What is Faith?

JEFF GARRISON
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Matthew 15:21-28
August 16, 2020

To watch the service, click here to go to our Youtube site. To see just the sermon (skipping prelude, announcements, call to worship, first hymn and confession) forward to 15:35. 

Last week, we heard about Jesus saving Peter from drowning after he attempted to walk on water. Afterwards, Jesus referred to Peter as one of little faith. Today, we have Jesus referring to a foreign woman’s great faith. What’s up with this? Let’s see…  Read Matthew 15:21-28

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Let’s go back in time to the First Century, to Tyre, a town on the Mediterranean, a port used by the Phoenicians. Like everything else in this part of the world, the town is now in Roman hands. But the roar of the waves crashing the shore are still the same. The taste of salt in the air is still the same. And on this day, as the heat begins to fade and an afternoon breeze from the ocean rolls in, the market opens. As we enter, our eyes catch the vision of a woman shopping. She has come early, before the crowds, her eyes red from crying, to gather food for her and her daughter. She doesn’t speak.

While examining slabs of bacon at the butcher’s shop, she listens in on the gossip. The butcher, a baker and a fisherman are chatting.

“Did you hear that Jesus, you know, the guy who fed 5,000 people with just a few loaves of bread and a few sardines, is in town?[1] A few more stunts like that and I’ll have to sell out,” the baker jokes.

“I might be with you,” the fisherman nods. “The method he uses to catch fish over on the Galilee will put little guys like me out of business.”[2]

The woman lingers, listening and wondering.

“Isn’t Jesus the guy who sent those demons into a herd of pigs causing them to run off the cliff?” the fisherman asks the butcher. [3]

“Yeah, it’s a shame, all that good pork washed out to sea. The price of ribs haven’t yet recovered! It seems the only trade he’s helped has been the roofers.”[4]

“Where’s he staying?”  The baker asks.

The woman’s interest is raised, she leans over the counter to hear…

“He had a hard time finding a place after that incident in Capernaum where some people cut a hole in the roof of a house in order to get to him,” the butcher replies. “Finally, Mr. Jones rented his old place up on 2nd Street. I couldn’t believe he’d rent it to Jesus. I asked him about it, but old man Jones’ wasn’t too worried. He said the place needs a new roof and maybe, this way, insurance will cover it.

“I think that’s him coming now,” the baker says, pointing to a crowd gathering at the town’s gate.

Overhearing this gossip, the woman’s face lights up. “Jesus,” she says to herself. “I must meet Jesus.” She drops her shopping bag, kicks off her heels and runs, without stopping, toward the crowd. Pushing through the folks, she shouts as if she’s insane: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David. My daughter is tormented by a demon.” She’s so loud that everyone else stops speaking as she approaches. Even Jesus appears lost for words. The disciples consider her crazy and urges Jesus to send her away. After all, she’s pagan and it would be of no surprise that a pagan’s kid is possessed by a demon. She, too, probably is possessed, they think.[5]

Jesus brushes the woman aside. Pointing to his disciples, he tells her he’s been sent to the lost sheep of Israel. She continues, frantically asking for Jesus’ help. She’s tried everything. Jesus is her last chance for her daughter to be made well. Then her heart sinks, her head drops in shame.

Think about how this woman feels? She’d give her eye teeth to have her daughter freed. When she hears that Jesus is in town, her hopes are raised, only to be crushed. Imagine the pain she felt at this rejection—Jesus being either too busy or too tired to tend to her child. She’s helpless.

Many of us have felt helpless when dealing with our children. It’s a fairly common among parents, because there are often things beyond our control. But it’s even more common among those who are marginalized. Think of immigrant families risking everything to get a child to America, a place of promise, or to get them out of a place like Syria where the violence is terrible. Or consider African American parents who must have “the talk” with their sons. Knowing that you are not being taken seriously because of your ethnic background is something most of us don’t know about, but there are many such people in the world. Such folks are modern day examples of this Canaanite woman—feeling there is no food at the table for them.

This passage, we all know, is not just about disappointments and bad news. God, through Jesus Christ, is doing something incredible. It actually starts at the beginning of the chapter where we learn that food laws aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. “It isn’t what you eat—what’s in your stomach—that defiles you,” Jesus says. “It’s what’s in your heart.” God’s creation is good. Since we are all created by God, there is a possibility for us to all claim a divine inheritance.

The woman, as are most Gentiles who live near Galilee, is used to being called a dog. Humanity has almost always treated “others” within contempt. It was common in 1st Century Palestine for the pious Jews to refer to the Gentiles as dogs. Yet, I still don’t know what to make of this passage. It disappoints me for Jesus to use such language. I’d prefer to have him say, “My dear child,” or something similar. Just don’t call her a dog, Jesus, but I suppose political correctness wasn’t in vogue during the first century.

