Series A, Series B
Yelping Puppies, The Canaanite Woman
PENTECOST 13A Matthew 15:21-28
PENTECOST 14B Mark 7:24-37
Pastor Edward F. Markquart
Grace Lutheran Church
Des Moines, Washington 98198
The following Bible study is from a larger course entitled THE LIFE OF CHRIST: A Study in the Four Gospels. This 54 week course for the laity will be available for congregations in 2006.
Basic text for the course: SYNOPSIS OF THE FOUR GOSPELS, Kurt Aland, English Edition, P. 144.
#151. THE SYROPHOENICAN (CANAANITE) WOMAN Matthew 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30
This is the first of two times where Jesus, during his lifetime, traveled outside of the land of Palestine.
There are two consecutive stories about healing and these two stories seem to be connected. That is, Jesus first went north outside of Galilee and healed a Gentile woman who was of Greek descent (the story for today). Jesus then traveled south outside of Galilee to the region of the Decapolis. This region was known as the “Ten Cities.” The cities were known as ten Greek cities. So in both stories we witness Jesus healing outside of Jewish boundaries, one story to the north and the other to the south. These stories foreshadow the missionary movements of Paul to the Gentiles.
We could call the first section, “Bread of Life, North to Gentiles” and we could call the second section, “Bread of life, South to Gentiles.”
These two healings perhaps are a continuation with the previous story (Matthew 15:1-20) about the hypocrisy of the Pharisees who loved their religious traditions more than God’s commandments of for mercy. True faith was not found in the epicenter of Judaism (the Pharisees) but was found in the genuine faith of a simple Gentile woman. The Pharisees became symbolic of “little faith” and the Gentile outsider (Canaanite woman) became symbolic of “great faith.” The Pharisees become symbolic of zealous religiosity and whereas the simple woman becomes symbolic of deep, genuine faith.
We also remember earlier in “The Jesus Story” when Jesus healed the slave of the centurion and Jesus said that “never have found such great faith in all of Israel.”
Also, these stories of the healing of the Canaanite woman in Tyre/Sidon and the deaf mute in the Greek cities of the Decapolis reminds us of the Apostle Paul when he finally discovered that he was to be a missionary to the Gentiles and not to the Jews.
-Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. On the map below, you can see the road that Jesus may have taken from the north end of the Sea of Galilee toTyre and Sidon. Later in this same text, we will see Jesus travel from Tyre to Sidon to the Sea of Galilee to the Decapolis in the southeastern corner of the Sea of Galilee. On the map below, find the Sea of Galilee, Tyre and Sidon. See the roads to get to these villages from the Sea of Galilee.
Tyre was located 40 miles northwest of Capernaum and Sidon was 60 miles northwest of Capernaum. Sidon was 26 miles north-east of Tyre. Jesus went to Gentile territory. (Capernaum is not located on the map below. We remember Capernaum was located on the northeast corner of the Sea of Galilee)
-He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. (only Mark) Jesus was a long way from home but he didn’t want anybody to know that he was there. Why did Jesus not want people to know he was there in the region ofTyre and Sidon? For some time now, people had been flocking to Jesus but for the wrong reasons. The crowds wanted cheap healings, glitzy miracles, and political freedom from the Romans. The crowds wanted a magnificent Messiah who would meet their every need. Rather than being force into such a role that he did not want, Jesus preferred to keep his presence a secret.
-Yet he could not escape notice, (only Mark) People still noticed Jesus. His fame had spread up north outside of Galilee. No matter where Jesus went, even outside Galilee, there were numerous people who were still flocking to see him.
-But a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. (only Mark) The text does not focus on the crowds but on one particular woman. A woman who had a sick daughter heard the master healer was in town. The master healer was in a specific house, and so she went to find him. She heard about this Jesus and she came and knelt at his feet.
We can imagine the emotional pain of this woman whose daughter was so deeply sick. In a moment, we will discover that her daughter had “demon possession,” the first century equivalent of mental illness. We can imagine how distressed this mother was.
