Jesus spoke of faith the size of a mustard seed, so even little faith saves. This week I speak of big faith. Only two times does Jesus say someone's faith is big, large, great. Who wouldn’t want to be the third? Big faith is something that only comes from a big Lord and after big struggles. But the big struggles are not with yourself to believe harder; they are with your big Lord. But how you get big faith isn’t the only surprise; who has it is also surprising. It doesn't belong to those you would think should have it. The 12 disciples were not known for big faith. Jesus Himself highlights this by giving the 12 disciples the pet name “Little Faith”.
Big faith is not an automatic quality for anyone. It doesn't come to a person by birth, by upbringing, or even by church membership. In fact big faith comes to unlikely people. The woman in our text is a perfect example. The Holy Spirit expresses how peculiar the whole incident is by the way He announces the presence of the Canaanite woman. The insert and other translations ignore this. But the Holy Spirit lets us know that something strange happened by writing, "And behold a Canaanite women from that vicinity." Behold a foreigner; behold one from the pagan race of Canaan; behold one from that ancient people who led God's people astray many times; behold this sort of woman dared ask the Lord for help. Big faith knows no boundaries of race or social status. In fact both of the people the Lord said had big faith were foreigners. This Canaanite woman and the foreign centurion who sent to Jesus for help for his servant had big faith.
So, regardless of your background. Regardless of how new to the faith you might be. Regardless of how foreign to the faith you might be; you too can have big faith. Faith that’s not put off by Providences frowning face or by dark circumstances is big. Look at the text. What happened when this foreign-born woman approached Jesus for help? Jesus didn’t answer her a single word. He didn’t turn to look at her, cast a sideway glance at her, or give any hint that He cared or even heard. In fact, loving Lord Jesus kept right on walking even though this woman was beseeching, pleading, begging Him for help for her daughter. Even the President turns and responds to reporters hounding him.
Even the disciples, who always had less compassion then the Lord, interceded for the woman. They asked Jesus to send her away with her request granted as they had seen Him do many times. But their getting involved only seemed to make matters worse. While Jesus wouldn't answer the begging woman, He did answer the disciples. But what an answer! "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." You would think by now this poor woman would’ve gotten the message. But no, she responds. "Lord, help me!" And how did Jesus respond? Is the One who was moved by hungry thousands and shepherdless sheep touched by the mournful pleas of a worried mom? How does tender Jesus meek and mild answer? How does Jesus who is such a friend, who shares all our sins and sorrows reply? "It's not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs."
Unless you face Jesus' response you’ll never have big faith. Unless you face the fact that often Jesus appears to turn a cold shoulder to your prayers and pleas for help, you’re avoiding the struggle with God necessary for obtaining big faith. Well what are we to make of the stone-cold silences of our loving God? Better still, how are we to regard it when our prayers seem to obtain from God the direct opposite of what we prayed for? A prayer for health brings more illness; a prayer for courage brings more things to be afraid of; a prayer for peace is swept away by a flood of new turmoil?
We’ve come upon one of the great truths of the Bible: Sometimes our God, Lord, and Savior, hides Himself from our prayers, our cares, and even from us. Is. 45:15, "Truly You are a God who hides Himself, O God and Savior of Israel." Lam. 3:44 has the same thought: "You have covered yourself with a cloud so that no prayer can get through." Or how about Ps. 10:1, "Why do You stand far off O Lord? Why do You hide Yourself in times of trouble?" As the hymn says, God hides His love and grace behind a frowning face sometimes. This truth is expressed throughout the Bible: Mary and Martha send to Jesus for help for their dying brother, but He purposely waited till Lazarus was dead 4 days before He came. When the disciples came to Jesus concerned over feeding thousands, how did Jesus answer? "You give them something to eat."
If you can't recognize in your life that God has turned a frowning face, look at the woman's. She comes to Jesus as a pleading mom only to be treated like a whimpering dog! But a mark of big faith is that it takes God’s Word as His final answer rather than His actions in the world or His frowning face. I’ve said time and again, don’t look for proofs of God's love in the world around you. There is no love of God visible in the burned over Hawaiian island or in week upon week of 100+ days and no rain. In such things, there’s plenty of fuel for skeptics: If there is a loving God, He is either asleep or not as loving as we think.
