✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
Increasingly it seems, faith is falling out of fashion. People might be OK with a generic spirituality. But a person with faith is supposedly someone who isn’t very logical or smart. A person with Christian faith is supposedly without tolerance, someone who has a closed mind. It is said that faith is blind, faith is irrational, faith is for the foolish and unscientific. For now, you may exercise your faith at home or here at church, but it dare not make an appearance anywhere else. That’s why many politicians have made the subtle shift of language from “freedom of religion” (as the Constitution puts it) to something different, “freedom of worship.” Worship is something that government can limit to home and church. Religion on the other hand encompasses your whole life in this world. The only acceptable form of faith today is what is personal and subjective. If your faith leads you to make any judgments about what’s true and what’s false, what’s right and what’s wrong for all people, you best not share those views publicly, for if you express those things, then you open yourself up to being judged and ostracized and cancelled.
But the culture’s view of faith as mere private sentimentality is a caricature and a distortion. Today we are given a picture of true faith, Biblical Christian faith, in the account from Matthew’s gospel about a woman whose daughter is sick and assaulted by a demon. We’re not told all the details. We may wonder for instance why this woman came alone. Where was her husband? Where were her friends? Is she the only one left who has any hope left in God to help her daughter? We don’t know these things. What we do know is that this woman is extraordinarily persistent.
Let’s review the account again. A woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Jesus, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.” But He answered her not a word. That stonewalling may well have been enough to cause us to be embarrassed and to give up, but she continues to press Jesus for help. She keeps on crying out for mercy, and the disciples are scandalized. Why won’t Jesus help? He always helps. So they intercede on her behalf. “Send her away,” they say; which means “Release her,” help her, give her what she asks so she can go.
But Jesus replies that He wasn’t sent to help Gentiles, only Jews. Today’s social justice warriors would call him a racist. Undeterred, she prostrates herself before Jesus, worshiping Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” She completely humbles herself and throws herself on His mercy. And then He proceeds to call her a dog. That likely would have been the breaking point for you or me. The world would label Him a patriarchal sexist and tell us that we’re justified in abandoning our hope in Him.
But instead, this woman doesn’t grumble or slink away; she agrees with Him. “Yes, Lord; indeed I am a dog, but dogs, they get scraps from the table.” She has Jesus trapped in His own words, and demands that He throw her a bone and help her and her daughter. In many ways she is like a dog with its teeth clamped onto one of those pull toys, and she isn’t going to let go. She clings to Jesus with all her strength.
And this is what Jesus wanted and was working toward all along. “O woman, great is your faith!” And what is this faith that He commends? We have a clue in what she calls Him: “Son of David.” She knows who Jesus is. She’s listened to the reports about Him. Doubtless she’s heard accounts of how many people He has healed, how He has fed thousands, made the lame to walk and the blind to see. Her confidence is in the Word which she has heard about Jesus. And by calling Him “Son of David,” she reveals her trust in the Scriptural promises about a Son of that great king who would reign forever and bring peace.
So her faith is not blind. It is not irrational. Faith is, in the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Her faith is not in what she hopes for—the healing of her daughter—but rather her faith is the One who can give her what she hopes for and is confident that He will do it. Too often faith is talked about as if our believing is the main thing. If we just believe hard enough, then we’ll get what we hope for. But that’s just putting your faith in your own faith. In a sense, that’s trusting in yourself. But Christian faith is not about you but the One you believe in. The Canaanite woman’s faith is great because it is in Jesus. Her faith is not in herself or her feelings but in the Word, the message about Jesus.
Very often faith goes against what you are feeling. What this woman is experiencing in Jesus’ responses is contrary to what she has heard. But her faith, her confidence in what she has heard about Jesus, overrides what she is currently experiencing. And that, I suspect, is the point behind this whole episode. It’s a hard lesson, to learn patience, and humility, and confidence in the Word, and to hold onto it tightly. It’s a lesson that we all must continually learn until we draw our final breath.
Faith is not irrational or blind. It begins with confidence in what has already been said and done in Christ. What has happened in our language is a redefinition of faith to mean experiences, emotions, and ideas that dwell entirely in the realm of the subjective. And so it is common to hear about “faith communities” and “people of faith” across all religions and philosophies, making every kind of faith equally valid, and leading to a kind of spiritual mish-mash where all beliefs and spiritualities are thought of as different flavors of the same ice cream, different paths to the same destination. But our faith is in Him who said, “I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through Me.”
Looking back to early Christian history, the Roman Empire was brilliant in this regard. When they conquered a new people, the local deity went into the pantheon and became part of the group of gods that were offered worship. All gods were acceptable as long as you paid homage to the Roman ones and to Caesar, too. Very interestingly, many of the early Christian martyrs were considered atheists, which sounds strange to our ears. But they were called “atheists” for not believing in the pantheon of the Roman gods, but only in one God, who could not be seen and who wasn’t worshiped by means of a visible idol or statue. For instance, St. Polycarp, who was a disciple of the apostle John and one of the early Christian martyrs, when he was given an opportunity to escape being thrown to the wild beasts, he was told by the proconsul to say, “Away with the atheists,” meaning the Christians. But the bishop calmly looked out on the pagan crowd and instead said of them, “Away with the atheists.” For there is one God alone who is to be worshiped, and one faith alone that can save, for there is only one Mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ.
So it doesn’t matter if a Muslim believes fervently, or a Hindu, or a Mormon. For it is not the quality of the faith but the quality of the object of faith that matters, what faith believes and trusts in. The object of faith for us Christians is Christ Jesus. Faith in anything else may be well-intentioned and fervent, but it has a false and untrustworthy object.
The greatness of the woman’s faith in today’s Gospel, then, was not merely an inner quality of persistence, for one can be persistently, stubbornly wrong. It was not mere optimism, either; for one can whistle happily while sauntering right into disaster. No, the greatness of the woman’s faith was in the greatness of the object: her confidence was entirely in Christ Jesus, that He was, in fact, merciful. That mercy that she had heard about, that Word was what she would not let go of.
You can have faith, strong, fervent faith that you will beat your cancer, get the job you want, have the child you’ve been longing for, or finally meet that person of your dreams. But a strong faith is no guarantee that you’ll get these things, and neither is a failed outcome a sign of a lack of faith on your part.
No, as Christians our faith is entirely in one thing, what the woman asked for today: Mercy. God’s kindness, pity, and rescue. And the foundation of our faith is entirely built upon Christ Jesus, His death, His resurrection. He is the One who cried out to His Father on the cross and was answered not a word, in order that your prayers would always be heard–forsaken in His suffering so that you would never be. He is the One who was treated like an unwanted street dog, whipped and beaten in order to deliver you from punishment. And He is the One who continued to cling to His Father and to entrust Himself into His hands even in death, and who was vindicated in the resurrection and exalted for His great faith and faithfulness, all for you and on your behalf. To trust in this crucified and risen Jesus is not blind or irrational; for who He is and what He has done is testified to by many eyewitnesses. It is credible. You are not a fool to believe it, but wise beyond measure. For it is the one thing above all that matters.
So do not fret if world counts you a fool or a bigot for clinging to Christ and His Word. Rather rejoice, for the Lord remembers you when you are weak and lowly and despised. He shows you the greatest mercy, not just throwing you crumbs but giving you a place at the table and feeding you with the very Bread of Life, His true body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins. O woman, O Church of Christ, great is your faith, because great is your Jesus. Let it be to you as you have desired of the Lord.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
(with thanks to the Rev. Christopher Esget)