Second Sunday in Lent| Rev. Rolf Preus| March 4, 2007
St. Matthew 15:21-28
It looks like Jesus turned her down. First, He ignored her. Isn’t that saying no? Then He said that He was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Since the woman was a Canaanite that obviously excluded her, so He turned her down a second time. Then Jesus said it wasn’t good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs, clearly suggesting that she was a dog. There you have it: He said no three times in a row.
But He didn’t. He never said no. Had the woman trusted in her feelings or in appearances she would have had to conclude that Jesus was denying her request. But she didn’t trust in her feelings. She didn’t trust in appearances. She relied exclusively on God’s word.
It appears that Jesus was being callous. Did not Jesus have the power to drive out demons? Why should He deny the woman’s request? True, she wasn’t from Israel. She wasn’t of God’s chosen people. She was a foreigner. But she came to Jesus for help! His disciples were obviously embarrassed by her continual begging and Jesus’ apparent unconcern. Send her away. Do what she wants so she’ll stop her incessant and embarrassing begging.
Who can argue against their request? Who can argue against the woman’s request? But it appears that that’s just what Jesus does. He points out that He was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. She was a foreigner, a heathen. God had promised His grace to Israel. God had promised help to Israel. God had promised salvation to Israel. He chose Israel out of all the nations in the world. Salvation is not by human merit. It is by grace alone. It cannot be earned. It must be solely by God’s grace. Who could question God’s gracious choice of Israel? Wasn’t the Savior to be of the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Who is this woman – this outsider – to lay claim to what doesn’t belong to her? It’s not right to take what belongs to the children and to toss it to their dogs. Aha! That’s the promise she latched on to. She knew that if Jesus kept on talking He’d have to give her an opening. She knew that her pleas for mercy couldn’t be denied. She knew who Jesus was. She called Him the Son of David. She knew the promises of the Holy Scriptures concerning Him. She wouldn’t trust in appearances or feelings, but in the word of God. Now she had just heard it. Jesus said that it wasn’t good to give the children’s bread to the dogs. So then, she would claim no more than a dog was entitled to. True Lord, she said, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table. Jesus couldn’t argue with that. And He didn’t. He did for her what she asked Him to do. He told her that her faith was great. And what was great about it? It stubbornly clung to the word of God.
Prayer, faith, and God’s word all go together. We pray out of faith. Without faith there can be no prayer. Why ask God for what you don’t believe He’ll give you? To pray is to ask. True prayer asks the true God. True prayer asks in faith. We don’t have faith as a result of prayer. We pray because we already believe.
There’s a popular notion among many Protestants that prayer is the means by which a person becomes a Christian. Many teach that when you pray a prayer in which you invite Jesus into your heart to become your Lord and Savior you have thereby been born again. In fact, the term “born again Christian” is often understood to refer to people who have prayed such a prayer. Prayer becomes the means by which we are saved.
But this notion that prayer is the means by which someone becomes a Christian needs to be challenged. Without faith prayer is impossible. If you have the true Christian faith you are already a Christian. You don’t pray to become a Christian. You pray to express the faith you already have. If you have no faith you cannot pray. And where does faith come from? What does the Bible say? It says, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” Prayer is the exercise of faith. But the source of faith is always God’s word.
Here we do well to pay attention to the woman from Canaan whose daughter suffered from demon possession. She knew that Jesus was the Lord God. She called Him Lord. She knew that Jesus was the Christ. She called Him Son of David. Knowing that Jesus is the Lord God and knowing that Jesus is the fulfillment of the promises of the Bible, she knew that He would help her. Faith doesn’t require a whole lot of scholarly knowledge or a great deal of intelligence. Faith isn’t a matter of adding up evidence pro and evidence con a certain proposition and weighing things toward this or that conclusion. What faith does is that it looks at the promises God gives in Christ and says that these promises are intended for me. Faith considers what God promises His people and says that whatever God promises His people He promises me. And faith will not be denied in this regard.
