. (New International Version)

Not much happens until something becomes urgent.

A doctor, a financial planner, or a preacher can tell us something until they are blue in the face, but it usually doesn’t mean much without a sense of urgency that a change must occur – that the way things are isn’t going to cut it any longer. 

We can say eating healthy is of value, yet unless there is a sense of urgency to it, it is difficult to do. Someone can proclaim that retirement savings is important, yet unless there is a sense of desperate action, it likely won’t happen. 

Christians say prayer is important, lost people matter to God, and ministry to youth is the hope of the world. Yet without a sense of urgency, there is procrastination and talking, resulting in zero change.

It’s the difference between law and gospel, or between duty and grace. The law and duty are important elements of the Christian life. The law shows us our sin and gives us direction how to live. However, law and duty can only take us so far – it cannot effect real and lasting change. Only the gospel of grace can do that. 

Law and duty alone won’t do it. And when we figure out it doesn’t work, we try and hide our struggle by keeping up the appearance of being a good Christian. Then, we boil down the rules of the Christian life to merely being nice and attending church (law). Our deep hurts and damaged emotions are handled by burying them in layers of law in order to protect ourselves from any more disappointment.

Nothing could be further from today’s Gospel lesson. We have a Gentile Canaanite woman, who is as far from God as one can get in the ancient world. She is neither concerned about appearances nor hiding to mask her pain. The woman cares about her daughter’s terrible suffering from demonization. She recognizes Jesus as the Promised One and seeks him out.

Only grace, not law-keeping, will save, deliver, or heal anyone.

Grace is bestowed to the humble who recognize the great urgency of needing Jesus – in God’s good timing, not ours. Faith is exemplified by a willingness to beg. It’s demonstrated with dogged persistence in the face of the slimmest of odds.

The Canaanite woman screams for help.

Her daughter is suffering. The region of Tyre and Sidon is demon territory – the home region of the Old Testament character, Jezebel – a place far from the covenant people of Israel’s ways. 

The woman has no leverage, no ground of appeal, and no spiritual pedigree. There is no way to approach Jesus by any other means than crying out to him with her deeply felt need. In her sense of urgency, noise and humility is all she has.

Jesus is silent.

Have you ever felt like God is silent, as though your prayers were doing nothing but bouncing off the ceiling? 

God is often silent. Yet, let’s not misinterpret this lack of response as thinking God didn’t hear, or doesn’t care, or something is wrong with me. Silence from God is just that – agonizing divine silence….

A superficial reading of the story may lead us to believe Jesus is aloof, or elitist, that maybe he isn’t interested in certain people. It seems to me, a better way of interpreting the silence is through the lens of our patience and perseverance, a sort of faith testing.

There is some mystery to this story we may never fully grasp. However, the story lets us know Jesus is not a coin machine where we can slip in a dollar and get immediate change. Jesus is a person, not a mechanism to figure out, to get what we want from him. This is not the way of grace.

The disciples want Jesus speaking to get rid of the screaming obnoxious woman.

“Holy cow, Jesus, just give her what she wants so she’ll go away!”  They wanted a healing, but it wasn’t out of a sense of compassion or grace. “After all, we’ve got important Jesus-work to do here, and we don’t need this woman upsetting the peace, rocking the boat, challenging the status quo, making waves, and ruining our sanctified party.” 

The disciples labeled the woman as loud and undeserving. Frankly, they may have been right. But they were operating out of law, not grace.

Jesus and the Canaanite woman, from Saint Germain-l’Auxerrois church in Paris, France

Sometimes the most compassionate thing we can do is not give everybody what they want, right away. 

Jesus did not come to this earth to ensure everybody gets their way and stays happy so that no one is upset. In fact, Christ did quite the opposite. Jesus sought to do his father’s will by establishing the kingdom of God on this earth – teaching values that weren’t part of the religious culture, telling the most “godly” people of the time they were a brood of vipers, and generally offending a lot of people who claimed to know God.

Jesus cared enough about the woman to not immediately give her what she wanted. She had to go hard after Jesus, to keep going after him, to exercise her faith muscle. 

Jesus doesn’t give the disciples what they want, either.

Two different petitions were given to Jesus, and his response doesn’t really address either one of those asking’s.  He just says he was sent to the lost sheep of Israel. Yet the woman responds as if she doesn’t even hear what Jesus just said.

The chosen nation of Israel was meant by God to be a missionary people. All nations on earth are blessed through Abraham, through the Jewish people. It has always been God’s design to have the Gentiles come to faith, and the way that was to happen was through Israel being a great missionary people proclaiming God and being a light to the nations. 