-Just then a Canaanite woman This woman was definitely an outsider, from a Jewish point of view. We recall the Old Testament stories about the “evil” religion of the Canaanites who occupied the Promised Land. The Canaanite religion was a source of worshipping false idols, sacrificing children, marrying people of other religions and other abominations. It is the Jewish gospel of Matthew that underscores this woman was a Canaanite which meant that she was symbolic of abominable and detestable religious practices. From Matthew’s point of view, she was “religious scum.” If anyone was of the wrong religion, she was. If anyone wasn’t saved, this lady wasn’t. If anyone was going to hell, she was. If anyone was damned, she was. She was of the wrong religion, a religion that was the most despicable for a “true blue Jew” of the first century.
We recall numerous stories about Jesus when he found true faith outside the organized religion of his day. For example, we recall the stories of great faith that Jesus found in a Roman centurion whose slave was ill, in the story of the Good Samaritan who cared for a Jewish man who had been robbed on the Jericho road, or in the story of the Grateful Samaritan who was healed of his leprosy but the other nine Jewish men who were healed did not have gratitude to Jesus for their healings. This particular story is similar to these other stories. Once again true and deep faith was found outside the Jewish religious establishment of the day. This time true faith was found in a Gentile, in a Syrohoencian woman, who was a Canaanite of all things!!! A Canaanite? How detestable to a Jewish person.
-From that region came out and started shouting, The woman had a demanding arrogance to her, shouting her needs. She reminds us of the leper on the road near Jericho who shouted at Jesus to get his attention.
-‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; This woman wanted the mercy of God for both herself and her daughter.
She begged Jesus for God’s healing mercy for her daughter (and herself), just like the leper did in an earlier story. Lepers were considered “outsiders” as well.
There are times when all of us beg for healing from the Lord God for our children, our spouses, our friends, and even ourselves. There are times when we all beg for healing and such was the moment for this lady.
She will beg from Jesus a second time in this story. She recognized Jesus as Lord and called him that. Even though she did not know him, she still called Jesus by the title of Lord. “Lord” became Jesus’ primary title and noun of address in the gospels. Even though she didn’t know him, we will discover that she believed that he had God’s power and mercy to heal her daughter.
She thought of him as the Son of David, in other words, the promised Messiah. Many people at that moment in history in Palestine thought of Jesus as the promised Messiah, like King David. Especially in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus would be called Son of David because Matthew was writing to a Jewish audience who were familiar with that Jewish title, Son of David.
-My daughter is tormented by a demon.’ “My daughter” implies that this mother and daughter were deeply “connected at the hip.” In our imagination, we think of this mother caring for her very sick daughter for a long time. The mother had the deepest feelings imaginable for her very sick daughter.
This sounds like demon possession, a first century equivalent of mental illness. We recall the earlier lessons in this course about Jesus, the healer. We suggested that first century medical practices did not have a modern awareness of viruses, bacteria, and genetic predispositions. These pre-scientific people lumped the causes of illness under categories such as demons, evil spirits, demon possession and God’s punishment for sinful behavior.
We focus on the word, “tormented.” This mother knew her daughter’s emotional pain like no one else on earth. This mother knew first hand about her daughter’s flurries of frenzy.
-But he did not answer her at all. Jesus seems cool, cold and insensitive to the woman’s needs. We are momentarily perplexed because we think of Jesus as being full of compassion and love and not giving the mother the silent treatment.
-And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ The disciples react similarly to this mother. This mother is an annoyance for the disciples, a shouter, a hollerer, almost a screamer. This persistent mother kept badgering Jesus and the disciples. She was not quiet, polite, a sensitive soul who unobtrusively made her request to Jesus.
-He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ Whoa! That was arrogant on Jesus’ part. I wasn’t send to you, but only to the lost sheep who were Jewish. It is as if Jesus was saying, “Bug off lady. I take care of Jews only and you aren’t one.”
-But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ This lady was a beggar, a persistent beggar. She reminds us of the leper outside of Jericho. (See Matthew 20:29-34; Mark 10:46-52; Luke 18:35-43, p. 227 in Aland’s text, the SYNOPSIS OF THE FOUR GOSPELS.
-He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ Jesus and the disciples resist the mother’s passionate persistence to have her daughter healed. This is true especially in Matthew’s story, more than Mark’s. In Matthew’s gospel, it appears that the woman was a nuisance and the disciples wanted to get rid of her. It appears that Jesus and his disciples were not compassionate nor receptive to the woman and her persistence.
In the Gospel of Matthew, there are four sentences which illustrate Jesus’ apparent resistance to the woman:
- “But he did not answer her a word.”