Jesus never denied the woman. It only appeared that way. Ignoring her is not saying no. It’s just not saying yes right away. Telling her that He was sent only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel was not denying her. It may have appeared that she was outside of Israel, but what appears to be isn’t necessarily so. Membership in Israel has never been purely a matter of blood. We think of Ruth. She was from Moab. She didn’t belong to Israel by blood or culture or formal affiliation. But she belonged. The true faith is what makes one a member of Israel. Consider Israel himself and how he gained that name. Jacob wrestled with the Angel of the Lord all night long. He refused to let Him go until He blessed him. Jacob demanded a blessing from the pre-incarnate Christ. And he got it. Afterwards he was named Israel. He had struggled with God and won. He had insisted on receiving what God’s mercy required God to give. Faith doesn’t claim anything contrary to God’s word. But faith insists on God being faithful to what God has promised. That’s what Jacob did. That’s what the Canaanite woman did. And here’s a bit of irony for you. After Jacob received the blessing from his father Isaac that guaranteed him the birthright and that he would be the father of a great nation, Isaac sent him away because he didn’t want him to marry a Canaanite woman. In today’s Gospel we see Christ, Israel’s promised Seed, holding up the faith of a Canaanite woman for the rest of us to imitate.
Faith, prayer, and the word of God are often all mixed up together. Consider many of the psalms. We read a psalm that hits us in the heart because it’s as if the prayer was written just for us. The psalm is God’s word. The psalm is also the word of a Christian struggling with his faith. It is also our prayer to God.
The greatest of all prayers is the Lord’s Prayer. Can you pray it? Sometimes the words flow out of our mouths, but we find it impossible to believe what we are asking. Deliver us from evil. But that terrible thing in my life won’t go away and it certainly doesn’t look as if God’s going to do anything about it. Forgive us as we forgive those who sin against us, we pray. And then we recall the hurt others have done to us and we begin to hate and to want God to wreak vengeance rather than bestow mercy. So we pray against our feelings and stubbornly hold on to the word of God and force our prayers to submit to the word.
Above all, Christian prayer is prayed through faith in Christ. There is no purpose or benefit at all in Christless prayers. A generic prayer for help from a generic god is a useless religious exercise. The woman from Canaan confessed Jesus as her Lord and she confessed Him as the Christ and she showed by her persistence that she knew He would not deny her what she needed. We do not need to mention Jesus’ name in every prayer we pray, but we do need to pray in Jesus’ name. We pray only by His invitation and authority. Having Christ is what gives us the right to pray to the Father, for we are children of God through faith in Christ.
Consider what God gives us in Christ. As we make our way through the Lenten season we see Christ facing down the devil for us on His way to the cross. We see the sacrifice upon Calvary. We see the Father’s love expressed in giving His only begotten Son up for us on the cross. The sacrifice is offered to God. The sacrifice is offered for us. It isn’t offered to us. Christ was not accountable to us, but to the Father. The Father gave His Son to us and as our brother Jesus offered His life up to the Father. There is the answer to every prayer, for there it is that the true Man wins for humanity the favor of God. There it is that the requirements of prayer are met. God cannot deny us any good thing when we pray in Jesus’ name, because for Jesus’ sake God sees nothing in us that would give him reason to deny our prayer. He sees His own dear child that He has forgiven.
St. James writes (chapter 5:16) that the fervent effective prayer of a righteous man avails much. Christ prays for us. His prayers render our prayers powerful in the ears of God. The God who delivered the Canaanite woman’s daughter of her demon possession is the God who answers the prayers we pray in Jesus’ name. She was willing to beg. Pride is the worst enemy of prayer. But when we humble ourselves, it is God Himself who raises us up. So we persist in prayer. We don’t give up. We latch on to God’s word and refuse to let go. Though God may try our faith, He will deny us no good thing. We have His word on that. Amen.