Sermon for the Ninth 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.

Canaanite woman
Great faith

Read a history book and you will find that some people have been given the title “great” – there is Alfred the Great of England, Henry the Great of France, Frederick the Great of Prussia, Alexander the Great and Herod the Great.  In some cases there are question marks over how great these people really were.  Herod rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem, built many fortresses and cities and aqueducts to supply these new places with an essential supply of water.  Herod, however, had another side that was not so great - he was jealous, cruel and a murderer.  He had his entire family murdered and Matthew records Herod’s order to kill the babies of Bethlehem.

There are others who have never been given a title that included the word “great’ but certainly their actions have led everyone to think of them as being great.  They have given their lives to helping others, to discovering new ways of treating illness, tirelessly giving aid to the sick and the dying and the poor – people like Howard Florey, Nelson Mandela, Fred Hollows. 

On a personal level we might think of some of the people in our lives as being great.  They may not have achieved fame on a world scale but as far as we are concerned they have done great things for us and they are the ‘great’ people in our lives.  They are the special people in our lives;
people whom we have come to respect and love because of their gentleness and goodness toward us;
people who have done something, said something, helped us in some way, changed us for the better;
people who will always be a part of us even if they should move away or die. 
Their names will be in our hearts and minds as long we live.

Today we hear Jesus talking about the greatness of a Canaanite woman when he says, “You are a woman of great faith”. Jesus never says this about his disciples and more often describes them as men of “little faith”.  Last week, we heard Jesus say just that to Peter after he sank beneath the waves and Jesus had to rescue him from a briny death.  On only one other occasion Jesus praised a person for 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 may not bring us fame and fortune in a worldly sense but it is something that certainly interests us as followers of Christ.  “Great is your faith,” Jesus said about this woman.  Most of us would love to have this said about us – it would help us enormously in the problems of life.  We could deal with our stresses and fears and trials with so much more peace and calmness.  We could live life with confidence because we had faith in God’s love to provide for our needs and to help us in times of trouble.  We could let go of our anxieties and step into each new day with a joyful kind of freedom because our trust is in God alone.  For Jesus to say to us, “You are a person of great faith”, or even a person with just a little bit more faith than we presently have would be so helpful.

So let’s delve into finding out what her secret was.  What was it about her or about what she did and said that made her so great in Jesus’ eyes?

As we look at this episode in Matthew 15 the answer becomes quite clear. Nothing.  There was nothing about this woman that even indicated there was anything great about her.  We don’t even know her name.  She had nothing and culturally and religiously speaking she was nothing.  She was a Canaanite and not a Jew.  She was unclean.  She was a woman.  She was a noisy, irritating pest.

She had no right to ask anything of Jesus.  She had no basis for having her cry for help heard.  She had no right to approach a Jewish rabbi.  Everyone wished she would go away.  But she doesn’t.  The disciples even asked Jesus to send her away because she was embarrassing them with her noisy calling out and begging for help for her demon-possessed daughter.  She is a mother who is desperate and falls at Jesus’ feet and says, “Lord help me.”

One of the famous renaissance paintings of this scene shows the woman kneeling down before Jesus, with her desperate empty appealing hands lifted up to Jesus – Lord, help me”.

That is what she had – empty hands – looking up to Jesus in desperate, empty, searching, crying, needy faith.  Great faith that utters those simple words, Lord, help me”.

And Jesus doesn’t let the moment pass and turns this into a great teaching occasion.  His response to this woman’s pleas seems quite brutal.  He says to her. “Now come on, I am the Messiah sent to Israel – you can’t expect that I am going to help you”.  
And then he says, “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.
(You can imagine the disciples saying under their breath to the Canaanite woman, “See we told you Jesus wouldn’t have anything to do with the likes of you”). 

That kind of explanation is not going to stop this persistent woman one bit. She knows she’s not worthy of Jesus’ attention.  She knows she is embarrassing this group of Jews and causing even more scorn to fall on her.  But 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 am a dog – 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 I’m prepared to be like a dog that waits for any leftovers that might be thrown my way.  I’m nobody.  I’m not important.  But you can help me.  I’m prepared to accept any insult your disciples can throw at me but please help me!”  If there was such a thing as “being more than empty” then that would describe this woman as she begged Jesus to help her. 

That’s why Jesus says to her those words he is never able to say to the twelve disciples standing there with him that day, “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.  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 those 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 knowing heaps of theology. It is learning 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 maybe, “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 and more than that, he survived.  This is the man whose written work fills shelf upon shelf at our seminary library, whose scholarly translation of the scriptures shaped the German language and whose courage reshaped the geography of Europe.  This is the man who had redirected people back to the Bible and 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.

That is also our position and our situation before God too. We are in just the same place as this woman and Luther and Paul. We are sinners, foreigners, specks of nothing before God.  He owes us nothing.  I’m sorry if that sounds offensive.  This isn't a very popular thing to say that today.  But it's true.  If we fool ourselves for one minute that we have something over God, some claim on his favour, then we are lost – our faith is then in ourselves and not in God at all.

In the Kingdom of God this picture of the beggar is a profound one. We come to God with nothing, realizing that neither our morality nor our religion count with God when it comes to righteousness.  We come to him vulnerable and poor or we don't come at all. "Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to your cross I cling", says the hymn writer. 

We enter the waters of baptism as strangers and aliens because of our sinfulness.  We emerge washed, cleansed, named and adopted into a royal family; we are children of the king.
We receive into our empty hands the body and blood of Jesus in Communion and we are lifted by the forgiveness and grace of Jesus Christ.  Our status as children is a gift from God that gladdens the heart of every beggar. 

Beggars we are and yet at the same time beloved, holy children of the Father because of Good Friday. We would want it no other way.


© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
14th August 2011

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