- “Send her away for she is crying after us.”
- “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
- “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
As was previously stated in earlier lessons, Matthew is the most Jewish gospel and Matthew stated that Jesus was to go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Only in Matthew do we hear, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Only in Matthew is there an accumulation of four statements of resistance. Only in Matthew did Jesus previously speak a similar word (Matthew 10:5-6) when he said, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (p. 91). Only in Matthew is the woman described as a “Canaanite” woman.
Knowing that Matthew was writing to a Jewish audience with Jewish ideas, Matthew’s account of the story would show that Jesus and his disciples were initially resistant to the faith of the Gentile woman. The mother’s passionate persistence finally won them over.
This kind of thinking may have appealed to Matthew’s Jewish audience, but is offensive to many modern Christians who interpret Jesus’ behavior in Matthew’s version of the story as lacking in compassion.
There were many people in Matthew’s “true blue Jew” audience who could not fathom that true faith could be found within a simple, Canaanite woman who was the epitome of everything despicable.
-She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Interpret the word, “dog,” as “pet.” Some scholars suggest that the word for “dog,” seems nasty in its prejudices (e.g. “That person is a dog.”) But that same Greek word could be interpreted as “pet.” Barclay, in his commentary, suggests that “the diminutive word for dogs (kunaria) is used, and the kunaria were not the street dogs but little household pets. Pets are very different from the pariah dogs who roamed the streets.”
If Barclay is right and the mood of the Greek word should be “pet,” the whole story feels softer and Jesus becomes less harsh with the woman. It is almost as if Jesus is encouraging her persistent passion for the healing of her daughter. It is as if this woman was like a household pet underneath the table, harmlessly getting scraps of food that hit the floor. In our contemporary imagination, most people can visualize a little dog underneath the table and feasting off the leftovers that people often toss under the table.
-Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Wow. Great. Jesus saw in this woman great faith.
We notice that Mark does not have this phrase in his gospel. If Matthew was copying from the Gospel of Mark, we know that Matthew inserted this phrase, “Great is your faith.” We remember that Matthew has previously used similar words positively and negatively e.g. Matthew 14:31, “O man of little faith” (p. 138) and Matthew 16:8, “O men of little faith” (p. 148.) We know that faith is enormously important to being a Christian and also is also enormously important within the healing miracles. We also notice that Matthew inserts this phrase as well.
The Pharisees become a symbol of “little faith” and this Gentile outsider becomes a symbol of “great faith.”
- Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly. Without using the phrase, “Your faith has made you well,” the woman is a primary example of deep faith in Jesus to heal.
Barclay says, “Symbolically, this woman stands for the Gentile world which so eagerly seized on the bread of heaven which the Jews rejected and threw away.”
-Then he said to her, "For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter." (only Mark)
-So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. (only Mark) We discover and remember that the daughter of the woman wasn’t even there. It wasn’t the daughter’s faith but the mother’s faith that was great. We recall the story of the centurion (another outsider) from Matthew 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-10 and this centurion returned to his home and found his slave well. The centurion was another model great faith. The focus was on the faith of the centurion and not the faith of his slave who was healed. So it is in this story. The focus is on the faith of the mother and not on the faith of the healed daughter.
PAINTING AND IMAGINATION: THE CANAANITE WOMAN
See this website for numerous paintings of the vivid scene of the Canaanite woman begging for healing for her daughter.
See painting above. “The artist faithfully recorded the details of the text in this double miniature representing Christ's two different attitudes. Above, He turns away from the Canaanite woman who implores Him despite the scorn of the apostles; in a house at the right we see a woman trying to comfort the recumbent girl who is tormented by a devil. In the small miniature, the Canaanite kneels before Christ, who is touched by the perseverance of her faith and makes a gesture of consent; the apostles now seem to share their Master's feelings
#152. JESUS HEALS A DEAF MUTE AND MANY OTHERS Matthew 15:29-31, Mark 7:31-37
-Jesus returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, through the region of Decapolis. From the previous map, we remember that Jesus traveled the smaller roads from Tyre to Sidon to the Sea of Galilee. This smaller road made a circuitous route that followed north through a valley and around a mountain range and then south to the Sea of Galilee. The smaller road did not go directly from Tyre to the Decapolis as “a crow flies” but went around the mountain range. Then, in all probability, Jesus would have gotten onto a boat and rowed with his disciples across the lake to the region of the Decapolis. We recall from earlier stories (p. 77-78) that Jesus traveled across the water on the Sea of Galilee to the Decapolis and then back to Capernaum again. We also recall that earlier in the gospels, Jesus healed a man with a “legion of demons” in the region of Decapolis (Matthew 8:28-34, Mark 5:1-20, p. 79-80). Uniquely, only Mark tells us that the healing of the man with a legion of demons was healed in the region of Decapolis, (a series of ten Greek cities); the Jewish gospel of Matthew omits the Greek name of Decapolis.