I tell you that Christ became a servant of the Jews to show that God has done what he promised their great ancestors. Christ also did this so that the non-Jewish people could praise God for the mercy he gives to them. The Scriptures say,

“So, I will give thanks to you among the people of other nations;
    I will sing praise to your name.” (Romans 15:8-9, ERV)

And that is exactly what happened. I am a Gentile Christian today because a small group of Jewish persons took the gospel of grace given them by Jesus and fulfilled their role as a missionary people.

The woman worships and tries Jesus again.

Jesus never said “no” to the woman. This was the basis for her asking again. She reasons much like an infatuated teenager who asks the girl of his affections, “so, what kind of chance do I have going out with you?”  The girl responds to the teenage boy, “a million to one.”  And the boy responds to her, “so, what you’re saying to me is that there’s a chance!”

Slim as the woman’s chances seem, she saw an opening where others might not. This is precisely the nature of true faith – it sees possibilities where none seem to exist.

This is raw, real, and persistent faith. If we don’t resonate with this kind of faith and persistence, there is not a sufficient level of urgency in our lives. The bald fact is: If we don’t pray, it’s because there is no desperation. We are still more fixed on law than gospel. Duty only goes so far.

Jesus still doesn’t answer the woman’s request, but gives her a metaphor about dogs, instead.

Jesus is restating what he said about the Jews: Salvation is through the Jews, not around them. We cannot ignore or get rid of the Old Testament because the gospel comes through it.

The woman still doesn’t give up but works with the metaphor.

She doesn’t argue with Jesus about being a dog; doesn’t insist she ought to be an exception; doesn’t say she has a right to be like the Jews; and doesn’t claim Jesus is being unfair or uncaring.

The woman simply accepts Christ’s words. Then, replies that even as a dog she would be allowed to receive a few crumbs from the table of the children. She might be a dog, but she’s still in the house, even if it’s under the highchair. The woman is looking for mercy as expectantly as my own dog looks at me with those sad brown eyes while I’m eating.

Jesus honors her faith.

Why? Because she humbly looked for grace. We need not write an essay to God about why our requests should be answered, as if Jesus needs convincing. We just need to seek the mercy of God.

Faith, coupled with urgency, doggedly persists. It believes Jesus will deliver. Great faith overcomes discouragement, despite the odds. It doesn’t listen to naysayers who want us to shut up and quit bothering them.  Urgent prayers are an unabashed begging before Jesus because only he can help. Begging isn’t sexy. It isn’t comfortable. But it’s needed.

So, pray. Pray like it’s the only thing that will make a difference. Pray with a sense of urgency. 

Luke 18:35-43 – Lord, Have Mercy

Coptic Church icon of Christ healing the blind man

As Jesus was coming near Jericho, there was a blind man sitting by the road, begging. When he heard the crowd passing by, he asked, “What is this?”

“Jesus of Nazareth is passing by,” they told him.

He cried out, “Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!”

The people in front scolded him and told him to be quiet. But he shouted even more loudly, “Son of David! Have mercy on me!”

So, Jesus stopped and ordered the blind man to be brought to him. When he came near, Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?”

“Sir,” he answered, “I want to see again.”

Jesus said to him, “Then see! Your faith has made you well.”

At once he was able to see, and he followed Jesus, giving thanks to God. When the crowd saw it, they all praised God. (Good News Translation)

This is one of my very favorite stories in the entirety of Holy Scripture. And I will tell you why….

Because Jesus listens with ears of mercy.

Jesus was headed to Jerusalem and had a lot on his mind and his heart. He knew what was coming, that his passion and death awaited him. No one would fault Jesus for not hearing a blind man shouting. But Jesus was listening so that he might hear someone just like the needy blind man. Rather than being distracted and lost in his head, Jesus was just the opposite – being attentive and aware of the humble folk right in front of him.

Because Jesus speaks with words of mercy.

Once Jesus listened, he responded by asking a question. I am impressed with Jesus throughout the Gospels. Christ gave people the gift of choice. He acknowledged people and respected them by not simply and indiscriminately healing, as if he were some fix-it guy. Jesus Christ bestowed on the lowliest of people the human dignity of choice by empowering them to answer a question.

Because Jesus pays attention with divine appointments of mercy.

Our Lord took the time to heal the blind man. Jesus could have simply healed him without even stopping his journey. He could have just waved his hand and the man would be healed. What’s more, Jesus could have even started a healing factory where everyone with a need got healed: bring ‘em in, move ‘em out, and keep the line moving. Jesus was doing more than giving sight; he was giving a man the blessing of time and personal attention. The Gospel is never impersonal, which is why we ought to resist being non-relational in ministry to others.  It isn’t simply about meeting a need but about blessing other people with the gift of relationship.

Ethiopian Orthodox Church depiction of Jesus healing the blind man

Because Jesus reaches out with the touch of mercy.

Jesus touched the man’s eyes (Matthew 20:29-34; Mark 10:46-54). He didn’t have to do that. The Lord of all most certainly could have healed without touching. In fact, it most likely may have been downright gross. A lot of people had eye diseases with runny pussy eyes in the ancient world.

