Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 15

Text: Matthew 15:28
Jesus answered her, “You are a woman of great faith! What you want will be done for you.” And at that very moment her daughter was healed.

Great faith

Throughout history there have been people who have been given the title “great”. They are people of their time who made great progress in advancing culture, government and legal systems, architecture, education and so on.
For instance, in the 9th century, Alfred the Great successfully held back the Danes from over-running England but at the same time he was a scholar and founded schools and established English as the main language of Britain.
Likewise, in the 4th century BC, Alexander the Great’s empire stretched from Greece to India and with it he ensured that Greek culture and language went where his empire went. Alexander didn’t know it but God would use his spread of the Greek language to enable the Good News of God’s in both the Old and New Testament to be used in Christian communities everywhere in the early Church because Greek was the language people understood.

No doubt there are many others who deserve the title ‘great’ but even though their work is tireless and selfless and never recorded in history books that doesn’t mean their accomplishments are anything less than great. 

Think about someone or maybe more than one person who has been ‘great’ in your eyes.  This person is someone who in some way has shaped you, changed your direction, influenced you, enabled you, encouraged you, brought you out of some darkness and made it possible for you to go on in a brighter and better way.
These are the people whom you have come to respect and love because of their gentleness and goodness toward you but also may have had to tell some home truths to get you on the straight and narrow.
Their names will be in our hearts and minds as long we live.

Today we hear about a woman whose name we don’t know, and who by worldly standards doesn’t stand out, but Jesus does use the word ‘great’ in connection with this Canaanite woman. He says, “You are a woman of great faith”. Only on one other occasion Jesus spoke of a person as having a great faith.  Interestingly, it wasn’t an Israelite or one of the twelve, but again (like this Canaanite woman) a foreigner – a Roman soldier stationed in Capernaum, who turned to Jesus for help.

This kind of greatness doesn’t count for much when it comes to dollars and cents; it won’t get us limousines or mansions; it won’t get us into the history books, but it is something that certainly interests us as followers of Christ.  “Great is your faith.” Would you like Jesus to say this about you?

With great faith, our stresses and fears and trials would disappear like fog in the morning and leave us in the sunshine of peace and calmness. 
With great faith in God’s love to provide for our needs and to help us in times of trouble we would live life without fear and in confidence. 
With great faith trusting in God’s goodness and love believing that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, we would step into each new day with joyful freedom knowing that even if this should be our last day in this life, our Saviour has taken care of everything for us. 
To know that when we take our last breath Jesus will say to us, You are a person of great faith” would be ever so reassuring and comforting.

So let’s delve into finding out what it was about this Canaanite woman or about what so special about this woman?  Nothing.  We don’t know her name.  Culturally and religiously speaking she was nothing.  She was a Canaanite, and so a heathen.  She was considered unclean.  She was a woman (which might be politically incorrect to say these days but was a distinct disadvantage 2,000 years ago).  She was a noisy, irritating pest. She had no right to approach a Jewish rabbi.  She had no right to ask anything of Jesus.  There was absolutely no reason why her cry for help should be heard. 

She came to Jesus addressing him as ‘Lord’ and ‘Son of David’ appealing for help for her seriously ill daughter whom she described as demon possessed. It’s clear. She is a mother who is desperate and calls out from a distance first, “Lord help me.” What does Jesus do? And this shocks us a bit. He ignores her. What does she do then? She falls on her knees.

A famous painting of this scene by Jean-Germain Drouais (1784) shows the woman kneeling down before Jesus. Jesus is ignoring her.

Focus on the woman she is desperate; she has nothing to bring to Jesus except to lift her empty hands appealing to Jesus, Lord, help me”.

That’s all she had – no reasoning, no gifts, no bargaining, no deals – if you do this, I’ll do that, no promises of change or conversion.  All she had was empty hands – looking up to Jesus in desperate, searching, crying, needy faith.  Great faith that utters those simple words, Lord, help me”.

She keeps on with her calling out.  This is getting awkward.  Look at the disciples in the painting asking Jesus to send her away because she was embarrassing them with her noisy calling out. Finally, Jesus says, more to the disciples than to the woman, “Why should I help her? My main work is to save the people of Israel and she’s not one of them!” 

