Great Is Thy Faith

Rev. Deacon Allen J. Batchelder

Trinity Church
Waltham, Massachusetts
August 17, 2014, Pentecost X

Genesis 45:1-15, Psalm 133, Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32, Matthew 15:21-28

From the Book of Genesis:
And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.

From St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans:
For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all.

And from the Gospel of St. Matthew:
Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Let us pray:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, our Strength and our Salvation.

What is faith?
Faith could be described as having confidence or trust in a person, thing, deity, view, or in the doctrines or teachings of a religion. It could be defined as believing something where there is no proof. In the Bible, the word faith always means trust, reliance, and confidence in someone or something, usually God. But that isn’t the only way the word is used.

If I was to take a hymnal and drop it, I have faith that it would fall to the floor. If I was to go outside and see the trees moving, I have faith that the wind is blowing. If I was to ask you if you believed in God – that would be a true test of faith, since none of us have seen Him.

Does it make a difference if we have faith?
How do we know when we’ve got it?
Is it contagious? Can anyone get it?

If we do have faith, is it like the faith of the woman mentioned in our Gospel reading today? Do you have great faith?

In the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew we begin to see signs of the tide turning against Jesus by the religious leaders of the country, and accordingly Jesus turning more to the Gentiles. In chapter fourteen of Matthew, John the Baptist was beheaded, a clear sign of the opposition to the movement. But Jesus fed the five thousand, showing that He could meet the needs of Israel; and as we talked about last Sunday, Jesus walked on water to show that He is Lord of creation. So, in chapter fifteen Jesus challenged the teachings of the elders because those teachings had been elevated to the status of Scripture. Jesus was also trying to control the timing of things. He did not want people to make Him king, and He did not want the growing confrontation with His enemies to come to a head too soon. So frequently He withdrew, or told people not to say anything about the miracles He did, or a number of other unexpected acts.

The latest confrontation was about washing of one’s hands before eating. Jesus says, “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and so passes on? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These defile a man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man” (Matt. 15:17-20). The Pharisees were offended by this. So, following that confrontation, Jesus went out of the country to the region of Tyre and Sidon.

Tyre and Sidon were the two main Phoenician cities just north of Mount Carmel on the coast. In the Old Testament times this was the region of the Canaanites. Because of its seaports and corresponding trade, the Canaanite empire became a dominant power in the third millennium B.C. The Canaanites were thoroughly pagan and corrupt. Their presence in the land was a strong threat to the purity of Israel’s religion and morality. So there is a long history of spiritual and military conflict between the Israelites and the Canaanites.

This little story in our Gospel reading is essentially built around the conversation between the woman and Jesus. What do we know about this Canaanite woman that Jesus met? Mark’s Gospel gives us some information. Jesus came to the region and entered into a house and did not want anyone to know it. The woman heard that Jesus was in her village and came looking for Him. Mark explains that she was Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. This would be typical of the northern country, for it was ruled by Greeks for the period immediately before the time of Jesus. People in the region would be of mixed nationalities.

But the conversation gives the impression that Jesus was not willing to answer her request because she was a Canaanite. What is clear is that the woman was not going to give up, but kept pleading, even from her Canaanite background, so that Christ recognized her great faith.

The contrast is truly striking: in Israel Jesus was trying to convince people He was the Messiah, and was being challenged to prove it with signs. But here in Gentile territory He met a woman who was convinced He was the Messiah and He could not discourage her efforts. Jesus was not trying to destroy her faith, but to develop it.
Her own replies showed that she was growing in faith and unwilling to let Him go without getting an answer. His apparent attempt to put her off was therefore a test, and her great faith must have been gratifying to the Savior.

When this woman approached Jesus as “Son of David,” she was definitely putting herself on Jewish ground; and this she could not do, because she was a Gentile. She is well aware of the ancient rivalry between the Jews and the Canaanites. Of course, this title did reveal her faith in Him as the Messiah of God, for “Son of David” was a name for the Messiah (Matt. 22:42). As such, He is sovereign over her and her land, and all she can do is cry for mercy. Her words opened the old wounds.

The woman came crying out to Jesus, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.” Since she came to Him on Jewish terms, He was silent. Of course, He knew her heart, and even His silence encouraged her to continue asking.

Inpatient with her persistent following and crying out, the disciples said, “Send her away!” We are not sure whether they meant “Give her what she wants and get rid of her” or just “Get rid of her!” In either case, they were not showing much compassion for either her or her demonized daughter.

We cannot but admire the patience and persistence of this Gentile mother. This woman would not be put off, and so she knelt before His feet and begged, “Lord, help me!” was her next plea; and this time she avoided any messianic titles. She came as a sinner needing help, and she offered no argument. In His reply, Jesus did not call her a “dog” the way the Pharisees would have addressed a Gentile. The Greek word means “a little pet dog” and not the filthy animals that ran the streets and ate the garbage.

