For this Sunday’s bulletin, click here: Second Sunday in Lent
Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.”
23Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
25The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
26He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”
27“Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
28 Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
— matthew 15.21-28 (niv84)
What do you do when you’ve done everything you’re supposed to, and you still get the short end of the stick? You do everything your boss asks you to at work, and even more besides, and you still can’t get any respect or consideration. You work hard to provide for yourself and your family, and it seems that your only reward is yet another set of taxes and fees to pay. You work hard to be patient and restrain your anger with a family member or a friend whose behavior is outrageous, and they still push your buttons and treat you like dirt. When you’ve done everything you’re supposed to and it doesn’t help, what do you do then?
The nameless woman in our Gospel for today was faced with that very predicament. Her child was demon-possessed, and she did exactly what she should. She comes to Jesus and begs for His help. Demon possession was no laughing matter. This woman’s daughter had an evil spirit living inside her, actively trying to hurt her and attacking her body and soul. This evil spirit was a threat not only to the daughter, but to the entire family. With this demon in their household trying to hurt her child and probably speaking through the girl, spreading its poison in their family, this mother is in an intolerable situation. She might have stopped to ask why God would let this happen, if she hadn’t been so consumed with worry and dread.
This Canaanite woman’s anxiety and fear for her daughter give her feet wings. She does exactly what she’s supposed to do. She comes and finds Jesus and begs for His help. According to who she is and who He is this is all wrong, but according to her faith it’s the right thing to do. She was a Canaanite – meaning non-Jew, meaning foreigner. Strike one. Her status as a foreigner meant that she was automatically unclean. She shouldn’t be around Jesus. Strike two. She was a woman trying to talk to a rabbi, which was frowned on in polite society. Strike three, you’re out, Canaanite woman. Yet her faith is entirely in the right place. She calls Jesus Lord, and even more than that, Son of David. Wherever or however she found out, this woman is convinced that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, and she believes that He is God’s Son, “the exact representation of His being;” that He is love incarnate walking the earth. This woman is out of options. She’s running out of hope. Jesus is the only one who can help her. Jesus won’t turn me away, she thinks. He will surely help me.
Now I’m not what you’d call a mechanic, but I’ve fixed one or two small things on my truck. There’s always a point in the project where I’ve finished the repair and now I need to turn the key and see if the truck will actually run – if the repair worked. Usually right before I do that I think, “If this doesn’t work, I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Then I have to turn the key and find out. We all face those kinds of moments, where we pause and think, “If this doesn’t work, I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Usually it’s a lot more serious than the minor repairs I do on my truck. Maybe we’re waiting for someone to make a decision that will determine the course of our lives for the forseeable future, but we don’t get to be involved in the actual making of the decision. Maybe we’re debating whether or not to take someone we love off life support. Maybe we’re having major financial difficulties, and we’ve hit the bottom and we’re starting to bounce. Maybe our relationship with someone we love dearly is very difficult right now. Maybe we’re not going over the cliff just yet, but we can see it from here, and we don’t relish the thought of the free fall that’s coming. At those times we pause for a moment and think, “If this doesn’t work, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
This Canaanite woman is facing one of those moments here. She takes a deep breath and then puts her child, herself, everything, into Jesus’ hands – “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!” That phrase “Lord, have mercy” doesn’t have quite the same impact for us that maybe it should. We use it so much in the liturgy that it’s almost gotten worn down for us. What those words “Lord, have mercy” really mean is this: “Lord, I am stuck. I cannot fix this on my own. I need Your help – I need everything you give, because I have nothing on my own. I rely on You for everything, Lord. Please help me.” That’s what we should be thinking while we pray or sing those words, and that’s the frame of mind this Canaanite woman is in. And what does Jesus do? He walks away. She doesn’t even get to see His face. She follows Him and keeps crying out. He still won’t look at her or talk to her. She finally literally throws herself at His feet and begs – and He finally pays some attention to her. He calls her a dog.
More often than we’re comfortable admitting, this is how God deals with His children: He seems to ignore their cries and their tears, He turns His back, He walks away. We scream ourselves hoarse crying and begging for help, and it doesn’t come. The harder we pray, the worse things get. We want answers and there are none. It would make sense if God did this to an unbeliever, somebody who never loved Him or came to Him for help. But we want His help; we need it. We came to Him, just like we’re supposed to, we’re begging Him for answers, and He isn’t listening. Why does God do that to His children?
Because God is teaching us that His Word is the only thing that saves us, the only thing that’s true – not our own knowledge or experience or ideas, but what He tells us, the promises He gives us. Because God wants us to learn that His Word is true and good even when He Himself seems to have become our enemy. Because even when God is silent and turns His back on us, He’s still listening to our cries – and He will answer. He wants us to wait until He speaks again. He wants us to wait on Him and to put all our hope in His Word so that when it comes true, we will see that He does not lie.
That Word of God is the basis of our faith, and nothing else. When we hang on to His Word for dear life, then our faith is not just blind faith. We know whom we have believed, and we are convinced that He is able to guard what we have entrusted to Him for that day. Martin Luther once said, “I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess.” We take our very lives, our souls, our salvation, whatever we value, whatever we’re asking for, and we lay them all at the feet of Christ and trust that He will do what is best for us, even when it seems like He won’t. It’s that reckless, last-ditch, almost suicidal kind of faith that pleases Christ the best – the kind of faith that keeps asking even when the answer seems to be no and God doesn’t even seem to be listening.
Look at this Canaanite woman. Her confidence in Jesus’ goodness and love for her is so strong it almost seems insane. She persists in her confidence that Jesus will help her and do what she asks far past the point when most reasonable people would give up. But that’s the best thing about this woman – she’s not reasonable. She lives from her faith, not her reason. Here we also see why God treats His children harshly: to exercise their faith and to lead them to trust in Him no matter what. God often tests our faith in the hardest ways.
As part of my education, I’ve had the privilege of teaching catechism class to Lutheran day school students in the past. I remember once I asked the question, “Why does God allow bad things to happen to us?” One girl promptly raised her hand and answered, “To test our faith,” and then went back to inspecting her fingernails or whatever she was doing. She was right, but I want to grab her by the shoulders and shake her. (If I had actually shaken her, I probably wouldn’t be standing before you today.) I wanted to say, “Do you know what that means? It means that God can seem like He’s turning His back on you and walking away! It means that God can act like He doesn’t love you at all!” But of course she didn’t know all that yet. Nor, for that fact, do I really know what it means to have God test my faith, at least not like this Canaanite woman did. I’m sure someday I will, and you will too, if you continue in your faith. When your day of testing comes, don’t give up, just as this woman didn’t give up, and you will see that Jesus’ Word always gives what it promises. Amen.