All Request Summer Sermon Series
Does God Play Favorites
August 8, 2016
Rev. Fritz Nelson – First Presbyterian, Columbiana
Text: Matthew 15:21-28
We know the world plays favorites, but does God. That’s our all request summer sermon topic, submitted by Elisabeth Nelson.
Our innate sense of fairness suggests that if God is truly loving, truly caring, truly concerned about our welfare, he shouldn’t play favorites. But during those times when we’re feeling stuck, or depressed, or frustrated or alone or persecuted, when we pray and pray and pray and our prayers don’t seem to be answered, when we look around us at other people – people who seem less stressed, more at peace, with better jobs, lower credit card payments, children not in jail, marriages filled with love, nicer houses, paid off houses, caring friends, a place in the community – it can seem as if God has abandoned us and brought blessing to them. It can seem that God plays favorites.
One day Jesus and his disciples are walking down a road when a woman calls out to him. (I’m in Matthew 15 now) “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David. Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David. Jesus ignores her. She calls again. “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” Jesus continues to ignore her, explaining to his disciples: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” And this woman, you must understand, was not Jewish.
God creates heaven and earth. He puts Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The earth fills with people and God tries to be God to all of them, but he fails. They consistently rebel against him. So God selects an elderly herdsman with a barren wife. If you follow me, he tells the man – whom we know as Abraham – you will have multiple offspring. They will be my people. I will be their God. And thus the children of Abraham – at least the “legitimate” children – become chosen. God’s favorites. (Many of the “illegitimate” children also think they are God’s favorites – but that’s a sermon for another day.)
Despite being chosen, these people (who become known as the Israelites) still struggle to provide the intimate relationship God desires. To help and guide them, God provides the law. Soon there are good Israelites and bad Israelites – those who don’t keep the law and those who do, those who are wicked – upon whom the Lord will rain coals of fire and sulfur – and the righteous – who will receive God’s favor. (Ps. 8) “Hear my prayer,” the Psalmists say again and again. “Hear my prayer, protect me from the wicked ones, for I am not like them. I am good and upright in heart. I am righteous. I deserve to be among your favorites.”
Finally the shouting woman works her way through Jesus’ disciples and stops him on the road. She kneels before him, begging, pleading, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David. Have mercy on me. My daughter is tormented by a demon.” “It is not fair,” Jesus tells her, “to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Ouch. So much for “red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.” But the woman is not fazed. “Even the dogs,” she retorts, “get the crumbs from their masters’ table.” With this, Jesus gives in. “Woman,” he says, “Great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
As the woman kneels before Jesus, he tries to stay within the boundaries but can’t. God is love, and God must love, and God’s love cannot be contained within boundaries of human, or divine, creation. This is the God who puts respect and mercy for the foreigner, the stranger, the sojourner, the other at the heart of his law. This is the God who continually pulls individuals such as Rahab and Ruth, Naaman and Cornelious, a Canaanite woman, a thief on a cross – individuals neither righteous nor descendents of Abraham – into his promise. This is a God who, to quote noted Old Testament scholar Gene March, regularly surprises the human family with a generosity of love beyond our imagination.
So, does God play favorites? God does have a deeper relationship with some people than with others – but I think that may have as much to do with us as with God. The organization I worked with in New York taught Jeremiah 29:11 to all the kids in their youth programs:
I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.
The verse is specifically written to the exiled Israelites, but in the light of God’s expansively generous love has meaning far beyond a specific tribe or people. God had plans for Abraham; God may also have had plans for Abraham’s neighbor. But unlike his neighbors, Abraham was able to hear and follow a God none of his neighbors knew. Perhaps it was desperation for an heir. Perhaps it was frustration with his present circumstance. Perhaps he was just wired differently. Perhaps all three combined to give him an openness to God, an ability to listen and the faith to follow.
For many people, their most profound experiences of the divine occur with they are most vulnerable, most desperate, most willing to drop their own preconceived notions and prejudices and embrace what God has to offer. We can only embrace when our arms are empty. We can only dance when we free ourselves to the Spirit. We can only follow when we’re willing to change direction. We can only become new when the old has died and resurrection is possible.
God’s expansive love means that each of us are his favorite. But God also has to become our favorite. It’s a relationship – and it goes two ways. That ancient concept of righteousness does not earn us God’s favor, but it does enable us hold up our side of the relationship, just as unrighteousness – on our part or on the world’s – can thwart God’s best laid and deepest plans for us. Unrighteousness – the sin created by us and embedded in the world around us – can so affect us, so smother us, that we can feel far from God and further still from God’s favor. But its also those times when we may be most open to the promise of being God’s chosen.