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Great Faith

“Christ with the Canaanite Woman and Her Daughter” by Henry Ossawa Tanner

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“But she came and knelt before Him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ And He answered, ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.’ And her daughter was healed instantly” (Matthew 15:25-28).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Jesus withdraws to the district of Tyre and Sidon. This is Gentile territory, a coastal region northwest of Galilee that had never been part of Israel and had been dominated by the Phoenicians in Old Testament times. Jesus goes there, not primarily to engage in ministry, but to avoid the opposition arising from His recent confrontation with Pharisees from Jerusalem. The Canaanites who live there are descendants of those whom the Israelites failed to exterminate when they occupied the land. Most are unbelievers and idolaters, but this woman is an exception.

With the word “behold,” Matthew draws attention to this Canaanite woman and her words. She speaks like a disciple and calls Jesus “Lord.” This woman, who might so quickly be dismissed as unclean, speaks like a believing Israelite and addresses Jesus as “Son of David,” in sharp contrast to the Pharisees who had just been offended by Jesus’ teaching on what makes someone clean or unclean.  

“Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David,” she pleads. “My daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” It is a heartfelt prayer to the only One who can help. But how does Jesus respond? “He [does] not answer her a word.” Jesus’ response, or rather, lack of response, may surprise or even puzzle us. We have never seen Jesus treat anyone this way, and we wonder why He did this. Many commentaries seek to provide a satisfying answer, as though Jesus’ actions require a defense from us. But it is useless to conjecture why; Jesus simply remains silent.

But is that so out of character? Doesn’t it seem to you, that God is often silent when you are most anxious for an answer? At times, God seems inattentive, inactive, indifferent. And this silence may lead us to disappointment, despair, and hopelessness. God’s silence can be hard to take. It must have been excruciating for the woman in our text. You could probably tell of times when you have experienced this. It can be difficult. But it is necessary because it is only out of the silence that faith arises. As the writer of Hebrews puts is, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

The woman hopes for healing for her daughter. But even before that, she hopes for a response from Jesus. You, no doubt, have hoped for many things, too. Some of your prayers are known to others. Others you have kept hidden, because the hurt is too raw, you’re afraid it will overwhelm you if exposed. The need is so deep, you prefer to keep it under wraps to avoid the pain.

Jesus is silent as though He has not heard the woman’s plea. His disciples, however, have had enough. They ask Him to “send her away.” Give her what she wants so she’ll leave us alone and we can all get some rest.

Why Jesus replies to the disciples as He does, with words about His not being sent except to Israel’s lost sheep, we cannot be sure, but the words of the Canaanite woman provide a likely answer. She, herself a Gentile, has raised the issue of who Jesus is by calling Him “Lord, Son of David.” These titles are key to Jesus’ identity. In an especially important sense, Jesus has been sent only as Israel’s Messiah. To be sure, His identity as Israel’s Messiah and Savior has implications for His relationship with the rest of the human race and the entire creation. Nevertheless, Jesus is, first and foremost, “the Christ, Son of David, Son of Abraham,” as Matthew describes Him in the opening verse of his Gospel. Jesus is not there for the disciples’ convenience or to be a wandering wonder worker.

Undeterred and unfazed by Jesus’ apparent indifference, the woman persists. She “kneels” before Jesus, the same word usually translated as “worship,” calling Jesus “Lord” for the second time, and continuing to cry out, “Help me!”

Finally, the Messiah of Israel speaks to her directly. If His silence was disappointing, His words are crushing. If His words seemed harsh before, now they are brutal. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” It’s not just that Jesus has been sent only to the lost sheep that are Israel’s house, but it’s also that He has come to give bread to feed the children, the people of Israel, and “it is not right,” if this woman is thinking that she should get what by right and by divine economy belongs to Israel.

Remember, Jesus has just provided bread in the wilderness for five thousand men, besides women and children, with twelve baskets of fragments left over (Matthew 14:13-21), and He will soon provide bread for four thousand more (Matthew 15:29-38). In Jesus, Israel’s God is feeding His ungrateful, uncomprehending people once again, as He had done during their forty years of wilderness wandering, while they waited to get into the promised land, the land that God had taken away from the idolatrous Canaanites. Now, Jesus wants to know this: does the Canaanite woman really know who He is, or are the things that have come out of her mouth just words and no more?

