“The Great Faith of the Canaanite Woman” (Matthew 15:21-28)

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
August 16, 2020

“The Great Faith of the Canaanite Woman” (Matthew 15:21-28)

How would you rate your faith? Is it a strong faith or a weak faith? If you think your faith is weak, that it’s in need of some strengthening, well, you’ve come to the right place. For today we’re going to hear about “The Great Faith of the Canaanite Woman.” But now here’s a little secret, right from the outset: If you want a great faith, don’t focus on your faith. Rather, focus on the object of your faith, namely, our Lord Jesus Christ and his great mercy.

Our text is the Holy Gospel for today, the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman. The story begins with Jesus going up to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Tyre and Sidon are cities outside of the boundaries of Israel. They’re up north, along the coast, in what is now modern-day Lebanon. This is Gentile territory that Jesus is entering. The people who lived there were not Jews; they did not follow the religion of Israel. They were Gentiles, pagans.

A Canaanite woman from that region comes to Jesus. Notice, Matthew uses the term “Canaanite” to describe her. In Mark’s gospel she is called the “Syrophoenician” woman. But Matthew calls her a “Canaanite.” That’s an old-timey word, an Old Testament word for the people living in the land of Canaan back when the Israelites moved in. The Canaanites were Gentiles, pagans, outside of the covenant the Lord had made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Yet they were in close enough contact, close enough proximity, to have some knowledge about the religion of Israel.

And this woman apparently did. For she comes to Jesus, crying out, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David.” Notice the title she uses, “Son of David.” That’s a messianic title. The Messiah that God had promised would be the Son of David, a physical descendant of the great King David. The Lord had promised that one of David’s sons would reign over an everlasting kingdom. This Son of David, the Messiah, would usher in a glorious reign of blessing for Israel–and for the other nations, too. When Messiah comes, his blessing would extend even to the Gentiles. The nations would come running to Israel to receive the Lord’s blessing–as this Canaanite woman is doing now, in coming to Jesus.

So she must have known something of those prophecies about the coming Messiah, the Son of David. And this gave her faith. She was looking for the coming of the Christ. And she recognized in Jesus the one fulfilling those prophecies. She must have heard what Jesus was doing, his healings, his acts of mercy. That emboldened her to come forward with her request: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” “Lord, have mercy.” This woman is in need of God’s mercy. Her daughter was suffering terribly. And she sees in Jesus the Lord who can provide that mercy and help.

One of the benefits of suffering, oddly enough, is that it can lead us to seek the Lord and his mercy. When life is going smoothly, we can forget about the Lord and take his blessings for granted. But when suffering comes, when we have nowhere else to turn–that’s what it may take to get us to turn to the Lord. When trouble comes, God says, “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” That’s what this woman is doing when she comes to Jesus. It’s her “day of trouble,” and she’s calling on God for help.

She cries out, “Lord, have mercy.” “Kyrie, eleison,” is how it reads in the Greek. That’s the cry of the church in all ages. We say it at the beginning of the Divine Service in the Kyrie: “Lord, have mercy upon us. Christ, have mercy upon us. Lord, have mercy upon us.” Kyrie, eleison! We call on the Lord and ask for his mercy. We come before God with all our needs, the suffering and misery in our lives and in the world. We need God’s help; we need his mercy.

And that is what God gives us–his mercy. That’s why Christ came. All the misery in this world–violence, oppression, virus, depression, riots and disasters–the answer to all of it, ultimately, is in the mercy of God. That mercy took Christ to the cross. By his all-availing death, you and I will be delivered, finally, from all the misery that we experience.

God’s mercy is his answer to our misery. He takes pity on us. He visits us in our distress. He gives us relief from the ravages of sin in the world. This world is in a mess. You know that. You can see it in the news. You can see it in your life. You can see it all around you. Life doesn’t work right. There’s suffering. There’s misery, right here in the state of Missouri. So, thank God he has mercy on us! He wants us to call on him in our day of trouble, like the Canaanite woman did. Kyrie, eleison! “Lord, have mercy.”

Now notice Jesus’ response–or rather, his lack of response! “But he did not answer her a word.” That’s not what we would expect. How do we explain his silence? Come to think of it, how do explain the silence of God in our lives? Sometimes we pray to God, and we don’t get the answer we’re looking for. Didn’t God hear our prayers? We are met with the silence of God. This is a mystery to us. But God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform. The silence of God is not due to his cold-heartedness but rather to our inability to know exactly what God is doing. He may have a better plan in store for us than the one we have in mind.

