The Faith that Jesus Calls Great
The Second Sunday in Lent| March 8, 2009| 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.
Jesus was traveling north of Israel between Phoenicia and Syria. The people of that area were Gentiles. They were not the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They were not God’s chosen people. God chose Abraham and his descendants. He did not choose the Canaanites.
On the other hand, the clear Scriptures teach God’s love for the whole world. True, God chose Abraham. But God also said that all the nations of the world would be blessed through Abraham. True, Israel was God’s chosen nation, but this did not mean that God’s grace was limited to Israel. Christ came for Israel, this is true. But it is also true that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.
Today’s Gospel Lesson confronts vividly an apparent conflict in what the Bible teaches about God’s grace. I say “apparent” conflict because it appears to be a conflict. It is not a real conflict because the Bible is God’s word and God cannot contradict himself.
On the one hand, the Bible teaches that a sinner is saved by God’s grace alone. On the other hand, the Bible teaches that God wants all people to be saved. Why are some saved and others lost? We cannot answer this question. Indeed, this question has been called the theologian’s cross. Those who try to bring the teaching of salvation by grace alone into harmony with the teaching of universal grace invariably end up denying one or both of these biblical teachings.
The Bible teaches that we are saved by grace alone. This means that it is not by human works or choice. It is by God’s grace alone. If you are saved it is not because of anything you have thought, said, or done. It is pure mercy on the part of God. God chose you. You did not choose him.
The strongest way the Bible has of expressing this doctrine is by teaching us of God’s eternal election of his children unto salvation. St. Paul sets forth the doctrine of election or predestination of grace in Romans 8, 28-30:
And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.
This teaching assures us Christians that our salvation does not depend on us. It depends on God. It assures us that God won’t change his mind about us. He knew us from eternity. He predestined us to be conformed to the image of Christ before time began. This divine, eternal, gracious choice is why we were called to faith, forgiven of our sins and justified, and it is why we will also be glorified when Christ returns. All those who are saved are saved because God elected them in Christ Jesus to be saved before time began.
The Bible also teaches that God wants all people to be saved. God so loved the world. St. Paul writes in 1 Timothy 2, 4-6
[God our Savior] desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all.
Jesus took upon himself our nature. There is no human being whose nature Jesus did not assume. There is no human being that Jesus did not redeem. There is no human being who has ever lived for whom Jesus did not die and whose sins were not washed away by his blood. There is no human being whom God does not want to save.
On the one hand the Bible teaches an election of grace. If you are saved it is because God chose you in Christ Jesus to be saved before time began. On the other hand the Bible teaches that God wants to help and to save all people. The Bible teaches grace alone. The Bible teaches universal grace. While they may appear to conflict God teaches us both so we believe both.
Theologians deny the one to affirm the other as they try to reconcile what cannot reasonably be reconciled. We Christians need to leave such matters up to God. We cannot explain how both grace alone and universal grace are true.
But faith doesn’t need to. True faith doesn’t need to figure out how this can be true if that is true. The Canaanite woman is proof of that.
She appeals to Jesus on the basis of the doctrine of universal grace. Jesus appears to deny her appeal on the basis of the doctrine of grace alone. But this woman shows us what true faith is. She shows us what our Lord calls a great faith. She will not permit an apparent contradiction in God’s word deter her from claiming the promises of God’s word.
She knew Jesus as the Christ, even though she didn’t belong to Israel. She called him Lord, confessing his deity. She called him Son of David. That was the messianic title. She confessed him as her Lord and as the promised Savior of the world. And she wouldn’t let go of her confession because it was true. Peter was not the first to confess Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. This woman confessed him as the Christ before Peter did. And she didn’t even belong to the church.
This Lord Christ that she confessed was full of mercy and love. He came into the world to destroy the power of the devil. She knew this. Her daughter was suffering terribly from demon possession and the Christ could help her. And he would help her. He wanted to help her. That she knew.
But he said no. Three times he said no. Three times he pitted the doctrine of grace alone against the doctrine of universal grace and denied her what she so desperately needed.
The first time he simply ignored her. It was as if she didn’t exist. She wasn’t one of the chosen so forget about her. Christ’s disciples were somewhat embarrassed because she wouldn’t give up and she kept on begging for help. Help her out, they implored Jesus, if only to keep her from making such a spectacle of herself. Jesus replied by setting the doctrine of election against the doctrine of universal grace. He said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” It is as if he’s saying to her, “I didn’t come for you. You don’t belong. You aren’t Israel. You aren’t one of God’s elect people. You are outside and I’m not going to help you.”
But she refused to be quiet. She knew that this man was no mere man but the Lord Christ himself. She didn’t deny the doctrine of grace alone. She didn’t question the election of grace. But she wasn’t about to climb up into an ivory tower to figure out how apparent conflicts could be reconciled. She needed Jesus’ help. She knew he could help her. She knew he would help her. He would not deny her. Her daughter was suffering from demon possession. An evil power had taken control of her body. This man, the Lord God himself in the flesh, the fulfillment of all divine promises, would help her despite appearances to the contrary.
Then he refused her for a third time. “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” Three strikes and you’re out. He ignored you. He refused you. Now he insults you. Go away! You are not one of God’s elect. You are not one to whom God will be gracious. So go away, woman. He won’t help you. Can’t you hear what he’s saying?
Oh, but she could hear. She heard with the ears of faith. She heard with crystal clarity exactly what he was saying. He called her a dog. And she’d claim from him no more than what a dog is entitled to. She replied, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” She caught Jesus’ in his own words and that’s exactly what he intended for her to do.
Faith doesn’t quit. Not when it has God’s word to go on. Faith won’t permit one thing God says to deny another thing God says. Faith may not be able to reconcile apparent contradictions but faith doesn’t care about that. Faith looks to Jesus as the One who is able and willing to provide all manner of remedy against evil and to do so willingly.
The doctrine of grace alone is of great comfort to us. It teaches us who are trusting in Jesus that our relationship with God is secure and permanent. God himself has established it and he won’t break it. We are Christians because God chose us, not because we chose him. We can depend on him, not on ourselves.
The doctrine of universal grace is of great comfort to us. It teaches us that God loves us no matter who we are. He is willing to help us in our need. Jesus will not deny anyone who comes to him for help. He died for all. He bore the sins of all. He redeemed the whole human race. No matter who you are God wants you to trust in Jesus and freely to receive from him the forgiveness of all your sins, everlasting life, and deliverance from every evil of body and soul.
The woman from Canaan whose daughter Jesus healed is our sister in Christ. She teaches us how to pray. She shows us what true faith is. Faith holds on to what God says. It doesn’t seek to fit everything into a neat theological system. It simply lives on every word that comes from the mouth of God. It holds God to his word and receives what God promises. Amen