The woman speaks and shows her faith. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” In other words, “Yes, Lord, You’re absolutely right! It would be bad indeed to try to deny or contradict God’s plan to save His ancient people Israel. You are Israel’s Messiah, and the bread you give belongs to the children. I agree and believe, and I don’t want the children’s bread. But when the children eat, they drop a few crumbs, don’t they? And the dogs get to eat them, don’t they? The bread of the Messiah is so abundant and so overflowing that everyone can eat and there are still fragments leftover. I’ll take the crumbs!”

Last week, we had Jesus rebuking his disciple as Little-Faith. We learned what little faith looks like. We learned the dangers of little faith. And we were reminded that little faith in Jesus is still saving faith. This week, Jesus lauds an unnamed Canaanite woman for her faith: “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire” (Matthew 15:28).

How did she know? Who had taught this Canaanite woman about Israel’s Messiah? We simply do not know. We do know, however, the ultimate answer to the question of how this woman came to know and believe. The Father revealed to her His Son Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. She is an unlikely candidate for such faith. That, however, is the way of God, to hide things from the wise and understanding and to reveal them to little children (Matthew 11:25-27).

Great was her faith. In what does greatness of faith consist? Two things. She knew who Jesus is: Lord and Son of David. And she knew that Israel’s Messiah has come to give such abundance that there will be something left over even for her. Great faith puts all hope in Jesus. It believes Jesus can and will help. The woman demonstrates this faith by looking for Him, following Him, begging Him for mercy, and continuing to ask even when it seems that He doesn’t care a whit about her. That’s the way all genuine faith in Jesus works.

The unnamed woman is not too proud to hear that she has no right to ask or demand anything. She listens humbly as Jesus says He was sent for the children of Israel and referred to her people as dogs. The children of Israel were God’s chosen people. They had received the promise and the Messiah came to them now. The Canaanite woman does not belong to His people. She recognizes her lack of standing. She identifies herself as a beggar—worse, a dog. She also recognizes who she is talking to. Jesus is the Master and He has bread (even if it was just crumbs) to spare. That’s the way it always is with true faith. Faith knows that if He helps, it’s undeserved grace.

The Scriptures make it clear how you and I are also beggars and we have no standing before God outside of Christ. He has all that we need for this life and for eternal life. In Holy Baptism, He has made us God’s children, heirs of God’s kingdom. He has washed away our sins and clothed us with Christ’s righteousness. He feeds us with the Bread of Life, Himself, His very body and blood, for the forgiveness of our sins and the strengthening of our faith. Furthermore, God’s Word reminds us that Jesus is still Lord, and He has even more to spare. So, we come to Him, like the woman came to Jesus, and continually cry out for mercy, “Lord, help me.” And He does. He will. Not always when or how we would like Him to, but always at the right time.

It is interesting to note the different ways that Jesus deals with people who come to Him for help or for healing. He often surprises us by the way He treats people. When we analyze each episode, however, we see that He deals with each person in exactly the right way, for He can look into their hearts, and He knows what is best for them. In this way, He also teaches us that He deals with us as individuals. He knows our needs, and He is always concerned about providing what is best for us. His primary concern is to keep us in the saving faith to everlasting life. Nothing could be more important than that. We need to remember that always, especially when our gracious Lord deals with us in ways that we cannot immediately understand or appreciate. Any difficulties we have to endure in this life are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us in the life to come.

The promise in this text is not that Jesus will respond here and now by doing our will. He does on occasion, and at such times we sing His praise. But in many cases, and in an ultimate sense, we are stuck with the silence. Our shared experience with the Canaanite woman in our text comes to an end… for now, at least.

You see, our story is not yet finished. Our healing and restoration has not taken place yet. But it will. At the return of Jesus, when God’s silence is broken by the trumpets and His absence is replaced with His glorious presence, we will know the fullness of His mercy. As He did for the unnamed woman and her daughter, God will bring you and me full and eternal healing. In the meantime, we live in faith and prayer, appealing to and trusting in the mercy of God in Christ. Such is how it goes for those who live by faith alone. Amen

The peace of God which passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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