A Great Faith
Text: Matthew 15:21-28
13 Pentecost, A Last week we heard about the little faith of Peter that had him walking on water only to sink like a stone when that little faith was swallowed up by the wind and the waves. You see, Peter's Jesus was smaller than the wind and the waves. In today's Gospel, by contrast, we hear about the great faith of the Canaanite woman with the demon-possessed daughter. She was a nobody, this Canaanite woman. We don't know her name or how old she was. We don't know if she was married, divorced, or widowed. We do know that she came from Phoenicia, and that meant she was a Gentile, one of the goyim, despised by the Jews. Even more despised for being a Canaanite, one of the ancient enemies of Israel. The Israelites called Canaanites "dogs."
Somewhere this woman had heard the good news of Jesus and it had worked faith in her heart. A great faith it turns out. She came to Jesus with a prayer: "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon." I can’t stress enough how bold this little act was. How this prayer was maybe even bolder than stepping out of a boat into a storm. Gentiles didn’t address Jews. And women never addressed a man, much less a rabbi, in public as she did. It must have summoned up all the courage that she had to break through the wall of his disciples and to kneel at his feet. She even tried to pass herself off as a Jew. She calls Jesus "Son of David," which is a Jewish way of speaking of the Messiah. How could Jesus not be moved by such courageous prayer?
But he did not answer her a word ... Her prayer is met with a stony silence. It was as if He didn't hear her. That is the first way in which God exercises faith. He hides his hearing behind deafness. Notice that Jesus did not say "no" to her prayer. He knows her faith, better than she knows it. He knows what He is eventually going to do. But for the moment He is silent, and in His silence, trust in Jesus is stretched and strengthened. Does she trust Him when He ignores her?
The silence of God to our needs is a terrible silence. We hate it. Yet in the silence of God, our faith is strengthened. Faith clings to Christ and His Word alone and not to our well crafted and all-encompassing prayers. Faith clings to Jesus' death and resurrection alone and not to what favours God has done for us lately. Even if God never responds to a single word of our prayer in this life, even if He reserves all of His “Yes’s“ for the resurrection from the dead, even if all we receive in this life is suffering and silence, so be it. We still have Christ and His kingdom and His forgiveness and His Word. We have God's "yes" even when the silence seems to scream out "no."
Jesus experienced the silence of God in his own ears. He prayed on the cross, "My God, my God why have you forsaken me?" And the Father was silent. There were no preachers forthcoming to answer his question, "why". No angels to bring God's answer. Not even His disciples stood with Him. There was only the thick, awful silence of God's judgment against us, laid on Jesus. We too are given to hear the silence of God, not as punishment (Christ endured that for us), but to stretch and strengthen our faith in Him who hung in silence for us.
And then comes Jesus’ shocking reply to this poor woman: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." Can this be the same Jesus who said, "Ask and it will be given you. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened?" Now He seems to slam the door in this poor woman's face and in the face of his disciples. Again, Jesus hides His "yes" inside of a "no." He doesn't say He won't help this poor woman. He simply reminds her that He had come first to the Jews. The Gentiles would have to wait their turn, and their turn would come only after His death and resurrection.
The Lord does what He wills, when He wills, according to His will. I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. This is the second way in which God tests and tries our faith in order to strengthen it. He acts as if we are rejected. He deals with us as if He had not come for us, as if we have no place in His kingdom, as if we have no business seeking His help. Jesus doesn't even speak directly to the poor woman. He speaks to His disciples and lets her overhear what He has to say. He is for the Jews, and she is not a Jew, even though she tried to pass herself off as one. Christ is teaching her, the disciples and us to trust in nothing but Him. Not our prayers, not the prayers of the pious and holy, or the saints in heaven … but only Jesus.
This is a hard thing for us to learn. We are impatient and stubborn and self-willed and self-centered. We are accustomed to having things our way in sixty seconds or less. Habits years in the making we want broken in 12 simple steps. When we phone or text message someone, we expect them to answer instantly, drop everything, and respond to us right then and there. We expect the same thing from God. We expect our prayers to be dealt with immediately, not put on hold or put in some heavenly "to do" file. Still the woman persists even more fervently in the face of Jesus' seeming rejection. Now on her knees and with a much shorter, more fervent prayer. She just doesn't give up. "Lord, help me," she says. It is the barest and most beautiful of all prayers.
It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs." How cruel and insensitive Jesus seems! He utterly humiliates her in front of his disciples. They must have been shocked. We are, aren't we? This is not the kind and gentle Jesus we learned about in Sunday School. We would never put up with such treatment. We barely tolerate a rebuke or warning from a fellow Christian, much less be called a dog by the Lord.
And yet, this is the third way that God exercises faith - he breaks our pride and humbles us. And that is good and needful. Because it is only on our knees, with empty hands, contrite hearts and crushed spirits, that we are ready to receive God's gifts. Our hands must be emptied before they can be filled. Before we can be exalted, we must be humbled. Before we can live in Christ, we must die to self.
Three things make a theologian, said Luther "oratio, meditatio, tentatio" - prayer, study, testing. Three things for every Christian - Prayer, study, testing. Prayer and study sound great, though we don't nearly do enough of either one. But testing means suffering and humiliation and the cross, and nobody wants that. It means God's silence, His rejection, His humbling us. We don't like it a bit, yet the cross must come to us all if we are to be saved.
So what do you do when the Lord calls you a dog? The woman could have been indignant, and walked away. Instead she receives his judgment and confesses it. "Yes, Gentile dog I may be, but at least the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." She traps Jesus by His own words and holds Him there. She has him caught by His Word, embraced in great faith. "If the Lord says I am a dog, then I'm a dog." But dogs get the crumbs, and she knows that the crumbs that fall from Jesus' table are rich crumbs of the Bread of Life, and her great faith will not be denied them.
How the Lord loves to be trapped in His own words! "O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire." And her daughter was healed that instant by the Word of Jesus. Her faith was great because she was nothing, a "dog," and Jesus was everything for her. And that is the great reveal in all this dear friends, a great Faith is simply a faith that clings to the great Lord Jesus.
Jesus is great. Greater than the Law that separated Jew from Gentile. Greater than the demon that possessed the Canaanite's little girl. Greater than your sin and your death. God's Law calls us something far worse than "dogs." It calls us sinners. And if God is to be righteous in his words and justified in his judgments, then all we can say is, "Yes, that's what I am, a poor miserable sinner," but Christ came for sinners, of whom I am chief. That is repentant faith. Great faith. Faith that is nothing in itself but given to us by God, on His terms, not ours.
When, dear friends, you understand this great faith you have been given … then you will not only eat the crumbs of the Bread of Life that fall under the table as the little dogs do. You will have a place reserved for you at God's table as one of His children.