Summary: 14th Sunday after Pentecost/Proper 15 Series A. Preached at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, Audubon, IA on 8/17/2008
“Great is your faith!” How would you feel if I as your Pastor were to tell someone that about you? I’m guessing that you’d think you must be doing something right. And to be honest, I’ve been around you folks long enough now to be able to say that about quite a few of you. Our congregation is blessed to have a lot of people with a great faith. But what makes our faith great? This morning, Jesus encounters a woman whom he says has a great faith. Let’s look at her faith and find out what exactly made it so great.
The first thing we learn about this woman is that she is a “Cananite woman”, meaning that she’s from outside Israel. Jesus is in the region of Tyre and Sidon, north of Israel. The people he’s coming into contact here are Gentiles, Pagans, people who are outside of the covenant of Israel. While Jesus and the disciples are traveling, they come across this woman who comes up to him and says “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.”
What makes this cry for help important is what this woman calls Jesus: “Son of David”. The term “Son of David” is a Messianic phrase, reserved for the descendent of David who would be the promised Messiah. So it’s clear that this woman, even though she is not a Jew, has some knowledge of the Jewish religion, and knew that there was a promised Messiah from David’s line. We can also believe that she has heard about what Jesus has been doing, the word He proclaimed, the signs that He performed, and from here knowledge of the prophecies of the Messiah, was able to put two and two together, and realized that Jesus was the long promised Messiah. She knew that Jesus had the power to help her. So being the good mother that she was, not wanting her daughter to suffer, saw Jesus, came up to him, cried out, and asked Him to have mercy on her.
Now that’s quite a statement of faith in and of itself, but there’s more to it. At first, Jesus doesn’t answer her. Not only that, the disciples begged Jesus to send her away, because “she is crying out after us.” Perhaps they thought she’s not part of the “club”, doesn’t meet the criteria for admission to see Jesus. Especially considering her behavior here! Now in Jesus’ time, women didn’t go running after Rabbi’s or teachers, and cry out after them like this woman is doing with Jesus. It was viewed as shameful. Yet, she doesn’t care what others think of her, she knows that Jesus can help, and she’s going to do whatever it takes, because Jesus is the only one who can help.
Now Jesus’ response is a bit puzzling at first, he says “I was sent only to the Lost Sheep of Israel.” It seems as if He’s now giving her the brush off. But, we have to remember the focus of Jesus’ ministry was to fulfill the covenant that God had made with the people of Israel in the Old Testament. They were the people of the covenant, God had a responsibility to fulfill that, and Jesus was the fulfillment of it. That was His primary purpose. I’m sure the disciples know that, and view Jesus as an “exclusive” messiah so to speak. However, what often gets lost is that in the prophecies about the Messiah, yes, the Jews are included, but that all nations would be drawn to this Messiah. Jesus wasn’t an exclusive Savior, but He was for all. This woman must have known that as well, why else would she come to Jesus, call him “Son of David”, and ask him to have mercy on her?
In fact, instead of losing heart at Jesus’ reply and going back home empty-handed and disappointed, she says, point blank, “Lord, help me.” A pretty direct request. She’s really humbling herself now. Jesus’ response is “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Oh great, now it seems that Jesus is calling her a “dog”. I know of no one who would want to be equated to a dog, let alone by Jesus, when you’re seeking help from him, and you’ve pretty much begged him for help. But we see how deep this woman’s faith really is, she’s not leaving. In fact, she responds, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
I found this part of our reading to be pretty revealing. You see, Jesus got into several debates in His ministry with some folks who were considered to be the “religious elite” of his day, people like the Pharisees. They knew their Scriptures inside and out, and when Jesus would debate with them, they’d come out on the losing end. They couldn’t counter his arguments in the end. You never heard Jesus say “great is your faith” to a Pharisee. Yet here, this woman has a response for Jesus’ argument! She says “Yes, Lord, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” She knows her place, she knows that she’s not part of the covenant with Israel, she’s content being the dog that gets the gracious crumbs. When you think about this, it’s quite clear Jesus wants to see how deep this woman’s faith really is. When she responds, in faith, to Jesus’ statement, He knows she really believes that He is the promised Messiah, the Savior of the Nations. That prompts Him to say “Great is your faith!”