When Valjean is caught with the stolen goods, the bishop tells the authorities that he had given the items to his guest. To everyone’s surprise, he adds two valuable silver candlesticks to the loot.
Once the coast is clear, the bishop tells this unassuming hero to sell the goods and use the money to make a new life for himself. The rest of the book goes on the show how Valjean’s life was transformed by this one generous act of kindness and mercy.
In today’s reading, we see something similar when Jesus meets a woman who is at the end of her rope. And with just a little love thrown her way, Jesus is able to do this: (Read Matthew 15:21-28)
...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 from that moment. Matthew 15:21-28
More than once in my life, I have uttered the words of this desperate mother, “Lord, have mercy.” In the Greek it’s, Kyrie Eleison.
If you grew up in the 80’s you might recognize this as the title to an album and hit song by Mr. Mister.
Or if you grew up in the Orthodox or Catholic traditions, you probably sung it as a response during the prayers of petition.
If not that then most of us have shouted this phrase, often as a last and desperate plea for help.
In her book The Miracles of Jesus, Jessica LaGrone uncovers a commonality shared by all those who are healed by Jesus. They are all desperate. And that’s not such a bad thing. The way she sees it, “Desperation is a gift from God because it teaches us we can’t do this on our own.”
She writes, “We’re all in need of Jesus’ help, but the truth is it’s only the desperate who go looking for it. And they are the ones who receive it.”
More than a desperate mother running after Jesus for help, Matthew makes it a point to tell us this woman was also a Gentile. And not just any old Gentile but a Canaanite; a long standing enemy of Israel.
She’s so desperate for help that she ignores this bitter history as well as any religious boundaries and cultural rules concerning encounters between women and men. She knows she could suffer severe consequences just by shouting at a man in public. Not to mention, throwing herself at his feet when he ignored her.
Of course, this was no ordinary man either. Jesus was a very religious man. Whether or not his reputation had proceeded him, she knew he was no ordinary Rabbi.
While his own disciples had yet to fully realize who and what Jesus was, this desperate mother, who will do whatever it took to get his attention, yelled over the crowd: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.”
Addressing Jesus as Lord could mean something as common as “sir.” But referring to him as Son of David, well that only points to a Christological title. Of all the people there, it was this desperate, Gentile, female, adversary who recognized Jesus for who he truly is: The Christ, Israel’s Messiah, God’s Salvation.
Once she saw Christ in her midst, she set aside centuries of animosity, pushed past every barrier, and ran after the one who came to redeem the world.
We have all been in desperate situations, and have even done some crazy things to get out of it. But this desperate mother’s actions beg the question: how quick are we in these situations, to recognize and seek the One who always meets us in our places of suffering and anguish?
Sadly, most of us don’t turn to Jesus until we have nothing left to lose. We make him our last resort when in fact, Jesus should always be our first.
William DuBose once wrote, “God has placed forever before our eyes, not the image but the very person of the Spiritual Man…He is with us, near us and in us. We have only to confess with our mouths that He is Lord.”
Jesus might have come for his Jewish people, but this mother’s confession speaks volumes to the faith of those outside this circle. She recognized Jesus for who he was, and called out to him by name, knowing and believing he was the one who could restore her child to health.
When Jesus ignored and rejected her, she persisted with an unshakable conviction that the faithfulness of his God was enough to restore her daughter and save her family. Jesus saw this as faith. And immediately her daughter was healed.
Which is why, according to Stanley Hauerwas, this desperate outsider is “the forerunner of our faith.” And not just that, she also “teaches us how to speak” directly and honestly to the face of God’s infinite love.
And by his willingness to extend mercy to an enemy of his people, Jesus destroys the boundaries that separate us.
He shatters any notion that might suggests some people are worthy of God’s love while others aren’t. The sun shines on both the just and the unjust, so too does God's love flow over creation… without discrimination (c.f. Matthew 5:45).
In the vast expanse of God's heart, there is room for every soul to find solace and healing. Even the dogs.
No matter who you are, or where you’re from, or what you’ve done or left undone, Jesus believes no one is ever beyond the reach of God’s mercy and grace. The healing we need is as close as his name is in our heart and on our lips. For “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:13).
Mothers and mutts alike, everyone is worthy to come to God’s holy table where even the tiniest of scrapes has the power to heal and transform a person, a community, and all of creation.
Just as the bishop's act of mercy led to Valjean's transformation, our faith in Jesus has the power to bring healing and new life to anyone who wants it.
Whatever pain you are holding onto. Whatever suffering or anxieties you are facing, remember, there is nothing beyond the power of God’s mercy and love.
The gospels are full of stories like ours. A mother who is at the end of her rope. A leper cast out of his community and forced to die alone. A blind person begging for help. A criminal hanging next to Jesus on the cross. Desperate as they were, each sought out Christ with their hearts, crying Kyrie Eleison.
Their stories remind us that during challenging times of uncertainty like we are facing today, God still hears our petitions. If only because God is faithful to a fault, coming to us in the flesh, to love us where we are.
So as we continue to struggle with navigating a new and changing world, let us cry “Lord, have mercy.”
When we don’t know how to approach racial and gender inequality, let us cry “Lord, have mercy.”
When family and friendships continue to erode from the divisiveness of our political climate, let us cry “Lord, have mercy.”
When our sons and daughters are afraid to go to the mall, or the movies, or to school because it might put their life in harm’s way let us cry “Lord, have mercy.”
As millions of people around the world lack clean water, have inadequate health care, and suffer from malnutrition caused by famine and violent conflicts, let us cry out “Lord, have mercy.”
If there is something that you are facing today, something that you can’t seem to control or handle, I implore you to seek Jesus…and ask for mercy. For he is the one who said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
As Richard Helmer points out, the plea of this desperate woman from the wrong side of the tracks, is our reminder today that "anyone who is willing to struggle faithfully – even with God – will be healed. Her story is not about faith in what we deserve. But faith in the grace we need."
It’s about "an insistent, almost obnoxious faith, the kind that will continue to pursue truth even at the expense of all cultural and societal boundaries."
It’s about our "willingness to wrestle directly with a faithful God whose attention we can get, whose heart we can change, and whose head we can turn."
And most importantly, a faithful God whose mercy, love and grace is given freely and abundantly to anyone willing to call out, Kyrie Eleison.
Adapted from Kyrie Eleison...Sorry Mr. Mister on August 16, 2020.
Bartlett, David L, and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011.
Hauerwas, Stanley. Matthew. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006.
Helmer, Ricard E. Of Mice, Lions, and Dogs, Proper 15 (A), August 15, 1999 (accessed on August 26, 2023).
Hugo, Victor. Les Miserables. Canterbury Classics, 1862.
LaGrone, Jessica. Desperation: What Miracles Are Made Of. April 16, 2019.
Pagano, Joseph. Borderlands. August 20, 2023 (accessed on August 25, 2023)
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”