“A Great Faith”
The Second Sunday in Lent| February 28, 2010| Rev. Rolf Preus| St. Matthew 15:21-28
Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.” But He answered her not a word. And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.” But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
St. Matthew 15:21-28
Jesus does not say no to us when we come to him for mercy. And we do. “Lord have mercy upon us, Christ have mercy upon us, Lord have mercy upon us.” And he does. He says, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out.” John 6, 37 If you come to Jesus it is because the Father gave you to Jesus before you even came. And when you come to Jesus he welcomes you. He does not say no. He cannot say no. He says:
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Matthew 7, 7-8
Back when I was in parochial school I was taught that God gave three answers to the prayers of his children: yes, no, and not yet. That’s not true. God never says no. It just appears to us that he is saying no. Jesus says: “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you.” John 15, 7 Prayer is the exercise of faith. God makes it appear that he is denying us. But he isn’t. It only looks that way.
In the case of the woman from Canaan whose daughter was suffering terribly from demon possession, it looked as if Jesus kept saying no to her. But he never said no to her. By appearing to refuse the woman’s plea for mercy Jesus makes her faith visible and then calls it great. Since it is the Lord Jesus himself who gives his approval of this woman’s faith, let us examine this portion of God’s word today to see what genuine faith is. The Canaanite woman displays four features of faith. First, faith is faith in the biblical Jesus. Second, faith seeks mercy from God. Third, faith is born in humility. Fourth, faith clings to the very words of God.
Faith is faith in the biblical Jesus. Faith doesn’t invent for itself what it believes and in whom it trusts. First comes God’s word. Then comes faith. The Christian faith is the only true faith, as the Bible makes clear. True faith is faith in the true Jesus. And that is the biblical Jesus. “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David!” The woman was a Gentile. She was a foreigner. She did not grow up learning the Bible. But she appealed to the Bible when she called Jesus, “Lord, Son of David.” This was the title of the promised Christ. She was thus predicating of Jesus everything the Bible said about the Christ. She didn’t find Jesus in her own imagination. She didn’t come up with her own personal Jesus. She confessed the Jesus taught in the Bible. Faith receives what the Bible says. There is no Jesus but the one foretold by the prophets and witnessed to by the apostles. True faith is bound to the Holy Scriptures and through the Holy Scriptures to the one and only Jesus, the Son of David, the virgin born Immanuel, the suffering Servant, the Savior of sinners.
Second, faith seeks mercy from God. Faith doesn’t celebrate itself, point to itself, or claim for itself some greatness all its own. It was Jesus who identified the woman’s faith as great, not the woman herself. Faith knows its need for mercy. If you see no need for mercy you have no faith. Faith is not primarily an intellectual assent to what God says. Obviously, faith agrees with God. When God says something faith says Amen. But one can agree with any true proposition without caring much about it. Faith sees its need. Its need is always the kindness and compassion of God in Christ.
The woman’s daughter was demon possessed. When God the Son became incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary and was made man all the demons in hell howled in indignation and anger. The devil unleashed his demons in an assault against humanity such as had never been seen before and has never been witnessed since. Demon possession was at an all time high. So fearful was the devil of his impending doom that he pulled out all the stops and trumpeted with all his might his defiance of God. The Seed of the woman was about to crush the head of the serpent and all hell broke loose quite literally.
This woman’s poor daughter was a victim. She couldn’t control her own body. She was under the control of an evil power greater than any native powers she had. And so it is for all those who need God’s mercy in Christ. We cannot free ourselves from the evil that crouches within, ready to break forth. We cannot defend ourselves from the evil that lurks outside, ready to invade. We have nothing but God’s mercy in Christ upon which to rely and that’s precisely what faith does. It pleads for and relies on God’s mercy in Christ.
Third, faith is born in humility. The need for mercy renders pride the most destructive of things. Jesus crushes the woman’s pride, not out of spite or malice, but out of deep love. Faith is born in humility. He ignores her. He obviously heard her. Everyone heard her. But he ignores her. It is humiliating to be ignored. When it is becoming downright embarrassing, Jesus’ disciples plead with him to give her what she wants and send her away. Jesus appears to deny her her request when he says to his disciples that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Clearly, she was not of the house of Israel so just as clearly she is being excluded. Jesus was not sent to help her. So it seems. But she bears the humiliation of being excluded and keeps on crying out for mercy.