Because the blind man didn’t listen to the crowd.

I really love that! Maybe it’s the rebel in me. I just believe it is such a beautiful thing whenever someone refuses to be shamed by another and embraces their need. That is exactly what the blind man did. He not only refused to give-in to peer pressure, but he also responded to them by shouting all the louder. May his tribe increase!

Because the blind man could actually see.

The man already had sight – not physical sight but spiritual eyes which could see better than anyone else in the crowd. One of the great ironies throughout the Gospels is that the sighted crowd seems to never see who Jesus really is, while blind folk see Christ clearly for who he is: the Son of David, the rightful king, the Savior of all. It matters not how much faith one possesses but in whom that faith is placed. A thimble-full of faith is enough to move mountains, while a water tower full of faith misplaced in someone else cannot even provide a single glass of refreshment.

Because the blind man followed Jesus.

Once healed by Jesus, there were plenty of persons who simply walked away and went about their lives. Yet, this man, who was given the gift of physical sight, started following Jesus and giving thanks to him. It feels a lot like my own testimony of experiencing the love of God in Christ and not ever wanting to leave it, so I’ve been following Jesus for over forty years, still having gratitude in my heart.

Because one lowly non-descript blind man made a difference.

I don’t think the man ever set out to change the world. Yet, he did. Here we are reading his testimony all these millennia later. At the time, please take note that one man becoming a disciple of Jesus and living a life of gratitude changed the entire crowd from being a group of shushing church ladies to a robust throng of worshipers. One individual makes a difference. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of David, heal me, a broken person.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of Man, help me, a lost and lonely individual.

Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy on my love-starved soul. Amen.

Mark 6:45-52 – Facing Fear

Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.

Later that night, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars because the wind was against them. Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out because they all saw him and were terrified.

Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened. (New International Version)

Sometimes, we are afraid – even terrified. And Christians aren’t immune to the feeling of fear and terror.

The truth of the Christian life is that it is a herky-jerky process of three-steps-forward, two-steps-backward, not always knowing with certainty everything we encounter.  

The expectation that we will have a consistent upward trajectory of spiritual development with no scary experiences is wrongheaded and misguided. Throw into the mix that our self-awareness is often skewed, and that we have difficulty assessing ourselves with any accuracy, and voila! we have a recipe for the true human condition.

Doubt, fear, failure, and stubbornness aren’t just endemic to other people – it also characterizes many Christians, as well. We will face severe storms in life. They will be harsh. We will wonder if we’ll even make it out alive, or not. And it may very well seem like Jesus is nowhere to be found. Then, when he does show up, we don’t recognize him, and it scares the bejabbers out of us.

This was the experience of Christ’s disciples, who too often reflect our own stories of faith and fear all rolled up in one person. Today’s Gospel lesson is this: Our fears and foibles do not need to define us because Jesus is Lord over the water, the weather, the wondering, the waiting, the wildness, and our own whimsical natures of seeing miracles accomplished in others, then not believing it can happen in our own lives.

So, what are we really afraid of? Failure? Fear itself? Death? Irrelevance? Loss? Change? Perhaps, everything? Yes, all of life is a risky scary business. There are no guarantees, except one: Christ is present with us, whether we are aware of it, or not.

If the worst scenario you worry about in your head would actually come to pass, it will still never change the reality that God loves you and is with you.  And it will not stop Jesus from assuring us of his presence and climbing into the boat to be with us.

We don’t have any accounts of Jesus freaking out in fear, or when other people flip out in their own fear. Jesus was a person of prayer, completely grounded in his relationship with the Father.   

Jesus made his disciples get into a boat and go out on the lake – all the while knowing what they were about to face with the weather. Even though the disciples were doing God’s will by going out on the lake, they were not spared from adversity. In fact, Jesus wanted them to experience the storm because it is through the storm that we really learn faith and to face down our fears. 

There is no shame in being afraid. We all experience it. And there is no shame in admitting we’re scared. Where shame exists, our instinct is to run away like our ancestors Adam and Eve and hide, thus hiding ourselves from the grace that could be ours.

Being out on the middle of a lake during a storm did not prevent Jesus from being present with the disciples – he just walked on the water to be with them. Even though the disciples had just seen and participated in the miracle of Jesus feeding the five thousand, they were not looking for another miracle – which is why they did not recognize Jesus and were afraid when they saw him.

