Second Sunday in Lent| March 7, 2004| Rev. Rolf Preus| Matthew 15:21-28
Few encounters with Jesus recorded for us in the Gospels are more touching than this one. Jesus is always merciful and compassionate even when it appears otherwise. The Canaanite woman knew this, trusted in this, and would not be deterred when it appeared that Jesus was not what she believed Him to be. Jesus was not playing games with the woman when He gave the appearance of not caring about her. He was rather letting her trap Him by His own words. It looked as if He was denying her plea for help, but she refused to be denied. When Jesus compared her to a dog she latched on to His words and would not let go. She asked for no more than what a dog could expect. What a beautiful expression of faith! She would not let appearances deceive her. She clung on to the word and refused to let go.
What is so wonderful about this woman’s faith is her utter lack of that persnickety religiosity so common among those who claim to be spiritual. They mistake their own self-absorption with true spirituality. How often we hear these days about the so-called “spirituality” of people whose beliefs remain unknown. People talk about their faith but won’t say what their faith is in. Claims to faith are considered sacrosanct and beyond challenge. “What? Do you question my faith? Do you question my spirituality?” It is as if making a claim to faith is the same thing as having faith. It isn’t. It is as if it doesn’t really matter what you believe as long as you claim to have faith in something. It does matter what you believe.
The enemy of true faith is pride. Pride produces its own counterfeit faith. Pride’s faith is faith in itself. The true Christian faith cannot take root until pride is crushed. Since pride rises up to claim its reward on a regular basis, the cause of true Christian faith must always confront sinful pride as a dangerous threat. Pride is the sin of the devil. It is the undoing of countless souls. They pout when God doesn’t give them just what they want when they want it. They assume that God exists for their own pleasure and that if life doesn’t go as they think it should God is to blame. They don’t cry out to God in faith, as this woman did. They whine and complain, but don’t humble themselves under the mighty hand of God. Instead of crying out for mercy, they accuse God of wrongdoing when He won’t take orders from them. In the words of C. S. Lewis, they put God in the dock. They put God on trial for His alleged unconcern or lack of ability to see their needs and fill them.
One thing you must never forget if you want to pray to God. God is God and you are not. When you pray as if God is obligated to you on account of what you think, say, do, or suffer, you are not really praying at all. You are trying to boss God around and He won’t be bossed around. We may not usurp God’s authority with our own. We cannot pray to God except by His command, invitation, and promise. God is not obligated to us on account of who and what we are or claim.
But God is obligated to us. God is obligated to us because God Himself has obligated Himself to us. As He said through Isaiah in today’s Old Testament Lesson:
For I am God, and there is no other. I have sworn by Myself; the word has gone out of My mouth in righteousness, and shall not return, that to Me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall take an oath. He shall say, “Surely in the LORD I have righteousness and strength.”
God swears by Himself to be faithful to us. He swears by Himself and thereby obligates Himself to us. He doesn’t need to take an oath, but He does. So when you come to God in prayer, you don’t come on the basis of your own worthiness, sincerity of faith, or good intentions. You come on the basis of God’s word and promise. As the Hymnist says,
I do not come because my soul
Is free from sin and pure and whole
And worthy of Thy grace;
I do not speak to Thee because
I’ve ever justly kept Thy laws
And dare to meet Thy face. (TLH #379, verse 1)
We come because of who Christ is. Listen to how Christ is described by the prophet, Jeremiah.
“Behold, the days are coming,” says the LORD, “That I will raise to David a Branch of righteousness; a King shall reign and prosper, and execute judgment and righteousness in the earth. In His days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell safely; now this is His name by which He will be called: THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.” (Jeremiah 23:5-6)
Our sin cannot undo His righteousness and He is our righteousness. He is the Son of David. He is the Lord God. And He is our righteousness as well. Our unworthiness cannot make Him less than gracious. He is not gracious to sinners because they deserve it. He is who He is and He is, as He described Himself to Moses, “The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” (Exodus 34:6-7)
This is the One to whom the Canaanite woman cried out, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.” She knew who she was. She knew who Jesus was. This is necessary if we are to pray. We must know who we are and we must know who Christ is. We are sinners in need of mercy. Jesus is the Lord God, the promised Christ, the Son of David, in whom there is mercy.
And that mercy is for us. Faith does not simply acknowledge mercy in the abstract as if to affirm that God is indeed merciful but I don’t know if He will be merciful to me. Faith is personal. Faith does not make Jesus one’s personal Savior because faith doesn’t make Jesus anything at all. But faith does insist that the mercy that comes from God through Christ to this world is not just for others. It is for me.
Christ’s disciples did not ask Jesus to send her away without His mercy, but to do what the woman asked. They could not understand why Jesus ignored her. Give her what she asks so she will stop her crying. Jesus replied by saying that He was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Pay close attention to these words! “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” That’s what Jesus said. Jesus tells no lies. This means that unless that woman can find a way into the house of Israel she can expect to find no help from Jesus.
Jesus appears to reject her. “Lord, help me!” she cries. He answers, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” There you have it: divine rejection. She is not within the house of Israel. She is a dog. Christ has surely denied her prayer and wants nothing to do with her. But wait! Do not the dogs sit within the house? Are they not under the table waiting and hoping that perhaps some crumbs will fall off the table onto the floor? Can’t a dog expect to be treated as a family pet?
Jesus heard her. Jesus understood her. “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And it was. Jesus’ words brought about what they said as they always do. Her daughter was healed and released from demon-possession. Not all the powers of hell can withstand the word of Christ.
She was willing to be a dog. I don’t suppose that humbling ourselves before others is something we relish doing. Perhaps there are times when, if we do so, we will only be humiliated further. But we should never be afraid of humbling ourselves before Jesus. The woman who was willing to be called a dog humbled herself before the Man who would later cry out on the cross the words recorded by His father David,
But I am a worm, and no man; A reproach of men, and despised by the people. All those who see Me ridicule Me; they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying, “He trusted in the LORD, let Him rescue Him; let Him deliver Him, since He delights in Him!”
She who was willing to be a dog humbled herself before Him who was willing to be a worm. No one who humbles himself before Christ will ever be put to shame. No one who stubbornly persists in asking God’s mercy in Jesus’ name will ever be disappointed.
Though you deem He hears you not,
Still your wants are ne’er forgot;
Cry to Him when storms assail you,
Let your courage never fail you. (ELH #256, verse 2)
It is true that Jesus came only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel. It is also true that everyone who has the faith of Israel is of the house of Israel. It was after Jacob wrestled with Christ all night long, refusing to let go until He blessed him, that God gave to Jacob the name of Israel. Just so, the woman from Canaan showed she was a true Israelite by wrestling with Christ and refusing to give up until He gave her the mercy for which she cried
Jesus taught us to pray when He gave us the prayer that we have named after Him: the Lord’s Prayer. We know what we need because this prayer asks God for what we need and Jesus told us to pray this way. Is it possible that any of the petitions of this prayer could be denied when Jesus Himself has invited you so to pray? What is your care? What is your trouble? What is your worry? What is your need? God became flesh to be despised and to suffer reproach and ridicule for your sake. He became a worm of a man, drowning in the deepest depths of shame and suffering. He did this because He loved you. He did this to remove from you God’s reproach and the punishment your sins deserved. Is it possible that He could reject your pleas to Him when you are in need? Is it possible that your faith in Him will be put to shame? No, it is not possible. The Canaanite woman proved that. And Jesus provided the proof to her because He wanted you to know that what He did for her He most certainly will also do for you.