-He put his fingers in his ears and he spat and touched his tongue. Jesus touched the man in two places: on his ears and his tongue. That is, Jesus touched the man’s hearing and talking. It is as if Jesus’ healings had symbolic overtones e.g. he wanted to heal the man’s physical and spiritual hearing and the man’s physical and spiritual talking. God wants to perform the same miracles on us: the Lord God wants to heal our hearing and to heal our talking. We need to hear more clearly God’s message and we need to speak more bolding about the ways that God has touched our lives. It seems that Jesus’ healing of peoples’ ears, eyes and tongues was symbolic of his desire to heal our hearing, seeing and speaking today.
We ask: “What is the meaning of this miracle? How does it apply to my life?” We know the answer.
-Looking up to heaven. This is where Jesus’ power came from. From heaven, from above, from God.
-He sighed. Notice this subtle but powerful action of sighing. A reader feels as if he or she is reading a first hand witness who was physically present at this healing. As has been previously said, most likely John Mark wrote the Gospel of Mark. John Mark recorded the reminiscences of Peter in Rome before Peter was crucified upside down. So the memory of this healing comes from Simon Peter. Simon Peter would have seen, known and recorded little details like Jesus was sighing.
-And said to him, “Ephphatha” that is, “Be opened.” Ephphatha was an Aramaic word.
-His ears were opened and his tongue was released. God needs to work a similar miracle on us: so that we more clearly hear God’s word and more boldly speak of God’s activity in our lives.
-He charged them to tell no one. Again, this is the Messianic secret that we have heard repeatedly, especially in the Gospel of Mark. It seems that Jesus was concerned that people would become followers for the wrong reasons e.g. wanting easy bread and wanting easy healings
People wanted physical bread more than the Bread of life;
People wanted physical water more than the Living Water;
People wanted physical healings more than the Great Physician.
Jesus was aware of this danger and knew the hearts of the people in the crowd who were more interested in the immediate benefits of food and healing that Jesus could bring to their lives.
-The more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. The same thing happened during the healing of the man with the legion of demons near the Decapolis in Mark. See page 80, “The healed man began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and all men marveled.” Mark 5:20. Looking at the parallel texts on page 80, we notice that Luke 8:39 has Jesus telling the healed man to “return to your home and declare how much God has done for you.” An evangelist is not to be secretive about Jesus, and this healed man was not secretive.
-They were astonished beyond measure. The reaction of the crowd was similar after the earlier healing in the Decapolis of the man with the legion of demons.
-The lame, maimed, blind and dumb. (Matthew only) We have learned previously that the healings of these kinds of people were an indication that the kingdom of God, which was prophecied in the Old Testament, had finally arrived in the person of Jesus.
-They glorified the God of Israel. (Matthew only) Once again, we hear the overtones of a Jewish author writing to a Jewish audience, and this Jewish author writes in a way that appeals to the logic and sensitivities of his Jewish audience. We also recall that Matthew copied 91 % of Mark into his gospel, so we watch carefully for the ways that Matthew modified Mark and thereby reveals his particular values e.g. “the people glorified the God of Israel.”
We recall that in the miracle of the healing of the Canaanite’s woman’s daughter, there were four times in that story that Matthew added a Jewish touch such as Jesus was to speak only to the house of Israel. At this moment and in this story, the people glorified the God of Israel. Matthew, in his choice of working, reveals his biases as he attempts to speak to Jewish people and convince them to believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah.
When we experience healing, we glorify God, fall on our knees and give thanks to the blessings that God has showered upon us.
