Great Faith

Matthew 15:21-28

This morning I want to talk about a well-known person, a very controversial person that you all are well acquainted with. He was confronted by a foreigner and responded by making what can very well be taken as a racist statement. Some think he made the statement in deference to his base of supporters. You can be the judge of that. The person I speak of is, of course, Jesus of Nazareth.

In this morning’s Gospel passage, a Canaanite woman in Paganland begs Jesus for mercy. And Jesus responds by calling her “a dog.” Ouch!  Did he really say that?!

In 1998 Miramax Films released a movie call Life Is Beautiful. The movie is set in Tuscany in 1939. It tells the story of Guido, a gentle Jewish-Italian waiter who falls in love with a school teacher named Dora. They marry and have a son, Giosue [JOE SWe].

Their happiness is abruptly halted, however, when Guido and Giosue are separated from Dora and taken to a concentration camp.  Guido is determined to shelter his son from the horrors of his surroundings. So he convinces Giosue that their time in the camp is merely a game they are playing with the Nazi soldiers.

Now there are lots of films about the Holocaust. But this one is different. Because in this one, you find yourself laughing at Guido’s antics in the concentration camp.

Steven Spielberg went to see this movie at his wife’s urging. When he saw humor being used in the context of a Jewish concentration camp, he was not amused. He was about to walk out of the theater when his wife told him,  “Wait. You can’t judge until the end.”

She was right. Because the mood of the film soon changed from comedy to tragedy. It ends leaving the audience with tremendous admiration for the courageous father who protects his son by maintaining “the game.” It also leaves you with hope for his son who survives the ordeal and represents the future generation.

The story is fiction, but it’s based truth. Spielberg was glad he stayed to the end.

I thought about Mrs. Speilberg when I read this morning’s Gospel. Here we have a needy woman coming to Jesus and pleading for her demon-possessed daughter. At first, Jesus ignores her. When he does finally acknowledge her, he says: “It’s not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

He’s callous.  He’s offensive. You got to ask, “What kind of merciful savior is this?” But, like Mrs. Spielberg, the Holy Spirit replies:  Wait! You can’t judge until the end.

It’s the end of this story that makes all the difference. So I want to start there. Because it’s at the end of the story where Jesus looks at the woman in need and says: O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire..

Last week, with just a little faith, Peter stepped out of boat and walked on water. This week, a Canaanite woman (a Gentile!) demonstrates “great faith.”

If walking on water is evidence of just a little faith, what is it about this pagan woman that caused Jesus to say, “Woman, great is your faith.” What were the marks of her great faith that Jesus saw?

Well first, Jesus saw that Great Faith knows no boundaries. The bible mentions that this story took place in the district of Tyre and Sidon. Tyre and Sidon are located at the very northern tip of Israel. Jesus had crossed over a boundary into Gentile territory – Pagan Land, if you will. His mercy could not be confined within the borders of Israel.

But, Jesus is not the only one crossing over boundaries. The bible says that a Canaanite woman from that region came out and cried, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.” This woman already crossed a couple of boundaries to get to Jesus.

First there was the cultural boundary This woman was not an Israelite, she’s was not Jewish. She’s was a Gentile. Not only was she a Gentile, but the bible says that she was a Canaanite. Canaanites were the most morally despised of Israel’s enemies in the Old Testament.

So hearing that this woman is a Canaanite would set Jewish hearers on edge. What chutzpah for her to approach the rabbi, much less seek favors. But this is a woman who will not be barred by cultural boundaries.  

There’s a second boundary that she crossed. She’s a woman. In 21st century America, that boundary might not be as noticeable to the reader. A woman is the Speaker of the House – the third person in the line of succession to the Presidency. Three of our Supreme Court justices are women. The Democrats just tapped a woman to run for Vice President.

We’re used to seeing women in the public square. So it might seem like no big deal for this woman to call out to Jesus in a public setting. But let me tell you what it was like to be a woman in 1st century Palestine.

Women were not considered capable of learning  The Jewish historian Josephus wrote: “The woman is inferior to the man in every way.  Let her accordingly be obedient, not for her humiliation, but that she may be directed At the synagogue, women might have been permitted to read from the Torah, but were expected to defer to men.

A woman’s presence was considered a source of temptation for men. For that reason, men and women were to be kept separated.  They were to keep their distance from men in public. A man was never to be alone with a woman. It was a high and wide boundary that separated men and women in 1st century Palestine.

But Jesus sees that this Canaanite woman refuses to let any boundaries stand between him and her. Great faith knows no boundaries.

What are the boundaries in our culture that wall off access to Jesus? There was a time when businesses closed on Sunday so families could gather together at church. Not anymore. Today, Sunday mornings are when the families gather together at the kids’ soccer games.

There was a time when you could pray publicly invoking the name of Jesus. Not anymore. You might be a Christian pastor, and you might be invited to give the invocation at an event, but don’t say the name Jesus. That’s out of bounds.

When’s the last time you dropped the name, “Jesus” in a group outside of church? There’s a certain cultural boundary, isn’t there? Don’t talk about religion!

Some people create their own boundaries that keep them from Jesus? I’m not living right – Jesus wouldn’t hear me. I often hear,  “Oh you pray for me, Pastor.  You’ve got a direct connection.”

