The Exercise of Faith
The Second Sunday in Lent| March 17, 2019| Rev. Rolf Preus| 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 came into this world to fight the power of the devil. The first gospel promise was God’s declaration of war against the devil. God told the serpent, that is, the devil, that the woman’s seed would crush his head. Jesus came into this world to do battle against the devil and his demons. He is God in the flesh. He became flesh to destroy the power of the devil and his demons over us.
So what is going on here? A woman’s daughter is possessed by a demon. She is suffering terribly from his hellish control over her body. The woman’s mother cries out to Jesus for her daughter’s deliverance, and Jesus ignores her. She confesses the true faith. She calls Jesus Lord. She addresses him as the Son of David, which is to say, the Christ. She begs for mercy. She confesses the true Christian faith, calls upon Jesus for mercy, and he chooses to ignore her.
Well, she’s a Canaanite. She’s not a child of Abraham. She doesn’t belong to the church. She’s a foreigner, an outsider. She is not one of the chosen. She has no right to lay claim to the promises God gave to his chosen people if she does not belong to his chosen people. It’s really simple.
But that’s not so. Yes, she’s a Canaanite. She is not a descendent of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That’s perfectly true. It appears as if she is an outsider with no rights to expect anything from Christ, who came to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But Jesus did not ignore this woman. Not answering is not the same as ignoring. He heard every word she said. Jesus did not say she was not a child of Abraham. He did not say she was not a sheep of the house of Israel. He did not say she did not belong to the church. He did not call her a dog. If you pay close attention to what St. Matthew, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, writes here, you will see that Jesus never said no to her. He did not ignore her. He did not reject her. It only appeared that he did. Things are not always what they appear to be.
The woman had heard the true word of God about Jesus. She knew who he was before she approached him. She would not have called Jesus Lord and she would not have confessed him to be the Christ, if she had not heard the truth about him. It was God’s word that emboldened her to come to him and cry out her need to him. She came to him in faith, trusting in the word she had heard.
Jesus said her faith was great. His disciples cried out to him to save them when the boat they were in began to sink. He said to them, “You of little faith.” Why when this woman cries out to Jesus in her need she has a great faith but when the disciples cry out to him in their need, they have little faith?
The disciples based their faith on what they could feel and see. The Canaanite woman based her faith on what she could neither feel nor see. The disciples saw the threat to their lives and thought that Jesus had forgotten them. She heard words of apparent rejection from Christ’s own lips, and refused to base her faith on what appeared to be. True faith is grounded in God’s word. Apart from the word and promise of God, there is no faith.
True faith comes from the true word about the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, our God and Lord. Let us consider the words Jesus spoke to this woman. Let us hold God to his word. Faith is holding God to his word.
What does Jesus say to this woman? At first, he says nothing at all. What can you discern from this? What conclusions can you come to when God does not speak? You cannot conclude anything at all. You can discern nothing. When God is silent, he is not saying no. He’s just not talking. God doesn’t always talk. Sometimes he remains silent.
When God won’t say, people often speak for him and attribute to God their own thoughts. But God said through Isaiah,
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
People say they talk to God and God talks back. God talks to us in the Bible, his written word. He talks to us in the preached word, when it is drawn from the Bible. He doesn’t talk to us directly in dreams or visions as he did in the days before the Bible was written. If God won’t answer your question in the Bible, he won’t answer it.
The first words Jesus spoke to this woman were, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” It sounds like she would have been better off had Jesus said nothing at all. At least then, she could wish. No word at all is better than hearing the word no. And it sounds like Jesus is rejecting her. After all, she is from Canaan, not Israel. How can she be a lost sheep of the house of Israel? But that doesn’t deter her. Why not? Jesus didn’t say no. He didn’t say she wasn’t a sheep of the house of Israel. But it stands to reason that she’s not! She belongs to a pagan nation, a nation that has never accepted the prophetic Scriptures, has never worshipped the true God, and has never listened to the truth. That’s her identity: With heathen Canaan, not with Israel.
But she won’t believe that. She cries out, “Lord, help me!” She calls him Lord. Her daughter is tormented by demons. She asks for his help. Who is she? She’s a member of the house of Israel, that’s who she is.
When Jesus tells her that it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs, he gives her the opening she was looking for. Jesus did it deliberately. She assumed the status of a dog in order to get that scrap of mercy from Jesus that she so desperately needed. She was willing to be compared to a dog.
In fact, Jesus didn’t call her a dog and she didn’t claim the status of a dog. But she was willing to be compared to a dog. She didn’t stand up for her rights as a woman of dignity whose pride should be respected. She didn’t stand up. She bowed down.
This is how to meet God: on your knees. Not necessarily literally. Some of us cannot kneel. Faith is humble. It bows down. It does not rely on itself. It relies solely on God’s word. Jesus compared her to a dog and she latched onto the comparison. Whatever you say, Jesus, that’s what I will believe.
Jesus exercised her faith. Faith is not self-confidence. It is not self-esteem. A particularly bad religious song of the sixties quite popular when I was in Walther League had the lines:
We will work with each other;
We will work side by side.
And we’ll guard each man’s dignity
And save each man’s pride.
My generation was taught this sort of foolishness. They were led to believe that the Christian gospel had to do with affirming civil rights, working for social causes that bettered people’s economic status, and guarding dignity and saving pride as our Christian goals.
That was a lie. If you want to save your pride you cannot be a Christian. After she compared herself to a dog Jesus said, “O woman, great is your faith!” Jesus said, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Faith is born in humility. Faith holds God to his word. Faith is confident that God wants to deliver us from the power of the evil one.
God wins. The devil loses. We are on God’s side. We win the victory over the devil and his evil forces. Good triumphs over evil. Our good God defeats the bad devil. This is what faith believes. This is what makes faith optimistic.
We are realistic about the sinfulness of humanity. Sin infects everyone from birth. We don’t pretend that we aren’t sinners. We confess our sins to God every day. We say, “I have failed to love you, God, with my whole heart. I have failed to love my neighbor as myself.” We are not naïve. But we are optimists. We have seen Christ’s victory over the devil. We saw him fast in the wilderness and bear up in innocence against the devils’ temptations. We have seen his obedience, suffering, and death. We have heard his words from Calvary, “Father, forgive them,” while he bears their sins. We saw Jesus crush the head of the serpent, silencing his forked tongue, and rising from the dead to proclaim his gospel to us. We have heard, and by the grace of God, we have believed what we heard. God, for the sake of Christ’s triumph over the devil, forgives us all our sins and releases us from the devil’s power. He speaks his word of forgiveness. Our sins that distressed us and weighed us down are gone – cast into the depths of the sea. By forgiving us he empowers us to live holy lives. The devil cannot control us or rule over us.
We are optimists. God will never abandon us in our need. God will never shut his ears to our prayers. He may try us. It may appear that he isn’t listening. He will exercise our faith, but it isn’t possible that he will fail to keep his word. On this our faith rests. Amen.