Jesus was not playing games with the woman, nor was He trying to make the situation more difficult. He was drawing out of her a growing response of faith, by reminding her of the historic distinction between the cursed Canaanites and the blessed Israelites. Basically, the Jews are the “children” and the Gentiles are the “dogs.” The children get fed first. She immediately seized on His illustration about the children’s bread, which was exactly what He wanted her to do. We may paraphrase her reply: “It is true that we Gentiles do not sit at the table as children and eat the bread. But even the pet dogs under the table can eat some of the crumbs!” She may not be able to sit down at the Messiah’s table and eat with the “children of Israel,” but she should be allowed to pick up some of the crumbs they drop. She wants some of the covenanted mercy of God, His general saving grace to all people. What a tremendous testimony of faith!

It was this faith that Jesus acknowledged, and immediately He rewards her faith by healing her daughter. Jesus honors the faith that seeks mercy. She had no resentment, no anger about her situation; she only knew that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah who came to heal people, and for some reason He was in her town. She sought mercy from Him. And this time Jesus responded with emotion. Her faith was rewarded. And she became one of the early Gentiles to enter the kingdom.
It is worth noting that both of the persons in the Gospel of Matthew who had “great faith” were Gentiles: this Canaanite woman and the Roman centurion (Matt. 8:5-13). In both cases, Jesus healed the one in need from a distance. Spiritually speaking, the Gentiles were “afar off” until Calvary, when Jesus Christ died for both Jews and Gentiles and made reconciliation possible (Eph. 2:11ff).

“Because of the unbelief of the Jews, you Gentiles were saved,” said Paul. “Now, may it be that through your salvation Israel will come to know Christ.” The Apostle Paul repeatedly reminded the saved Gentiles that they had a spiritual obligation to Israel to “provoke them to jealousy” (Rom. 10:19; 11:11, 14).
God has included “all in unbelief” – Jews and Gentiles – so that all might have the opportunity to be saved by grace. “There is no difference.”

We must remember that God chose the Jews so that the Gentiles might be saved. “In thee shall all families of the earth be blessed,” was God’s promise to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3). The tragedy was that Israel became exclusive and failed to share the truth with the Gentiles. They thought that the Gentiles had to become Jews in order to be saved. But God declared both Jews and Gentiles to be lost and condemned. This meant He could have mercy on all because of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

We see this in our Old Testament reading today with Joseph and his brothers. This story encourages us to recognize the sovereignty of God in the affairs of life and to have faith and trust in His promises no matter how dark the day may be. “There are many plans in a man’s heart, nevertheless the Lord’s counsel – that will stand” (Prov. 19:21). God sent Joseph to Egypt so that Jacob’s family could be preserved and the nation of Israel be born and ultimately give the Word of God and the Savior to the world. Without realizing it, Joseph’s brothers were helping the Lord fulfill His covenant with Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3).

Keep in mind that this reconciliation was possible only because Joseph had suffered and triumphed, and it’s a beautiful picture of what the Lord Jesus Christ did for sinners in His death on the cross and his resurrection. Like Jesus, Joseph went from suffering to glory, from prison to the throne, and was able to share his wealth and glory with others.

This Gentile woman’s faith was great because she persisted in asking and trusting when everything seemed against her. Certainly her race was against her: She was a Gentile. Her sex was against her, for most Jewish rabbis paid little attention to women. It seemed that the disciples were against her, and Christ’s words might have led her to believe that even He was against her. But all of these obstacles only made her persist in asking for help even more.

But there is an even deeper faith in her. She has a saving faith. She is willing to say to Jesus, “I can’t save my daughter. Only you can. You and you alone can heal her. And I am casting aside all my pride in the confidant hope that not only can you heal her, but that you WILL heal her. Just a crumb of your power, Master, is all that I ask. Just a crumb is all it will take.”
This story teaches us that God’s mercy and grace is available to everyone: Jew or Gentile. Jesus went into Gentile territory and healed the daughter of a Gentile woman. This miracle showed that this Gentile woman had greater faith than the Jews who were rejecting and challenging Jesus’ claims. It teaches us about the grace of our Lord, about the faith of people who are in need, and about the coming advance of the kingdom to the Gentiles whose mission it is to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world; that all may be saved and receive the salvation of His Son, Jesus Christ.

When you can say to Jesus: “Lord, I totally trust you with my life. I will do whatever you say. I surrender all.” Then Jesus will answer: “Great is thy faith!”

Let us pray:

Almighty God, you have given your only Son to be for us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life: Give us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work, and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.

Amen. †

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