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I invite you to open your Bibles or service folders to our Gospel lesson today as Jesus highlights the great faith of the Canaanite woman.
If you were looking for examples of great faith during the ministry of Jesus where would you expect to find them? Certainly you might expect that you would find them among those who heard God’s word regularly, among Jewish people who were faithful in their Synagogue attendance. And we do have the examples of Simeon and Anna who were devout and were enabled to recognize that Jesus was the Messiah even though he was still an infant. But then there are the Jewish religious leaders, the best of whom might be Nicodemus who was afraid to let anyone know that he thought Jesus might be the messiah. In Nazareth, after his visit to his hometown synagogue, Jesus said that he was amazed at their lack of faith. What about the Disciples? Yes, there were times when they demonstrated great faith, but how often didn’t Jesus point out that they had little faith!
As you study the gospels, Jesus calls attention to a person’s great faith only twice. And both times the person he says has great faith is a gentile! The centurion of whom he said that he had not found such great faith even in Israel, and this Canaanite woman.
This doesn’t mean that there weren’t many in Israel who had great faith. God’s promise holds true that his word won’t return empty. Those who regularly heard the word like Simeon and Anna, and Mary, Martha and Lazarus did demonstrate great faith. But Jesus purposely calls attention to the fact that great faith is also found in unlikely places.
We have seen that in the case of the Hmong Fellowship Church in Vietnam. If you are my age or older, when you think of Vietnam you think of war and riots and civil disobedience. It wasn’t a good time in our nation and almost everyone wondered what good could possibly come from that war. But who knows how the seed of the word was planted in the midst of war and turmoil? Who would ever expect to have so many people hungry for the gospel and eager to learn God’s word? It’s just like Jesus and his disciples meeting this Canaanite woman, a descendant of idol worshipers who were supposed to have been wiped out by Israel when they took over the Promised Land. You wouldn’t expect her even to know about the promise of the Messiah, much less to believe it, and then be able to identify Jesus as that Messiah, but she did. She cried out to him, Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David!
The fact that great faith is found in unlikely places then and now fills us with joy and hope. We rejoice with the angels when we hear about just one person, especially one that lives in a place where there is no easy access to the Gospel, hears the Gospel and confesses their faith in Jesus. It gives us hope that many more will be with us in heaven than there might seem to be just from outward appearances. But it also can put us to shame.
Why would Jesus say of a gentile centurion that his faith was greater than anyone he had found in Israel? It was a call to repentance. We know from experience that something that is common and easily accessible is easy to take for granted. Israel had more access to God’s word than anyone else on earth, but they took it for granted. And statistics show that so do we. Even in our Synod over half those who promised to be faithful to God and his word at their confirmation are missing in worship because something was more important than God and his word that day. I’ll never forget a comment made by one of our world missionaries who had taught at various levels including MLC and was then teaching overseas in the world mission field. His comment was about how much he enjoyed teaching where the students didn’t take God’s word for granted like most he had taught in the USA. The student overseas, who had not been raised as Christians, were always eager to learn and study the word. We need to realize and confess that we often take what we have for granted. We need to let joy of forgiveness in Jesus move to devote ourselves to the word, to crave the word like babies crave milk.
When the Canaanite woman approached Jesus he knew right away that she had great faith. He knows what’s in our hearts. But it seems he wants to make sure that his disciples see her faith, that we see it. How does that happen since we can’t see faith in someone’s heart the way Jesus does? Great faith shows itself when tested.
In response to her first request for mercy, Jesus seemed to ignore her. He didn’t answer. But she showed great faith by continuing to call on him for help to the point that the disciples ask him to do something. They were obviously annoyed by her. It’s difficult to tell if send her away meant, just tell her “no” so that she goes away, or grant her request so that she stops asking and goes away. It seems that they were asking Jesus to grant her request because Jesus speaks to them. He says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Certainly the woman heard in those words that Jesus wasn’t, that he couldn’t do what she was asking. It was outside of his mission. He had come to save the lost of Israel and she was not of Israel. And the disciples were certainly tempted to agree. They had been raised in a culture that thought that way. And Jesus had sent them on a mission trip and told them only to go to Israel. But instead of giving up this woman doubled down. She came and knelt in front of him, saying, “Lord, help me.”
Doesn’t your heart go out to her? I’m sure the hearts of most of the disciples did. And there are many times in the Gospels where Jesus sees people in need physically or spiritually and we are told that his heart went out to them, he was deeply moved. Surely you would think that would be the case as this woman, desperate for her daughter to be healed, bowed in worship before him, obviously trusting that he had the power to help, calling him Lord and Son of David, humbly begging for mercy and help. But no. Jesus continued with the theme that he was sent only to Israel. He answered her, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
If it were you, if I were this woman- well I’m guessing all of us would have either collapsed in tears, or gone off in anger that Jesus would seem to be such a prejudiced bigot. But, in faith, she was enabled to keep her wits about her. In faith she still considered Jesus Lord. In faith she realized that the dogs that Jesus was talking about were not wild dogs, but pet dogs who were allowed in the house. In faith she was happy to receive whatever crumb Jesus was willing to give her. Yes, Lord,” she said, “yet the dogs also eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table. Then Jesus held her up to the disciples and to us as an example of great faith and granted her request.
What is great faith? First and most importantly the object of great faith is Jesus. It’s not how strong we think our faith is. It’s not how much we fast or how diligent we are in prayer. It’s trusting that Jesus is able to do anything we ask and that the only reason we can ask is because he has washed away our sins and covered us with his righteousness.
What was great about this woman’s faith was that she stayed focused on Jesus in the midst of testing. She didn’t let comments like those she surely had heard from many others about God being the God of Israel only distract her from focusing on Jesus. She didn’t demand he do what she was asking, or list things she had done that she thought had earned her a favor from Jesus, she literally threw herself at his feet and humbly asked for mercy and help.
When Jesus, through testing, had let the fruits of her faith show so that we and the disciples could see them- wisdom, humility, meekness, patience, perseverance- he granted her request without even seeing or touching her daughter. When this woman got home, likely running all the way, the demon was gone. Her daughter was no longer possessed.
Great faith can be found wherever people can come in contact with God’s powerful word and hear the good news that Jesus is the Son of David who came to earth and defeated sin, death and Satan by his perfect life, innocent death in our place, and his glorious resurrection. When the word reaches unlikely places like Vietnam, or an inner city ghetto, or an isolated village in a third world country, instead of looking down on them or wondering how those people could have faith in Jesus we want to rejoice with them.
Great faith comes only when the faith that the Holy Spirit has planted in a person’s heart is fed and nourished regularly by the gospel in word and sacrament. Great faith is only evident when it is put to the test and has opportunity to show itself. We can’t see faith, but we can see the fruit it produces- humility, patience, perseverance, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control. When you see these fruits in your fellow Christians, tell them that you thank God for the faith God has given them. Let it be an encouragement for you to make constant use of the word and sacrament so that your faith continues to grow stronger and stronger until Jesus returns in glory or calls you home to heaven.