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The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, August 20, 2023

The Rev. Samuel Torvend

Sermon for Sunday, August 20, 2023 | Pentecost 12
Isaiah 56:1,6-8; Psalm 67; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28

As a young student, I was taught that the Roman Empire was the greatest of empires. No doubt such teaching was inspired by the connection made by my teachers between the Roman Republic and the American Republic as well as the Roman roots of our legal system and laws. What we never heard in school was the dark side of Rome’s ambition to rule the world in order to gain economic control of lands and people not its own with the threat of military force. Underpinning this imperial project was the belief that Rome was guided by the gods of the state and thus worship of the gods was a religious and a political duty incumbent on all Romans. The classical historian, Edwin Judge, speaks of an even darker dimension of Roman life when he writes that Rome believed acts of mercy were considered a dangerous impulse that must be curbed, extinguished. The cry of those in need must go unanswered. Indeed, compassion for others was viewed as a defect of character, a “womanly” pathology to be ignored by supposedly “reasonable” men. For to change someone’s life through an act of mercy would be to alter what the gods had decreed for that person’s life. Your sickness, your injury, your poverty, your being enslaved, your hunger, your loss is the will of the gods for your life – and who would want to get into trouble with the gods because one had changed or altered a life with a merciful act? I wonder: is that Roman view – mercy as a pathology – still alive in our world today?

For the ancient Romans who lived at the time of Jesus, this story of his encounter with a gentile woman, a Canaanite, would have been mildly horrifying. After all, she, the foreigner, is the one who has broken the social code by shouting at a man in public. For as you might imagine, a woman viewed as an inferior should not be yelling at a person considered to be her superior. “You speak only when spoken to.” And at first it seems as if Jesus recognizes her grievous mistake and chooses to ignore her. And then some of his disciples, no doubt his male disciples – for he counted both women and men among his followers – beg him to send her away, annoyed by her shouting. And yet she persists – yes, she persists – because the cause of her plea for mercy is the torment experienced by her daughter.

And so she was willing to embarrass Jesus in public, to call out his reputation as a healer among ordinary people, to breach the invisible wall that separated Jews and Gentiles, that separated people by ethnicity and race, gender, and economic class: separations that continue to bedevil our common life. Well, he responds in a calculated and condescending manner, “I’m here only for my people, which means I’ll not share what rightfully belongs to them with dogs; that is, with lowlifes like you.” Well, so much for your sweet and kind Jesus. What we hear in his remark is his impatience. But, then, we’re surprised to hear that she’s clever in her desperation to help her child and matches Jesus dismissive remark: “Why even the dogs are able to eat the crumbs that fall to the ground.” In other words, she has met him as an equal in this round of tit for tat – and he thus changes his mind, praises her steadfast persistence and cleverness, and heals her daughter. There is no mention of a spouse or other children. I wonder: was her daughter her only companion?

Well, one can only imagine how an ancient Roman might view this encounter in which it appears that Jesus failed to curb the impulse to offer something to someone thought to be undeserving, the very definition of word mercy. To the ancient Romans and to those who live in this world today who allow the cry of those in need to go unheard and thus unanswered, it would seem that Jesus altered the fate of the daughter by healing her and the fate of the mother by giving her a child no longer in torment. The act of mercy created something new.

One can only imagine how an ancient Roman might view our worship as something terribly odd if not pathological when we sing, “Christ, have mercy,” when we say, “Most merciful God, we have sinned against you,” when we chant, “Lamb of God, have mercy on us.” For is such a petition, such a plea for mercy not at odds with the values of the world in which we live? On Tuesday morning, the BBC reported what did not appear in most American news outlets: that wealthy American tourists on the eastern side of the island of Maui, that part of the island unaffected by the horrific fires that destroyed an entire city, that wealthy American tourists frolicked on the beaches as they were served cocktails, utterly indifferent to the cry for help on the other side of the island.

As one Hawaiian woman said, “They play in the waters, indifferent to the fact that so many of our friends and families drowned in these same island waters as they tried to escape the fires.”

I wonder: why do we sing, speak, and chant this plea for mercy, week in and week out? Is it simply because it’s part of the weekly or seasonal script we find in the prayerbook and so we speak or sing the words with little thought given to their meaning and what they might ask of us? Or do we speak this plea for mercy because we know that we ourselves are in need, speak this plea at this table where Jesus gives himself into our hands, into our lives: his bread not a crumb but a nourishment in merciful living? I wonder: Do we speak of mercy and do so repeatedly so that the capacity to be merciful might grow within our hearts and minds and allow us to respond to those who are calling out to you and to me with that most simple of pleas: “Help me”?


Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting 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.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food 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, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.


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