The story of the centurion’s faith (Matthew version in 8:5-13) is not included in Series A nor in Series C (Luke’s version in Luke 7:1-10.) So themes from Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10 can be incorporated into similar themes from the story of the begging Canaanite woman.
See this link, http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/series_c_faith_of_an_outsider.htm for a sermon on THE FAITH OF AN OUTSIDER. There is much useful material in this sermon.
The following comments are from this sermon. Many of the comments in this sermon can be adapted to a sermon about the Canaanite woman, the outsider, who had such great faith.
“The centurion also had deep simple faith. He said: “Jesus, you just say the word and my servant will be healed. Jesus, you don’t even need to come to my house. You don’t need to come and put your hand on his forehead and say, “rise, get up and walk.” You don’t need to spit into the ground and take up some mud and touch his body with it. You don’t need to take some olive oil, and pour it over him. Jesus, you don’t even need to come to my house. All you have to do is from right here, you say the word and my servant will be healed. My servant doesn’t even believe. I am the one who believes. You don’t even need to go see the guy. The servant is a mile away; you just say the word and he will be healed.”
And Jesus said: “Let me tell you. I have never seen... such faith...in all of Israel.” And Jesus said to the centurion, “You can go home now.” And he went home, and found his servant healed.
I ask you this question: What kind of faith did the centurion have? What was his faith like? His faith was simple. It was like this: “Jesus, I believe that you can heal my servant. You can help my servant.”
His faith isn’t what I would call a dogmatic faith. It wasn’t a creedal faith. “Ibelieveingodthefatheralmightyandinjesuschristhisonlysonour LordwhowasconceivedbytheHolySpirtandbornoftheVirginMary.” His faith is not a rapid fire repetition of a creed, the Apostles or the Nicene. He had never heard of the Apostles or Nicene creeds. Of course not; they hadn’t been written yet.
Nor was his faith a Biblical faith. Did he really believe, like in the Book of Colossians, that Jesus created all the heavens and the earth and everything that was made was made by Jesus Christ. Is that what the centurion believed? Or did he believe that, like the book of Revelations, that Jesus will come at the end of history to judge all the good and the bad? Is that what he believed? Did he know the stories of the New Testament? Of course not. The New Testament hadn’t been written yet.
Nor was his a Sunday School faith? His was not the kind of faith you learn in Sunday School or church.
No, his was a very simple faith, a simple faith not resting on creeds or Bibles or Sunday School. His was a simple, simple trust that Jesus could and would heal his servant. And Jesus said of this kind of faith: “Never have I seen such faith in all of Israel.”
Perhaps there is a simplicity of faith that we sometimes lose within our institutionalized religions, a simple faith which may be much deeper than our creedal or Biblical faith, a simple belief in the power of Jesus to meet our deepest need
And so you see, this is such a simple little story. Just that long. One short paragraph. But from this simple story, you can paint a rather lovely portrait of a gentle man, a good man, a person who had deep simple faith in Jesus Christ.
But importantly, in the story, the centurion was what? He was an outsider. He wasn’t part of the church. He wasn’t part of the religious establishment. He wasn’t part of the religious culture. He was an outsider. He wasn’t a Jew. He wasn’t part of the inner core of the church; he was an outsider of the church. And this is one of the many “outsider” stories in the Bible.
Can you tell me, why does Jesus seem to have this deep love and affection for people who are outsiders? How you ever figured that out? Why does Jesus seem to love people so deeply who are outside the church? He seems to have an attraction for them, a fascination for, an appreciation of them.
I would like to give you three examples. Do you remember the stories about the taxcollectors? One of his very first disciples. And people didn’t like the tax collectors. They were stealing the people blind. But Jesus saw something good, kind and beautiful inside the tax collectors.
Or how about another group. The lepers. The lepers were like first century people with Aids; people stayed away from people with Aids. Stay away from people with aids because you may get it. And you stay away from those people with leprosy because you may get it. You stay six feet away from them on an upwind and eighteen feet away from them on a downwind. so people with leprosy because you may get it. You stay six feet away from them on an upwind and eighteen feet away from them on a downwind. You never got within wind of lepers. They were the outsiders. But Jesus was so different. What did he see in the lepers? Something beautiful and good. Everybody else thought that they were outsiders and bad sinners, but not Jesus. And such would be Jesus’ attitude towards people sick with Aids today. How very often do people with Aids feel like they are today’s lepers.