At any time a false faith would have said, “Forget it. I’ll not tolerate such insults, such abuse! I’ll look for help somewhere else.” But true faith doesn’t stand on its pride. Indeed, the more Jesus humiliated her the more tenaciously she held on to the faith.
Finally, Jesus deigns to address the woman herself, but his words appear to be a clear and emphatic rejection of her and a denial of her request. He says, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” The ultimate insult. She’s a dog. She is most thoroughly humiliated before the One to whom she came pleading for mercy. This brings us to the fourth feature of faith. Faith clings to the very words of God. It latches on to Jesus’ words and won’t let go. Faith doesn’t trust in some vague and unformed hope of its own. It doesn’t project onto God a wish and then hope against hope that perhaps God will approve of the wish and grant it. No, faith takes the words that God speaks, holds them up to God, and says: “Here is what you said. I claim no more and no less than what your words entitle me to claim.” I’ll be a dog. I won’t stand on my pride. Call me a household pet. Insult me. What do I care? If I must be a dog in your sight then I’ll lay claim to what the dog receives. He gets the crumbs that fall from the master’s table. All I need is the crumbs of your grace. That will be enough for me.
Faith doesn’t look around and see whether it shares the status of others. Faith sees its need for mercy. It sees in Jesus – the biblical Jesus – the mercy it seeks. It casts aside its own pride and holds on instead to the promises of God. What is written here by the Evangelist is written for our benefit. God binds himself to what he promises. He doesn’t bind himself to human thoughts. Isaiah writes:
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” says the LORD.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways,
And My thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55, 8-9
Faith doesn’t insist that God conform his ways and his thoughts to ours. Rather, faith clings to the words from God that reveal his thoughts and his ways to us. God said it. That settles it. Nothing else does. Only God’s words can settle any matter of faith.
Jesus never said no to the Canaanite woman. He does not say no to us. But he tries us. He turns away from us and ignores us. Or so it seems. He is not playing games with us. He is disciplining us. He is teaching us. Consider the four features of faith illustrated by this account of Christ’s dealings with the woman from Canaan whose daughter was demon-possessed. Faith is faith in the biblical Jesus. Faith seeks mercy from God. Faith is born in humility. Faith clings to the very words of God. What do we see when we examine these features of faith? We see that true faith is impossible apart from the gospel of the obedience, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
There is no such thing as a generic one size fits all faith. There is true faith and false faith. True faith is Christ centered. The Bible is the standard by which we know who Christ really is. We don’t look to the popular religious culture. We look to the Holy Scriptures. Jesus said, “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me” John 5, 39 Jesus and mercy go together. There is not the one without the other. It is only in humility that mercy can be received. And it is through the words God speaks that mercy is given. So faith looks to Jesus, to mercy, to the gospel, and it does so in abject humility. The result? Faith is never the focus of itself. Faith doesn’t look to faith. It doesn’t trust in faith. It trusts in Jesus. The great faith of the Canaanite woman was what Jesus saw. It’s not what she saw. She saw only Jesus. For you see, the main character of this story is not the woman with the great faith. It is the Savior. It is Jesus. He delivered her daughter. He drove out the demon that had been tormenting her. He set her free. This is what Jesus does. He sets us free from all evil.
We suffer sin, doubts, desires for what is wrong, thoughts of vengeance and self-pity, pride and conceit, and every kind of evil imaginable. We cry out, “Lord have mercy upon us, Christ have mercy upon us, Lord have mercy upon us.” Does the Lord Jesus ever leave us to stew in our own juice? No, the one who bore our sin by his obedience all the way to death on the cross delivers us from the sin that besets us. He forgives us. We don’t see our sins. We see only Jesus. We see him lifted up for us. There all the evil that would destroy us is destroyed. There, the sin that would claim us is blotted out. From the cross where Jesus does battle against the father of lies God speaks his words of forgiveness to us and we take him at his word. Faith rests in Jesus’ wounds and finds peace with God. Amen