There are any number of boundaries that the culture creates or that we create for ourselves to keep us from going to Jesus.

Susan Atkins grew up in the San Jose area in a troubled family. When she was 15, her mother died of cancer and her father relocated the family to Los Banos. When he found work in another town, he left the kids to fend for themselves and the family eventually broke up.

At age 17, Susan met a guitar player at a friend’s house named Charlie Manson. Two years later she would participate in the brutal murder of Sharon Tate and several others. She was sentenced to death, but that sentence was later changed to life imprisonment.

The prison door set a boundary between this killer and civilized society. But Great Faith knows no boundaries.

In 1974, Susan broke a barrier and asked Jesus for mercy. She was baptized a in a horse trough by a Baptist minister. She then devoted herself to Bible studies and chapel services.  She would pray for other inmates and for the guards as well.

Some think her conversion was not genuine. Her childhood minister disagrees.

In 2009, Susan she died in prison from brain cancer. She was the longest serving female inmate in California. It was reported that that last thing she said was, “Amen.” Great faith knows no boundaries.

So this woman, this Canaanite breaks the boundaries and calls out to Jesus,  “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me.  My daughter is suffering terribly from demon possession.”

She showed the proper reverence, she addressed him with the proper title, “Son of David.” Just like a blind man whom Jesus had healed. She did everything right. And Jesus’ response to her was . . .  silence.

Ever cry out to Jesus and get silence in return? Are there times when you’ve prayed and prayed but nothing happened? Sometimes the silence from Jesus can be confounding. It certainly was for John the Baptist.

You remember how John was thrown in prison when he called out King Herod for taking Herod’s brother’s wife. No one was more devoted to Jesus than his cousin, John. No one was more sure that Jesus was, indeed, the Messiah than John. But even John had to confront Jesus’ silence as he languished there in prison. He sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the Messiah or do we look for another?” The most devote Christians have experienced times when Jesus is silent – when there might be a pause in their faith life.

The Canaanite woman faced that pause. And the disciples put up further walls. “Send her away, Jesus!’ But Jesus didn’t send her away, he told her:“I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

Here’s how Great Faith responded. The woman dropped all the pretense and propriety. And then she knelt before him and cried out from her heart, “Lord, help me!”

Here is what the woman’s great faith saw. Jesus might have been of a different culture, but he came to her country, didn’t he? Also, Jesus didn’t tell her “no,” did he?   Jesus didn’t close the door. And when the disciples urged him to dismiss her, Jesus didn’t.

Great faith does not close the door. Great Faith realizes that it is not just anyone, it’s Jesus. She stayed in his presence. And Great Faith endured.

I love this story about John Wesley. John Wesley, understood what it meant to stay the course. Let me read you an excerpt from the diary. 

  Sunday, A.M., May 5,Preached in St. Anne’s. Was asked not to come back anymore. 

  Sunday, P.M., May 5, Preached in St. John’s. Deacons said “Get out and stay out.”
  Sunday, A.M., May 12, Preached in St. Jude’s. Can’t go back there, either.

  Sunday, A.M., May 19 ,Preached in St. Somebody Else’s. Deacons called special meeting and said I couldn’t return.
  Sunday, P.M., May 19, Preached on street. Kicked off street.
  Sunday, A.M., May 26. Preached in meadow. Chased out of meadow as bull was turned loose during service.
  Sunday, A.M., June 2,Preached out at the edge of town. Kicked off the highway.
  Sunday, P.M., June 2,Afternoon, preached in a pasture.
Ten thousand people came out to hear me. 

Great Faith endures.

The final mark of Great Faith that Jesus saw that day was how Great Faith engages.

So the Canaanite kneeling before Jesus, pleading for his mercy. At this point, we’d expect Jesus to relent. Surely he will show some compassion. Instead, he tells her: “It’s not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

Oh, does that send a chill up your spine! How do we explain that enigmatic response? He is correct. Jesus was sent to the Jews and it would be the Jews who take salvation to the Gentiles.

And he has 12 disciples with rapt attention watching how he will respond. He says what every one of his disciples is thinking.

But even when it seems that Jesus closes the door, the woman persists. She engages with Jesus – not as a woman who was expected to shut up and know her place. But as one created in the image of God. Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the masters table. It’s a brilliant response. It’s a witty response.

It’s a response that says: I know that even a crumb from your table is more satisfying than a king’s banquet. And I know that you are a man of mercy. It’s a response that reveres him as Lord, yet persists when others would have given up.

If you’ve ever watched a stone cutter work, you might see him hammering away at a rock a hundred times without so much as a crack showing in it.  But then on 101st blow it splits in two.  It wasn’t the one blow that did it. It was all that had gone before Great Faith engages.

The story of the Canaanite Woman is masterful. It’s offensive at first. Because Jesus’ words seem callous and bound by his culture.

But you can’t judge it until the end. And in the end, the focus of this story is not Jesus. The focus is the woman and what Great Faith looks like.

A gracious rabbi and a wise woman demonstrates God’s boundless mercy He shows mercy in Paganland. And she teaches his disciples what it means to have Great Faith.