And what was the third group of outsiders? You know, the women caught in adultery. I wonder why the man was not caught in adultery and only the woman. Seems impossible to me. And you remember that Samaritan woman at the well, who had all those live-in guys erroneously called husbands?
Why does Jesus always finding something good in outsiders? Those who are outside the walls and boundaries and membership of the current religiously acceptable organizations? People who are outside the religious establishment. People who are outside the church. Outside the culturally accepted pattern of the day. Why is it that Jesus is always attracted to them?
Could it be that people within institutionalized religion have this insidious temptation and tendency to have the form of religion but without its power; that we assume the posture of faith without the power of the simple inner faith of the heart? Jesus said of the centurion, “Never have I seen such faith in all of Israel.”
Now, to be honest, I had known several people like him; people who are outside the institutional church but have deep and simple faith in Jesus Christ. Two stories. A man who came to my mind right away was a man by the name of Forrie Dale. Now, Forrie Dale was the father of Ken Dale, and I used to go over to see Forrie Dale when his daughter was dying of cancer. Sometimes a person makes such a deep impression on you, that you can’t remember if they are alive or dead; their memory is so real and vivid to you, and so it is with Forrie Dale with me. It’s hard for me to imagine that he is dead. But he had these beautiful grey\blue eyes, and he looked just like Magoo. And he had the face of a Doxhound dog, really sad lines and eyes to his face. He had the saddest face and eyes in the whole wide world. And I absolutely loved to go and see Forrie Dale. And he was an outsider. And why was he an outsider? He was so shy, you would never catch him around people. He was so shy he would never get into a church. He was shy beyond shy. Forrie would never talk. He let his wife do all the talking; he never said boo; and I would be there for hours. And it would come time for me to leave; after I had seen and prayed with his daughter who was dying of cancer, and then he would walk me out to the car, real slowly, and he would lean up against my bumper and put his foot up on my bumper, cross his arms and look at me with those big grey/blue eyes. And then he would say some very simple thing, such profound simple statements of faith. Such as after his daughter Pat had died: “Pastor,” he said slowly, with the twig of grass coming from his mouth, “Someday I’ll be there with Pat too. I know it.: or “Pastor, it’s really hard. It’s really hard.” Here was a man of deep, deep, deep faith. It wasn’t a creedal faith: “I believe in god the father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” It wasn’t a dogmatic faith: “Before the world began, Jesus was.” His was a simple faith that God would help him; that God would give eternal life to his daughter; it was a simple, simple faith. He never came to church in all the years that I knew him, except for weddings and baptism and special occasions. He was just so shy...but what faith he had.
A second story of an outsider is a story that happened the other night. And I tell this story with the permission of the family. And so I got a call at church the other night, just before l0:00, and the asked: “Could you come over to the hospital. My father is dying. My mother is there. And we want you to come and be there. I want to tell you up front that my father is not a church person; he’s an outsider; he is not part of the church.” I said, OK I will be there shortly. So I finished my details; got into the car and drove over to the hospital; and there was this old man there is this room. At the head of the bed was mother, daughter and granddaughter. We chatted, and I asked him, “How old are you?” “85.” “Oh, my dad is 85.” “How long you been married?” “61 years.” “My mom and dad were married 60 years. I know you. You may be like my dad.” And I said to him, “You are a fortunate man. There you are, surrounded by the love of your wife, and your daughter and your granddaughter. You are surrounded by love. You know what? You are surrounded by all of that love. Do you know that you are surrounded by the love of God as well? That the love of God goes all around this bed? And do you know that God is going to love you forever and ever and ever? And you may live ten seconds or ten minutes or ten days or ten months, or ten years. I don’t know, but what I do know is that God will love you forever. Do you know that?” And he said, and I quote: “Nobody ever told me that before.” I repeated the theme again, “God loves you. You are surrounded by love. Your wife, your daughter, your granddaughter. You are so surrounded by love.” I went back to see him the next day and said: “Do you believe in God?” A slight positive nod. Do you believe in Christ? Another positive nod. You know you are going to live with Christ forever? Another positive nod. And then he paused and quietly asked: “Will I get to see my mother?” And a big tear came down his eyes, revealing the deep love he had for his mother.
