When Faith is Great

Text: Matthew 15:21-28
Date: Pentecost IX + Proper 15 + 8/14/11

It is interesting how St. Matthew contrasts the “little-faith” of water-walking Peter in our reading last week with the “great faith” of a Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel. It is interesting, for one thing, because while Peter and those to whom the promise of the Messiah belong are slow to believe, mysteriously a woman who is not only a Gentile but even of the ancient hated religious and idolatrous enemies of Israel, the Canaanites, is pronounced by Jesus as demonstrating an exemplary faith that is “great.” This, of course, serves as another hint at God’s complete plan of salvation through the Jews to all nations reflected in today’s Old Testament reading (Isaiah 56). The woman is already, ahead of time, one of those foretold by the original promise to Abraham, “and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:2). She is among those of whom the hymn sings, “A multitude comes from the east and the west To sit at the feast of salvation” (LSB 510). That God’s mercy came through the disobedience of the Jews to embrace both them and all nations is the concern of Paul’s words in today’s Epistle. This dynamic is behind Jesus’ statement, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” It is in the woman’s further response that the greatness of her faith is shown.

One only needs to review the Drudge Report[1] or whatever your main source for news is these days to list the things that seem to have the potential to shake our faith: the mob-rioting in Great Britain and other parts of the world, or the plunging stock market just to name the headlines. Yet if these things are troubling to your faith then we need to consider the content of what you call your faith. For true, God-given faith cannot be shaken or troubled to the point of despair.

Surely the Canaanite woman knew of the ancient animosity toward her people that was held by the Israelites. What’s more is the surprise of Jesus’ itinerary through or at least by the border of this district just to avoid the growing opposition to Him in Israel for the time being. This woman on her own couldn’t possibly have expected to see Jesus much less speak with Him. And maybe this is a demonstration of how some people, maybe even you came to an awakening of faith through what, at least at the time, seemed to be just random circumstances. Faith sees the hand of God behind these things (usually after the fact, in retrospect) God working “behind the scene” so to speak, His desire to draw all people to Himself (John 12:32!).

That this woman was acting on bone fide God-given faith is evident from her confession. “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David,” she cried. To “confess” is to speak the truth of God’s Word. And the first part of that truth is to confess, to agree with God’s diagnosis and verdict that you are a sinner in need of God’s mercy. Daily we first confess our sins, that is we admit that what God says of our sinful, fallen nature “is true of me,” and that we cannot free ourselves. I remember the elderly couple in my congregation in southern Illinois who had been faithful Christians for years and decades and so asked me quite honestly why they or we “had to” say those words of the common confession of sins every Sunday, “I, a poor miserable sinner.” They didn’t feel so poor or miserable I guess. The point, however, is not how you “feel.” The point is the Biblical truth that, as long as we are in this world the old, sinful nature hangs on as St. John wrote, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). The first part of confession is to plead guilty of all sins, even those we are not aware of, as we do in the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

The second part of confession, though, is to receive forgiveness or absolution and to declare God’s mercy and what He has done to save us. The woman did this when she addressed Jesus as Lord and Son of David. True disciples look to their Savior as Lord of their lives. True sons and daughters of the promise of Abraham look to their Savior as the Son of David, the promised Messiah “of the house and lineage of David” (Luke 2:4).

This part of confession is important—important for the activity of faith and important for the witness of faith. These days many of us like to call ourselves “confessional Lutherans.” It implies that we are somehow a little different from those who simply bear the label “Lutheran” or some who even shun that name and call themselves simply Christians. This confession is not to identify ourselves with a mere institution. It is, after all, resistance to or rejection of the so-called “institutional church” (or I like the nearly oxymoronic phrase “organized religion”!) of so many of the “millennial” generation of today. It is, rather, to identify ourselves with actual, Biblical teachings or doctrines as is so beautifully laid out in the documents of our Lutheran Confessions in the Book of Concord of 1580.

Now the most pressing question of this text has no answer, namely, where did this woman come to this amazing, great and saving faith? We are not told and we don’t know. But because we do know that faith is always the creation and work of God the Holy Spirit alone working through the means of grace, the Word and Sacraments, and not ever the result of only our own preparations or works, we can and must say that somehow, somewhere, sometime this woman came to hear about Jesus as the Messiah and Savior and through that hearing faith was planted in her heart.

It’s sort of like what we call “volunteer tomatoes.” In your vegetable garden you may have planted tomato plants at some time in the past but now you have planted beans or some other vegetable in that section of the garden. Nevertheless, lo and behold (as Matthew says of this woman!), as the days go by you discover a tomato plant coming up, seemingly all on its own. A “volunteer” tomato plant we call it! It, of course, came from the seed of that previous planting. “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). This woman had heard somewhere, sometime, somehow and now believes and confesses.

When the woman comes and kneels before Jesus with her prayer of humble access, “Lord, help me,” Jesus comments on her status as being outside of the circle or fellowship of God’s people of promise. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” The “bread” is the food, the sustenance for life, the blessings God gives to His people. The mention of “bread” here, between the account of the feeding of the 5,000 with five loaves and two fish in Matthew chapter 14 and the coming account of the feeding of the 4,000 with seven loaves and a few small fish at the end of this chapter, and especially of the amounts of bread left over proclaims the abundance of God’s supply of mercy. The woman does not disagree with Jesus. She says, “Yes, Lord.” That’s the “I, a poor, miserable sinner” part. Then she claims only of the Lord’s over-abundance, the crumbs that fall from the Master’s table, the twelve or seven baskets of miracle left over. Satisfaction with the slightest mercy is like the confession of the Psalm, “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness” (Ps 84:10), or the faith of the woman with the disease of blood who said, “If I touch even his garments, I will be made well” and she was (Mark 5:28).

“O woman,” Jesus answered, “great is your faith!” And her daughter was healed instantly.

So how great is your faith? It is great because it is the gift of God, created by God Himself through the promises of His Word. It is great because, in God’s Word, the realities of life are understood from God’s wisdom, purpose and perspective where His goodness is apparent in His creation, sin and disobedience are called what they are, and God’s salvation from sin is declared powerfully in the most glorious death and resurrection of the only Son from heaven, Jesus Christ. Faith is great and becomes the greater every time we confess our sins and receive absolution for the sake of our Holy Baptism, and every time we receive the crumbs, that is the abundance of God’s salvation in the bread and the wine, the very body and blood our Lord in the fellowship of this altar. This faith is so great it cannot only calm you against any and all threats of the instability of the world we live in for now but also transfer us to the resurrection and the life of the world to come where we will be, finally, delivered from the “poor and miserable” status in this world where we walk only by faith to the purity and joy of eternal life in heaven face to face with our great God and Redeemer.

[1] http://www.drudgereport.com/