Some Christians try to respond by pointing to God’s beauty and grace in nature as proof that God is loving and kind. That’s a good argument until the beautiful Gulf of Mexico fills up with a hurricane. Or until graceful clouds form into a train of thunderstorms flooding everything in their path. Nope. Don’t look to the world or even God's actions in the world to be assured of His love. This is especially important to remember when in distress. Think about it. What would Job have had to conclude about God’s love if he went by the flattened remains of his eldest son's home where his 10 children had been buried alive? What would Joseph have had to say about God answering prayer if he judged by his 13 years of unjust imprisonment despite thousands of prayers for release?
We are called to wait on the Lord rather than to rely on anything our senses tell us. Elijah did that last week. He wanted some encouragement from the Lord, so the Lord showed Himself to him. The Lord passed by and hurricane winds tore the mountain to pieces; then came an earthquake, and after the earthquake came a devastating fire. But the Lord was not in any of these things. Then came a still small voice. The still small voice is where the Lord was. If Elijah had been scared away by the hurricane, earthquake, or fire, he never would have been comforted by the still small voice of God. Big faith holds on to that still small voice of the Lord even though the world all around you is blown, shaken, or burned to pieces.
The Word is what the woman held on to. She went to Jesus as the Messiah of mercy. She called on Him as the Son of David which was the Jewish title for the Messiah. Perhaps this woman knew the verse we read from Isaiah 56:8, "Thus says the Lord...I will gather...others...besides those already gathered." The woman held on to the Word, so even when she met with stone-cold silence, she was not put off. Nor did the Messiah's apparent indifference to anyone who was not of Israel bother her. Regardless of how things seemed, the Lord had said His mercy endured forever and that He would never turn the empty away. So she gave herself up to the Lord's promised mercy and fell down at His feet saying only, "Lord, help me!"
Armed with the Word of God, the woman was not turned aside by the Lord's apparent lack of compassion. But then came the crushing blow. "It's not right to take the children's bread and throw it to their dogs!" How could the loving Lord Jesus call this woman a dog? But right here is where the woman saw light. Jesus says, "It is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to their puppies." The Greek word here is not the one for an outside dog or stray dog but the one used for puppies, for small house or lap dogs. It's a term of affection (Kittle, III, 104).
The woman latches on to this sliver of hope, and catches the Lord in His own words. Yes, she agrees, custom does say it's wrong to take bread away from children and throw it to the puppies. But the woman knows what Jesus did and all you puppy-lovers do; children do not stop their puppies or house dogs from eating the bits of food which fall from the table. Moreover even though a parent forbids it, children purposely feed their puppies from the table; children gleam with delight at secretly feeding the puppy that persistently nuzzles at their hand under the table.
A mark of big faith is catching the Lord in His own judgment of a situation as this woman did. A mark of really big faith is to realize the Lord wants to be caught. With this woman, let us say, "Yes Lord. Your judgement is true; I am a great sinner and not worthy of your grace or of having my prayers answered, but you have promised forgiveness to sinners such as myself for the sake of Jesus’ suffering and death. Furthermore, you have shown in your Word that you delight in having grace and mercy on poor miserable sinners who have nothing to offer you but the perfect life and innocent suffering and death of your own dear Son for their sins."
A mark of big faith is that it completely despairs of self. Big faith claims no rights before God, but at the same time, it knows that the Lord has promised in His Word to give the rights and privileges of a son to all who call upon Him in faith. And big faith realizes that nothing it sees or feels can invalidate these promises of God. As a pledge of this, the Lord provides us sinners with a meal, not of crumbs, but of His own body and blood. And these don't just happen to fall off of His table for us poor puppies to find them on the floor. No, He personally invites us right up to His Table and hands His body and blood to us. So no matter how much like a dog we may feel our Master has treated us in the past week, we know for certain by means of this Meal that we belong at our Master's Table not beneath it, and on His lap not under His wrath. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (20230827); Matthew 15:21-28