An Exercise Of Faith
Matthew 15:21-28 (3.1.15)
In the name of the Father and of the † Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Matthew 15:28: 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.
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ our Lord… She was a nobody, this Canaanite woman. We don’t know her name, we don’t know how old she was, we don’t know whether she was married, divorced, or widowed. But we DO know that she was from the region of Tyre and Sidon, north of Israel. We also know she was one of the Gentiles who were despised by the Jews of that day. In fact, the Israelites called Canaanites “dogs.”
And somewhere along the line, this woman had heard Jesus; St. Mark’s account of our story tells us that much. She had probably heard His preaching, His teachings, and His healings. And that news had worked faith in her heart, as the Word of God is known to do, for “faith comes by hearing.” And so this woman came to Jesus with a prayer: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.”
By all accounts and for many reasons, this was a bold act by this Canaanite woman. It was bold for two reasons; first, it is bold for a Gentile to address a Jew. And second, it was bolder still for a woman to address a man, much less a rabbi, in public as she did. But she had a great need; her daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit, a devil. This mother had probably consulted every other doctor and specialist to be found, but to no avail. Therefore, who but Jesus could heal her? She must have summoned all the courage she had to break through the wall of disciples and kneel at Jesus’ feet.
But Jesus “answered her not a word.” The woman’s prayer is met with stony silence, as if Jesus didn’t hear her. And that, dear friends, is the first way that God exercises faith; He hides his hearing behind deafness. Notice that Jesus did not say “no” to her prayer. He knows her faith; He knows it better than she does, and He knows what He will eventually do in response to her request. But for the moment He is silent. And in His silence her trust in Him is tested and strengthened. And the question is, will she trust Him when He seemingly ignores her?
What happens when you pray? What happens when you fold your hands and bow your head and kneel before the Lord? What happens when you pour out all your inmost troubles and fears to God? How often does it seem that your prayers not only go unanswered but are ignored by God? How often do you in prayer knock upon the door of heaven, but far from being open the door seems locked and bolted and sealed against you?
When God preaches His Word our ears ring with the sound of His voice, the good news comes to us that we are reconciled to God in Christ. We are His children and we are forgiven; we are on speaking terms with God because of Christ. Jesus paid the price for our sin fully and completely on the cross of Calvary. He redeemed us – bought us back – from the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh. And because of God’s work of repairing our relationship with Him, He promises to hear our prayers through His Son, Jesus Christ, and invites us to pray to Him in any and all circumstances… And then God becomes silent. We pray, and nothing comes back but silence.
But it is in the silence of God that our faith is strengthened, for faith clings to Christ and His Word alone. Faith does not cling to our prayers; it does not cling to what we do or what we say! Faith clings instead to Christ’s death and resurrection alone. And even if God never responds to a single word uttered in our prayers in this life; even if He reserves all of His yeses for the resurrection from the dead; even if all we receive in this life is suffering and silence, so be it. We still have Christ and His kingdom and His forgiveness and His Word! It is in those things God says “yes,” even when the silence and everything else seems to say “no.”
Even Jesus Himself experienced the silence of God, His Father. He prayed on the cross, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” And the Father was silent. There were no preachers to answer His question. There were no angels to bring God’s answer. Not even His disciples stood with Him. There was only the thick, awful silence of God’s judgment against us which was all laid upon Jesus. We too hear the silence of God, not as punishment – for Christ endured that for us – but to stretch and strengthen our faith in Him who hung in silence for us.
Imagine the disciples’ shock and dismay when Jesus replies to the woman, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Can this be the same Jesus who said, “Ask and it shall be given you, seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened unto you?” Now He seems to slam the door in her face and in the face of the disciples.
But again, Jesus hides His “yes” inside of a “no.” In our text He doesn’t say He will not help this poor woman. He simply reminds her that He had come first to the Jews. The Gentiles would have to wait their turn, a turn which would come only after His death and resurrection. The woman is a Gentile, not a Jew.