Yes, his was a simple, simple deep faith. Not a creedal faith, “I believe in one God, the Father from all eternity.” Nor was it a Biblical faith, “Jesus Christ is the Son of God and son of man.” Nor was it a Sunday School faith of stories imprinted on his early childhood mind. Rather, it was a simple faith, that God could help him and save him now. And that man is saved. That man knows Jesus Christ. That man knows God. And you know what? Down deep in his heart he doesn’t feel worthy. Because at 85 years old, it ain’t right, believing at 85 and never having been part of the church. He doesn’t feel worthy, and just as the centurion did not feel worthy, so people outside the church often do not feel worthy of God’s love.
I think of other people who are “outside” the church. You come to this church on Tuesday night, Thursday night, Friday night, and Saturday night, and you will find our fellowship hall and other rooms filled with AA people. Alcoholics Anonymous. And I find so many of those people in those groups truly believe in the power of God and in Jesus Christ, and they don’t feel worthy. “I’ve got this alcohol problem. I’ve been an alcoholic for twenty years. I am not worthy to be a Christian. I have messed up my whole life. I’ve messed up my wife and kids and everybody. I’m not good enough for God.”
Or I think of another group who has deep faith who are outsiders...many of the people who have Aids today. I run into people and hear so many stories of people who suffer with Aids who do not feel worthy; who feel like outsiders of the church; that people in the church are prejudiced against them; they are not welcomed in church because it will suggesting that the church is embracing homosexuality; but so many of those people with Aids have deep, deep faith in Jesus Christ. And when I look out at the people in our congregation who are living with Aids today, they often don’t want members to know “their” secret because of unwelcoming prejudice by church people. But their faith runs deep.
So this story is a simple reminder that the church belongs to God, and that God doesn’tbelong to the church. It’s just a simple reminder that we belong to God, and that God doesn’t belong to us; that is, God is not the church’s private possession. God created the whole wide world, all races, all creeds, all colors, all nationalities; God created the whole wide world and the whole wide world belongs to God. So let’s not say that God belongs to the church. I love that quotation: “God knows those whom the church knows not; and the church knows those whom God knows not.” Because God knows the heart. God knows the heart, and God knows the heart of a simple, trusting, devout faith.
So...then, some people say, “Why bother with the church. If it’s true, I don’t have to be part of the church. Why did we bother to come here today? Why do we bother to be part of the church? I knew I should have stayed home. I could have gone boating. Could have done my gardening. Why did I come here today? If I can have simple faith without the church, why bother with the church? It will save me time and money. You’re painting yourself into a corner preacher; you’re working yourself out of a job. You are giving support to my husband or wife who doesn’t belong. My job is hard enough trying to get them to come to church; they finally did; and now they are hearing this sermon which doesn’t support my efforts to get my spouse into the church. If you can have simple faith without the church, why bother with the church?”
It’s very simple. It is through the church that the stories of Christ are told, the stories of grace are told, the stories that nourish our faith. It is through the church that you hear that wonderful stories of grace e.g. that of the centurion. It is through the church you hear stories about Forrie Dale and the man at the hospital. It is through the church that your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is nourished and strengthened. We all need the church. And the church is God’s instrument in the world. God couldn’t do his work without the church. But, it is true, you can find simple true faith outside the church, outside the religious establishment, outside the formal religious culture.
Well, I love that story, the story of the centurion, and may we all learn from that story. And importantly, may all of us learn to love and appreciate the deep faith of people outside the church, with the same kind of love that God has for them. It may be your husband. It may be your wife. It may be even one of your kids right now. It may be you. Who is to say what is inside the heart of those around you. But I know many a family at Grace Lutheran Church whose members may not be in the church, but underneath it all, there may be deep faith. Many people at the earlier services said as they left: “Yes, you were describing some people in my family.”
As Pastor Johnson left the early service, he made a telling comment to me. He was our Visitation Pastor and is now doing funerals for neighboring funeral homes, for people who don’t have church home. He does four or five funerals a week for people outside the membership of the institutional church; and he visits these people in their homes before the funeral. His remark to me as he left the church today? “Ed, there’s a lot of faith out there, in those people. Yes, simple faith.”
The Roman centurion. Compassionate. Unprejudiced. Humble. A deep simple faith. Jesus said that he had never seen such faith among the Jews. Perhaps we have much to learn from....the Roman centurion. Amen.”
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