But instead of getting hung up on this one word, let’s put this into context and see what Jesus is saying. By saying he has to fed the children before the dogs, we learn Jesus’ mission is first to the Israelites. He’s ministering and teaching to the Jews But knowing this doesn’t help the woman; it doesn’t solve her problem. Jesus is supposed to be a good man and she’s stung by his words.

With her head bowed, I image she begins to leave, then pauses. Has Jesus denied her request? Or maybe, when the disciples are fed, there’ll be something left over for her child. It takes a few moments to get up her courage, but when she does, she spins around like a ballerina, raises her head and looks Jesus in the eyes. “Sir,” she addresses, “even the dogs eat the crumbs from the master’s table.” This lady is bold. Jesus is now going to have to deal with her, one way or the other.

“Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall for the master’s table,” what a great line.

“You’re right,” Jesus says. I imagine a big smile came over his face as he continued, with a voice loud enough to drive home the point home to the disciples, when he says, “Great is your faith. Your daughter will be healed.”

There is, after all, good news in this passage. The woman’s bloodline isn’t going to keep her from experiencing the healing powers of Christ. Even her religion isn’t a barrier. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say anything about casting the demon out because she was good or have kept the law or any other reason. Instead, Jesus acts freely and shows compassion to her and her child in the same manner he responds to our concerns brought to him in prayer. When there is something we, or someone we love, need, be bold in your prayers!

As I’ve said, this story comes right after Jesus has spent the first half of the chapter dealing with the religious elite of the day who complained that Jesus and his disciples were not keeping the tradition of the Elders. Jesus turned around this challenge, to emphasize that it’s not what we eat that defiles, but what comes out of our mouth and what’s in our heart. In other words, what we do is what’s important. To those leaders, this woman, by her racial status, is problematic and should avoided, but her insistence on the behalf of her daughter is a sign of faith. And Jesus responds to faith. In scripture, instead of talking about faith, Jesus mostly responds to it as he does in this situation.[6]

Which leads me to ask, what is faith? What do you think when you hear the word faith? It’s a word we use often, but do we really understand it? Do we have faith? The Second Helvetic Confession, written during the Reformation by Heinrich Bullinger, insists that faith is not an opinion or a human conviction, but is a “firm trust and a clear and steadfast assent of the mind, and then a most certain apprehension of the truth of God presented in the Scriptures,” the Apostle’s Creed, and God himself, and especially Jesus Christ, the fulfillment of God’s promises. And, the Confession goes on to say, “Faith is a gift of God.”[7]

Faith is knowing your only hope is in God, not in your own ability, which is what this Canaanite woman knew when she approached Jesus. She was unable to deliver her daughter, so she sought out the one who has such power. Faith is often described as a verb. It’s not just describing something, it’s about doing something. It’s placing trust in Jesus. Even though Jesus’ earthly ministry was to the Israelites, and the expansion of the gospel to the rest of the world would fall on his disciples, he was compelled to respond to the faith she demonstrated in him.

When we have no place else to turn, where do we place our trust? Is it with God as revealed in Jesus Christ? Or do we try to hedge our bets, hoping our own skills might save us, or perhaps our financial resources, our friends, our guns, or whatever else we place our trust. True faith trust only God as revealed in Jesus Christ. True faith is humbling because it acknowledges we can’t do it ourselves, that we’re dependent on the Almighty.[8] May we have such faith. May we be so bold as this woman in our prayers. At times like this, we need it! Amen.

©2020

[1] Matthew 14:13-21. This story also appears in other gospels.

[2] Luke 5:1-11.  A similar story is told in John 21, but that is a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus.

[3] Mark 5:1-20.

[4] Mark 2:1-12.

[5] In his commentary on this passage, Scott Hoezee writes about how demon possession would play into the disciples stereotyping of the Canaanites. Scott Hoezee, Proper 15A (August 14, 2017), Matthew 15:21-28. Center for Excellence in Preaching. https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-15a/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

[6] See Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 169.

[7] Presbyterian Church USA, The Book of Confession, “The Second Helvetic Confession,” Chapter XVI, 5.112-113.

[8] Perhaps the reason Jesus says it is easier for the poor to get into heaven than the rich (Matthew 19:24) is because the poor, without resources, have no place else to turn for help.


Comments

What is Faith? — 10 Comments

  1. I love this part about a woman, I can feel it so much as a mother and recently I have heard a beautiful preach about this part in the Bible. It was about how strong mother’s prayer can be. Very true. Have a lovely day!

  2. Great message!

    Coming at this with my usual odd angle, it is extremely discouraging that people still look upon the greater mass of humanity as alien creatures.

    As for the concept of faith, I’m still trying to define what it actually means to me.

    • It is a heresy (or at least against the Biblical teachings of Jews and Christians) to look at the those different as alien. We’ve all been created in God’s image.

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