At first the Canaanite woman is met with silence. “He did not answer her a word.” The timing isn’t right quite yet. Jesus is waiting a bit before he answers. He may want this woman to exercise her faith a bit. And he has something to teach his disciples, too. The disciples don’t understand what Jesus is doing. So they say, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.”

At first it seems like Jesus is going along with that line of thinking. For Jesus tells her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” And that’s true. In his ministry, Jesus was sent primarily to the house of Israel, that is, to the Jews. The lost sheep of Israel needed to be gathered in. For the Lord had made a covenant with Israel, and Jesus came to fulfill it. His ministry, almost entirely, was among the Jews. God had promised to bless the family of Abraham, and Jesus is keeping that promise. To the Jews first.

But the promise of blessing to Israel did not exclude those Gentiles who come into contact with Israel. They can “rub up” against the blessing, so to speak. That’s what this Gentile woman is doing. Even while Jesus is busy ministering to the Jews, he will not withhold his blessing from this Gentile woman. Although, for a moment, it looks like he will. For he says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

But the Canaanite woman perseveres. She kneels before Jesus and says, “Lord, help me.” But Jesus replies, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” In other words, “It’s not right to take the blessings promised to the children of Israel and give them to the Gentiles,” that is, “the dogs.” Often the Jews would refer to the Gentiles as “dogs,” as a term of disrespect, an insult. But there’s something in the way that Jesus says it. In the Greek language, there are a couple of ways to say “dog.” The word that Jews would use to insult Gentiles is not the one that Jesus uses. Instead, he uses a form of the word that can be translated as “little pet dogs,” “doggies.” It’s an affectionate term, used for dogs who got to live in the house and were taken care of. Jesus here is giving the woman an opening to grab on to. And the Canaanite woman picks up on it. “Yes, Lord,” she says, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Ah! She’s got it! Faith hears what the Lord is saying and latches onto it. Jesus is not putting her off. Rather, he is giving her a word she could cling to.

The woman came, not claiming anything as her right, but simply throwing herself on the Lord’s mercy. She was willing to be a dog that eats the scraps off the table. That’s why I like to call her the “Canine-ite woman.” The “Canine-ite woman”: She was ready to be a little dog, if it meant being fed near the Lord’s table. For that’s where the blessings are. Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who hunger and thirst, blessed are those who come as beggars–or even as dogs–to the Lord of all mercy. Luther comments on the faith of this Canaanite woman: “She catches the Lord Christ in his own words. Yes, still more, with the rights of dogs she gains the rights of a child. Now where will he go, the dear Jesus? He has caught himself and must help her. But know this well: He loves to be caught in this way.”

The great faith of the Canaanite woman. It is a God-given faith, produced by the Spirit working through the word. It is a faith that perseveres and takes the Lord up on his promises. God wants to give you that same kind of faith–persevering faith in a merciful Lord. God wants you to come to Jesus, time and time again, in spite of any obstacles you may face. It is so easy to give up. People do it all the time. When there is suffering in their life, they give up and think that God is uncaring. But God does not want you to give up. He wants you to persevere, in faith, like the Canaanite woman. He wants you to seek–and to find–his mercy and blessing.

Jesus commends this woman’s faith: “O woman, great is your faith!” Jesus grants her request. Her demonized daughter is healed. How is Jesus able to do that? Because Christ is the victor over sin and death and the devil. He has authority over them. Jesus, our Savior, won that victory for us in a most mysterious way. He, the Son of God, came down into our mess and our misery. He suffered the ravages of sin when he was nailed to the cross. Jesus experienced the silence of God when he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But by dying as the sacrifice for sin, Jesus defeated the devil. The devil was shorn of his strength. God then vindicated his Son by raising him from the dead. God shows his mercy in the greatest way. His mercy in Christ forgives our sins, delivers from the devil, and gives the sure hope of everlasting life. “Oh, give thanks unto the Lord, for his mercy endures forever.”

Today, through Word and Sacrament, God is strengthening your faith. He is building in you a faith like that of the Canaanite–or “Canine-ite”–woman. She was willing to come like a little dog to eat at the Lord’s table. Today you are coming to the Lord’s Table, not just as dogs, but as his dear children, to dine on this foretaste of the feast to come. The faith of the Canaanite woman was great because it was faith in a great Lord who bestows great mercy.

Do you want a greater faith? Don’t look at your faith, how great or small it is. Instead, look at your Lord. Focus on Christ and his mercy and his promises, and your faith will naturally grow stronger. “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief.” Kyrie, eleison. Lord, have mercy.

Published in: on August 15, 2020 at 1:59 pm  Leave a Comment  
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