Jesus never chided his disciples for their fear, or their hard hearts. He simply invited them, with the tone of grace and mercy, to not be afraid. And the Scripture is replete with continual encouragements to not be afraid because of God’s presence. Along with psalmist, we can say:

But when I am afraid,
    I will put my trust in you.
I praise God for what he has promised.
    I trust in God, so why should I be afraid?
    What can mere mortals do to me? (Psalm 56:3-4, NLT)

I sleep and wake up refreshed
    because you, Lord,
    protect me.
Ten thousand enemies attack
from every side,
    but I am not afraid. (Psalm 3:5-6, CEV)

When I called, you answered me.
You made me bold by strengthening my soul. (Psalm 138:3, GW)

Ultimately, fear has to do with disconnection. It is to feel powerless, separated from any resources, unable to do anything about what is presently staring us in the face and scaring us.

Yet, when we have an awareness and a sense of connection with Jesus, there are unlimited resources of grace to accept, cope, and transcend any and every storm we find ourselves in the middle of.

May the risen and ascended Christ, mightier than the hordes of hell, more glorious than the heavenly hosts,
be with you in all your ways. 

May the cross of the Son of God protect you by day and by night, at morning and at evening, at all times and in all places.

May Christ Jesus guard and deliver you from the snares of the devil, from the assaults of evil spirits, from the wrath of the wicked, from all base passions, and from the fear of the known and unknown. 

And may the blessing of God almighty – Father, Son, and Spirit – be upon you and remain with you always. Amen.

*Above painting of Jesus walking on water by Brian Whelan

**Above Orthodox icon of Christ walking on water

***Above painting: Christ walking on the sea, by French artist Amédée Varint (1818-1883)

Luke 11:14-28 – Replace the Bad with the Good

Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute. When the demon left, the man who had been mute spoke, and the crowd was amazed. But some of them said, “By Beelzebub, the prince of demons, he is driving out demons.” Others tested him by asking for a sign from heaven.

Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them: “Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall. If Satan is divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand? I say this because you claim that I drive out demons by Beelzebub. Now if I drive out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your followers drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

“When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are safe. But when someone stronger attacks and overpowers him, he takes away the armor in which the man trusted and divides up his plunder.

“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

“When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.”

As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.”

He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” (New International Version)

You have likely heard the old adage that nature abhors a vacuum. That is, when a loss or change leaves a hole in something, that hole will quickly get filled with something else.

To stop doing one thing is only half of a necessary process. To start doing another thing is crucial.

In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus tells a story about a demon-possessed man. He was delivered of his oppression. However, a problem arose because the man had no replacement for the demon. He simply did nothing after the demonic expulsion.

It didn’t take long for a group of demons, seemingly seeking such a situation as this man, and took full advantage of his vulnerability. In the end, the man was worse off than before – all because of the vacuum created without the hole being filled.

We are meant to hear God’s Word and obey. Both are necessary to the process of deliverance, growth, and spiritual development.

Whenever the process is only half-baked, we have double-minded people, divided in their loyalties between God and money/power or something else.

Getting rid of judgmental spirits is important but it’s only half the process. The other half is to intentionally make space for genuine inquiry, listening, and dialogue. Without the focus on helping one another through mutual discussion, a group of folks will inevitably degenerate into discouragement, even despair, as the demons of judgmentalism come back in full force.

Kicking hate to the curb only truly works if it is replaced with a spirit of love, concern, and compassion for one’s fellow human. An environment in which people feel free to share of themselves and their feelings is the result of deliberately seeking to do so. Simply policing hate in others eventually causes the demons of hate to establish themselves even deeper than before.

Attempting to eliminate a culture of secrecy and shame can only really come through courageous acts and words of creating a climate of openness which carefully and compassionately enables individuals to boldly name their shame and destroy the blood-sucking vampire feeding on them in the demonic shadows of night once-and-for-all.

A zombie apocalypse won’t happen, that is, unless the only thing we’re concerned about is getting rid of zombies. If our end game isn’t the thriving and flourishing of real live people, our planet will be overtaken with the living dead.

“We look forward to the time when the Power of Love will replace the Love of Power. Then will our world know the blessings of peace.”

William Gladstone

We live in a divided world, polarized chiefly around things we are against, rather than crafting a vision together of what we are for. It does little good to kick people out of power either through force or elections, only to have no collective and compelling cause to rally around and place our efforts.

I’m all in for the cause of living Christ’s Great Commission through making disciples, embodying the Great Commandment of loving God and neighbor, and taking up the Great Challenge to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly. It is these activities which motivate me to put away hate, hubris, and half-baked ideas so that a healthy process of spiritual formation can happen.

If our lives are already filled with a good spirit, there will be no room for any bad spirit to enter. And if we’ve picked up one, let’s make sure to not only expel it but occupy the space with the grace and goodness which comes from knowing a good and gracious God.

Be intentional about replacing the bad with the good. If a hole is created, fill it with mercy.

O God, the source of all health: Fill my heart with faith in your love, that with calm expectancy I may make room for your power to possess me, and gracefully accept your healing; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

**Above engraving of Jesus healing a demon possessed man, by an Italian artist, 1591.