Allow me a few comments about prayer in general. We sometimes imagine that God is as impressed by numbers as we are. We enjoy a capacity crowd, a packed house, an overflowing auditorium, a full church. It speaks of “success” in the eyes of the world. We are bombarded by this “more is better” idea – an idea which comes from many radio and TV preachers – an idea which says that if we get enough people praying about the same thing at the same time, then we can persuade God to do something our way instead of His way. It’s a bit like a tug of war, with God on one side and us on the other. And if we can just get enough people yanking the rope on our end, we can pull God over the line to our side.
But prayer doesn’t work that way. Faith needs to be exercised. The Lord does what He wills when He wills and according to His own will. As we learned in the Catechism in answer to what “Thy will be done” means, “The good and gracious will of God is done even without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may be done among us also.” The purpose of prayer is not to get God to conform His will to ours, but to shape and mold our will to His will and to receive everything from Him as a gift. That is how faith is exercised.
Jesus said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” And this is the second way in which God tests and tries our faith in order to strengthen it: He acts as if we are rejected. He deals with us as if we have no place in His kingdom and as if we have no business seeking His help. And in so doing, Christ teaches us to trust in nothing but Him; not our prayers, not even the prayers of the pious and holy or even the saints in heaven. Only Him.
But this is a hard thing to learn. We are an impatient and stubborn people by nature. We are used to getting our way in sixty seconds or less. We want habits, years in the making, broken in 12 simple steps. When I was a kid I was taught to let the phone ring ten times when you call someone, in order to give them time to get to the phone. Then it was seven times. And now because we expect people to drop everything and answer the phone right away, we give people two to four rings and leave a message on their machine. We expect the same thing from God. We have come to expect our prayers to be dealt with immediately if not sooner. We do not want God to put us on “hold” or to put something in His heavenly “to do” file.
In our text the woman persisted even more fervently in the face of seeming rejection. Now she got on her knees and spoke a much shorter, simpler, more fervent prayer: “Lord, help me!” She doesn’t give up. It is the barest of prayers from a woman who was out of options. But Jesus says, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” What kind of a response is this? This is not the kind and gentle Jesus we learned about in Sunday School. We would never put up with such treatment, being called a dog by the Lord.
And yet this is now the third way that God exercises faith – He breaks our pride and humbles us. He puts us down with the dogs. He humbles the exalted, and he exalts the humble. If you are resting on your own achievements, your own works, your community standing, your good looks, your intelligence, and expect something from God on account of those things, you will be humbled. For it is on our knees with empty hands and broken and contrite hearts and crushed spirits that we are best able to receive God’s gifts. Before we can live in Christ, we must die to self.
So what do you do when the Lord calls you a dog? The woman could have been indignant and simply walk away; but no. She received the Lord’s judgment and confessed it, owned up to it. “Yes, Gentile dog I may be, but at least the dogs get to “eat the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.” If the Lord says I’m a dog, then by golly, I’m a dog.” But dogs get the crumbs, and this woman knew that the crumbs that fall from Jesus’ table are rich crumbs of the Bread of Life, and she will not be denied!
“O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed that instant by the Word of Jesus. Her faith was great because she was nothing, she was a “dog,” and because Jesus was everything for her. Great faith is that which clings not ourselves but to a great Jesus.
When God’s Word of Law calls us dogs, and worse yet, “poor, miserable sinners,” faith responds with “Amen, yes, it is so; that’s me.” But Christ came for sinners just like you. He came in order to draw you and all people to Himself in order to feed you with the blessed food of eternal life.
And you may rest assured in this sweet hope, dear friends, that even if you only receive the crumbs of God’s grace and mercy sprinkled here and there in your lives, these are more than sufficient for your salvation. It doesn’t matter that it is only a few drops of water applied to you in the strong name of the Trinity. It doesn’t matter if it is only a small helping of our Lord’s body “which is given for you.” It doesn’t matter that it is a small sip of His blood “poured out for you for the forgiveness of your sins.” It doesn’t matter that it is only the few words of the Absolution spoken by your pastor in the stead and by the command of the Lord Jesus.
For even in these “crumbs,” as it were, that fall from the Master’s table, there is the nourishment of eternal life. And by God-given faith in Christ you will not only eat the crumbs of the Bread of Life, you will have a place reserved for you at God’s heavenly banquet as one of His dear children.
In the name of the Father and of the † Son and of the Holy Spirit.