If she overheard what Jesus said she wasn’t going to let this rejection put her off and again appeals, “Lord help me!”

Jesus replies, “What I have to give is for the children of Israel. As a mother you know that you don’t take food from your children and give it to your dog. Your children come first so for me the people of Israel are my first priority.

That kind of explanation is still not going to stop this persistent woman one bit. She is a mother with a very real need and Jesus is someone who can help!  So she replies using Jesus’ image of dogs eating the children’s food, “Yes, I know I’m not worthy – but maybe even a dog like me can eat the crumbs that fall from your table”.

In other words, “I need help so much that like a dog I will wait for as long as it takes for any leftovers that might be thrown my way.  I’m nobody.  I’m not important.  But in spite of that you can help me.”  This woman had no tickets on herself. She came with empty hands and begged Jesus to help her daughter. 

Jesus says to her what he hasn’t been able to say to many others including his disciples so far, “You are a woman of great faith!  What you want will be done for you.”

What was the secret of her great faith?  Without a doubt it was her deep awareness of her own utter emptiness and unworthiness and helplessness.  She knew she was not even worthy of Jesus’ attention, that she had no claim, nothing to bring or offer as the basis for her appeal.  She knew she was “a dog”, a beggar kneeling in the dirt before her master and it was from this lowest of places that her empty hands were lifted up.

That’s great faith.  It’s not a matter of being a hero or some kind of super-believer or being able to bring God's name into every sentence you speak or having every ‘i’ dotted and ‘t’ crossed in your understanding of who God is and how God works.  It’s coming the humble realisation that you are in fact a beggar. It is a matter of being aware that you have nothing to bring before God and nothing to say to God, except “Lord, help me!”

The last words that Martin Luther wrote the day before his death were, “We are beggars.  That is the truth”. What an odd way to sum up a life – especially his life!  This is a man who stood up to kings and councils, burned Papal Decrees, challenged sixteen centuries of tradition in the church, who put the Scriptures in the hands of ordinary people and had redirected people back to the central truths of Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone and Scripture alone.

Surely at the end of such a life there must be a time for a bit of boasting – a few moments of crowing.  Yet like the Apostle Paul, if he boasted it was of his weakness, the emptiness of his hands as he begged for them to be filled with the grace and forgiveness of Christ. He joins with Paul who states clearly our only reason to boast is in the cross of Christ to make us new and right before God and fills our hands with his grace.

That is also our position and our situation before God too. We come to him vulnerable and poor. "Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to your cross I cling", says the hymn writer. And he lifts us up with his love.

This text today has a lot to say about the way we deal with our everyday troubles and pain – the things that disturb us and cause us anxiety and grief.

We know that every one of us is a special creation of God, loved by God, cared for by God, saved from our own foolishness and sin by God's Son. 
We know from the Bible the many times God promises us personally that he will never forget us and that his power is always at hand to help us. 
We know that the Holy Spirit is ready to translate our moans and sighs into prayers that express to God exactly what we need so badly in our lives.
We know that God's love for us is not diminished in any way by our own sins and stupidity.  In fact, his heart goes out to us to an even greater degree when he sees that we need help to deal with the problems that trouble and upset our happiness.

We have the advantage of knowing all this through the promises of Scripture and yet we still find it hard to come to Jesus with empty hands like the Canaanite woman and simply ask, “Lord, help me”.
Instead we battle alone with our problems.
We are too proud to admit we need help.
We have some kind of twisted idea that we have to deal with our trouble the best way we can by ourselves.
We like to hang on to our guilt, our burdens, our anxieties, the weight we carry and not empty our hands at Jesus’ feet, and ask for his help to carry on.

We receive into our empty hands the body and blood of Jesus in Communion and we are lifted by his presence and grace.   

Beggars we are and yet at the same time beloved, holy children of the Father. We wouldn’t want it any other way.


© Pastor Vince Gerhardy

16th August 2020

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Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, © American Bible Society, revised Australian edition 1994.
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