Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

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“The Prayer of Faith”

Matthew 15:21-28

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Could there be a greater contrast? The disciples, the hand-picked followers of the Son of God, the representatives of the new Israel, the Church, on the one hand; and, on the other, the Canaanite, from a land of idolatry and apostasy, a woman of the land of Jezebel, that devil’s daughter, from the land of the goddess Ashtoreth, where the people of Israel were led astray. And yet, as we heard last week, it is the disciples who are “little-faith-ones,” while Jesus says that this woman’s faith is great (15:28). Notice as well how differently Jesus responds: to the disciples, the little-faith-ones in the boat, Jesus “immediately spoke to them, saying, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not fear'” (14:27); and to Peter, that distracted, doubting one, who took His eyes off the Lord-Jesus immediately responded to his desperate cry by grabbing hold of him. But to this distraught woman, Jesus at first says nothing. And then, He speaks in a way that seems to be directed more at the disciples than at her: “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24). And then, in words that sting our ears: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (15:26, ESV). In other words, God has chosen Israel alone, and not the Canaanites. The contrast between the Twelve and the woman from the region of Tyre and Sidon stems from the old opposition between Noah’s sons Shem and Ham (see Genesis 9-10). From Shem’s line would come Abraham, David, Judah, and finally Jesus. Ham, however, was the father of the cursed Canaan (Genesis 9:18-29), whose first son was Sidon. If you trace these families through the Old Testament, you quickly see that Israel and Canaan are always in conflict. Israel was supposed to drive out completely the Canaanites from the Promised Land; because they did not, the Canaanites were a constant thorn in their side (cf. Judges 1:27-36). It was precisely because Solomon married women of the Canaanites, including from Sidon, that he turned away from the Lord, and the united Kingdom of his father David was divided and destroyed. And how many times the Prophets proclaimed judgment on Tyre and Sidon, those twin cities of the Canaanites. Nathaniel doubted that anything good could come from Nazareth, let alone the Messiah; but at least Nazareth, unlike Canaan, was part of Israel!

In spite of this ancient hostility, this woman comes, crying out and falling at Jesus’ feet. The disciples, those little-faith-ones, want Jesus to send her away, just as they wanted Him to send away the five thousand to buy food for themselves. But this woman cannot get for herself what she needs. She needs mercy and healing for her daughter, and somehow she knows that only the Son of David can give them. Why does Jesus not answer her? And why does He then answer her with seeming insults? He is not simply playing word games with her about dogs and children. Jesus’ answers are, first, a statement of fact: He will not personally be the one who will go from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria and to the ends of the earth. The Twelve will carry on that work in the Spirit of Him who is with them always to the end of the age. We know from Jesus’ words in Matthew 28 that His message of repentance and forgiveness is for all people. Nevertheless, salvation is from the Jews (John 4:22), and through the Jews, because through Jesus, to the entire world. “To the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16). That is the economy of God’s salvation, the way He has set things up, and the Scriptures are clear: unless you are part of the people of God, you cannot be saved. If you are not part of Israel, you are as good as dead, as Pharaoh found out when he tried to follow Israel through the Red Sea. This woman is not part of Israel, so it would not be right, according to the economy of God, to give her what belongs to Israel. But she persists: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (Matthew 15:27, ESV). If she cannot sit at the table, she will be content to be in the house. And if in the house, she will be content with the crumbs of mercy. And this contentment is faith. “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwll in the tents of wickedness” (Psalm 84:10, ESV).

To pray with the faith of Israel means to be part of Israel. “[W]hatever you ask in prayer, you will receive,” Jesus says, “if you have faith” (Matthew 21:22, ESV). Those who will not pray from faith will not have their prayers answered (Proverbs 15:29; 28:9). If you are not a part of God’s chosen people, He will not hear you. What was true for the disciples in the boat and Peter on the water was true also for the Canaanite woman and for us: faith is faith in the Scriptural sense only if it is faith in Christ, who is the eternal Son of the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit. And that faith makes us part of the people of God. We should be clear that while God chose Old Testament Israel out of His own mysterious counsel, that does not mean that Israel deserved to be chosen. That is obvious from Israel’s constant disobedience. No one, whether Jew or Gentile, can take it for granted that he has a place by right among the people of God. No sinner has any rights before the holy and almighty God. “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all” (Romans 11:32, ESV). So “the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void…That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring-not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’-in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:13-14, 16-17, ESV). If you share the faith of Abraham-that God fulfills all His promises in the Messiah-then you are part of the “many nations” of which Abraham is the father; then God has raised you from the dead and you are part of that holy people whom God called into existence out of nothing. And you and I, baptized and believing the promises of God in Jesus, have been grafted in to that vine called Israel. We do not belong by right or birth any more than the Canaanite woman belonged; the disciples themselves belonged only because Jesus chose them. We are not the people of God because we deserve it. We are not worthy of the bread of the children; nor, for that matter, even of the crumbs that fall from the table. But we come because we have nowhere else to go. We come because there is no one else who can help us. We come because we are all oppressed by the devil, the world, and our flesh and we desire mercy from the Son of David. If you will not receive the grace of God with empty hands; if you would rather be part of a church or a nation because you deserve it, because you have earned it, or because you have paid your dues, you can have no place in this Church and this holy nation, which God has gathered by His own choice through Jesus.

The woman of Canaan cannot demand that Jesus heal her daughter. But still she comes, praying the prayer of faith: “Have mercy on me; Lord, help me.” She does not know whether Jesus will answer her prayer, but she feels that if He will not, there is no one else who can. And if there is any small mercy that might be granted to her, it will be enough. Indeed, she has great faith-not in what Jesus will do, but in who He is. That is the essence of faith in this Jesus, that whatever He may or may not do for us, He is the only one who can help us, who can save us, who can heal us. And He does not disappoint! He gives us crumbs, but they are the very Bread of Heaven. He says “yes” to the prayer prayed in faith, even if it must be offered five, or fifty, or five hundred times. Though at first He answers not a word, though He seems to rebuke you in your requests, He will not stay silent forever. Keep asking! Keep praying! Even so, your certainty is not found in the answers to your prayers. No, your certainty is found in the fact that Jesus did not remain silent; all the prayers of God’s people find their “Yes” in Jesus’ perfect life, His holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death, and His glorious resurrection from the dead. And if He has answered that prayer of sinners for mercy, if He really has given us forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, all other requests are small in comparison! And yet, in the knowledge that Jesus has made us right with our heavenly Father, that the God of Abraham has made us the children of Abraham through faith, we come again and again before His throne: in ourselves as unworthy and foreign to the people of God; but in Christ, as His holy people, we ask boldly for all things as dear children ask their dear Father. We do this especially in that perfect prayer given to us by our Lord, which is always answered “Yes” as soon as it is prayed.

Pray, then. Pray from faith, knowing that your heavenly Father hears your prayers in the Name of His Son. Pray because God commands it. Pray because God invites it. Pray out of little faith or out of great faith, confident not in your faith, but in the Jesus whom your faith trusts. Pray because there is no one else who knows you and hears you and answers you. Pray because you are in a house of prayer for all nations, both the outcasts of Israel and all those whom God is gathering to Himself (Isaiah 56:7-8). This place and your prayers are made holy by the blood of Jesus. What the Israelites did not accomplish when they entered the Promised Land, Jesus accomplished on the cross. Finally, idolatrous Canaan is driven from the hearts of holy Israel, not by the sword but by faith in the one who claims people from all nations as His own. Alleluia, Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, alleluia!

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).

— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 8/13/08

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