A mother once approached Napoleon seeking a pardon for her son. The emperor replied that the young man had committed a certain offense twice and justice demanded death.
“But I don’t ask for justice,” the mother explained. “I plead for mercy.”
“But your son does not deserve mercy,” Napoleon replied.
“Sir,” the woman cried, “it would not be mercy if he deserved it, and mercy is all I ask for.”
“Well, then,” the emperor said, “I will have mercy.” And he spared the woman’s son. (Luis Palau, “Experiencing God’s Forgiveness,” Multnomah Press, 1984)
Mercy is not a word that we use often. But for all practical purposes the word mercy and the word grace are identical. But there is a difference. Mercy is the act of compassion or pity of someone. Grace is the response of that pity. The reason they have practically the same meaning is that in our experience of God, his mercy is expressed to us as grace. God has compassion on us and then acts in grace.
The idea of mercy and grace are the heart of our Gospel. Years ago, a conference was held to discuss what made Christianity different from the other religions of the world. Some of the participants argued that Christianity is unique in teaching that God became man. But someone objected, saying that other religions teach similar doctrines. What about the resurrection? No, it was argued, other faiths believe that the dead rise again. The discussion grew heated. C. S. Lewis came to the conference late, sat down, and asked, “What’s the rumpus about?” When he learned that it was a debate about the uniqueness of Christianity, he immediately commented, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.” (https://bible.org/illustration/c-s-lewis)
Mercy and grace are the messages we must preach to each other and to the world. The fact is none of us would make it through life if were not for mercy. We define grace as unmerited favor. We must also define mercy as undeserved compassion or unmerited pity. Yet God has taken pity on us, all of us, so that we might be redeemed.
Jesus had confronted the Pharisees about the contents of their heart. They were hung up on keeping the traditions of men while Jesus confronted them for not keeping the commandments of God. Matthew says that Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Trye and Sidon. This is a thoroughly gentile area north of Galilee. It is assumed that Jesus wanted to get away for rest. It is interesting to me that Jesus chose to go to here. This is the home of the Canaanites. The Canaanites were the old enemies of Israel. They were the pagans who occupied the land when the Children of Israel escaped slavery in Egypt. They are the one who worshiped the storm god Baal and whose immorality and their practice of human sacrifice disgusted God and corrupted Israel. So, why did Jesus go to such a place, even to rest?
While there, a Canaanite woman came to Jesus, crying. She cried out, apparently repeatedly, Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David. The Greek would indicate that it she was worked up, very emotional in her cry. She plead for her daughter who was cruelly possessed by a demon. This demon possession is never addressed. We do not know if it was an actual demon possession or a sickness. The focus of the text is the ultimate need of the Canaanite woman.
Jesus said nothing, just ignored her. This is strange, even to the disciples. She kept crying out and I guess they got tired of it. They said to him “send her away because she keeps shouting at us.”
Jesus focuses on his stated mission. Jesus told them that he came as the Messiah to the house of Israel. But, then why did he come to Phoenicia, to the home of the Canaanites?
The disciples’ security detail was not very good because the woman got passed them and came to Jesus. The text is written in the present tense and you can see in your mind the action as it takes place. It is perhaps an open place on the road or a public square. She has been standing in the dust at some distance, but you watch her as she inches her way to Jesus. For some reason she is attracted to him and will not be stopped. She is driven by need and by knowledge. She has a desperate situation, but she knows Jesus and calls him Lord. So, while the disciples huddle with Jesus to give him their advice, the woman slips up to Jesus and falls at his feet, saying “Lord help me.”
The answer that he gives seems strange to us if not cruel. “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” This sounds like an insult, like he just called this woman a dog. But this is not what is going on. It was a proverbial saying, a metaphor. He is simply saying that what I have is meant for the house of Israel.
But the woman’s response is inspired. She said, “Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” She understood quite well that in her culture she was a nobody and even worse, she comes from a pagan people. But she also understood that Jesus was the master of all people. This is inspired insight. She sees and knows things that not even the disciples know.
There were others like her. The Samaritan woman at the well was not of the house hold of faith. Yet, Jesus revealed to her, before anyone else, that he was the Messiah. And there was the Roman Centurion who came to Jesus asking him to heal his servant. He did not ask him to come to his home, for he felt unworthy. But he knew that by his word, Jesus could heal him. Jesus said that he had not seen faith like this in all of Israel and he healed his servant.
Just let me eat from the crumbs. Jesus looked at her and said, “O woman, your faith is great, it shall be done for you as you wish.” These were words of praise if you do not recognize it from the text. He saw something in her, her persistence, her knowledge of him, her means of request that made it clear that she possessed extraordinary faith.
But did Jesus contradict himself? Or does this have something to do with why he was there in the first place? I think that Jesus was showing that anyone who seeks the mercy of God will find it. It was both a warning to Israel and a precious, explicit announcement to the world. It would later become clear as the Gospel spread throughout the world to the gentiles.
What does this mean for us? Anyone who comes to Christ seeking the mercy of God will find it. His grace is his gift to us. We find what we do not deserve, and we receive it as a gift.
God gives his mercy to any who ask. This means that you cannot be too sinful. You do not have to be from the right side of the tracks or know the right people or have the right background. In fact, it is clearly the opposite. God pours out his compassion to all who understand the destitute nature of their sin. Sin does horrible things to us. It causes us to think wrongly about others and about ourselves. It causes us to despair of life itself. We may think if I only had money or power or position or the right parents I would be in better shape. But it is not true. We all are sinners in the worst sort of way. And God in his mercy has loved us. God himself became flesh for us. He died on the cross and bore our sins for us. He rose to new life for us.
We should follow the example of Jesus. We love others the way Jesus loved. We show mercy to others as Jesus did. If we become people immersed in mercy, it changes the way we see people. Jesus told a parable about a king who was collecting his debts. One servant owed him 10,000 Shekels. Some commentaries suggest that in modern terms, it was about $500,000,000! Of course, he could not pay such a debt. He begged for mercy and the king forgave his debt! He left the king’s court with great joy. Along the way, he found a man who owed him $100.00 and demanded payment. But the debtor could not pay, so the servant had him thrown in prison. His fellow servants told the king and he called him in and demanded why did he not show mercy? Notice what came next, this is serious, the king withdrew his mercy and turned him over to the torturer until he should repay the money.
Mercy is conditional. We are shown mercy by a loving God. But the expectations are that we too will show others mercy. Mercy comes by faith and it changes our hearts. But if we cannot show mercy to others, then, perhaps, faith was never a part of us. Those who become sons and daughters of God reflect the character of God. Thus, we show mercy.
All who come to him and cries “have mercy on me” will find it. Jesus put it this way, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” Our response must be something like “’God, be merciful to me, the sinner!”
O Lord have mercy on us! O Father have mercy on me.