A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, February 25, 2018
The Epistle, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 – The Gospel, St. Matthew 15:21-28
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
I. The Woman of Canaan
Jesus concluded his encounter with the Woman of Canaan in today’s gospel by saying, “Woman, great is thy faith.” She can teach us some things about faith.
The tradition is that St. Matthew wrote his gospel for a Jewish audience. He presents Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesy. When he calls this woman, a “Woman of Canaan” it is likely that he means to connect her with the Old Testament Canaanites, the people Israel conquered when they entered the Promised Land. This person of great faith is at least symbolically connected to people who worshiped idols and opposed God. The point is that Jesus is changing the requirements for being accepted by God. Background and ethnicity are now irrelevant. God accepts us when we put our faith in Jesus.
In his epistles, St. Paul develops the idea of “justification by faith.” As a well-known passage from Romans says:
But now the righteousness of God apart from the Law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through the faith of Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:21-24).
Language from today’s gospel is used in our “Prayer of Humble Access,” which we pray before communion. However, we see this woman’s humility and raise it a notch. She said the dogs ate the crumbs; we claim to be unworthy even of these! Of course, the point is not merely to sound humble. The liturgy is teaching us how to approach God if we want to be accepted like the Woman of Canaan. As we come to the altar, have we chosen a nice outfit to wear? Have we been faithful to the church for decades? Do we come from a good family? Have we avoided the major sins? None of these things matter. Nothing we are, nothing we inherited, nothing we have done, and nothing we have given entitles us to anything from God. We can receive God’s grace only through faith in Jesus Christ.
III. Faith as trust and dependence rather that belief in doctrine
The Woman of Canaan exposes a common error about faith; namely, that faith is rooted in the mind or intellect. When some people talk about justification by faith, they imply that we are justified by a right understanding of how we are saved. Thus, some people object to an early age for Confirmation and Communion because “they are not yet old enough to understand.” But we could turn that question around and get closer to heart of faith. We could say, “You are old enough to understand, but do you still have childlike faith?” For Jesus said, “Unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3).
The Woman of Canaan illustrates that to have faith means to trust God and depend upon him. This trust includes the belief that God can do what we pray for. God is Almighty, and Jesus is Lord. Because she trusted Jesus, because she came to him with humility, believing that Jesus could do what she asked, Jesus heard her prayer and answered it.
Faith as trust is illustrated by a story that I think was told by Billy Graham (may he rest in peace and rise in glory). A man was attempting to push a wheelbarrow across a tightrope strung between two skyscrapers. A spectator was asked, “Do you believe he can do it?” He answered, “Yes, I believe he can” Then the spectator was asked, “Will you ride in the wheelbarrow?”
For many people, faith is merely an intellectual conviction about God. They say “amen” to the creeds, or they memorize doctrine about how a person is saved; but they won’t trust Jesus by doing what he says to do—by obeying his commandments. They won’t get into the wheelbarrow; consequently, they do not experience God’s presence and power in their lives. As Matthew 13:38 says of Jesus ministry in Nazareth, “He did not do many mighty works there because of their unbelief.”
The faith of the Woman of Canaan did include some doctrine about Jesus. She called Jesus the “Son of David.” She believed Jesus was the Messiah of Israel. However, her prayer was heard because she trusted him—not just because she knew who he was. When we recite the Nicene Creed, we give our assent to the doctrine that Jesus is the eternally begotten Son of God. However, this assent does not save us. We are saved by trusting him. It is possible to know who Jesus is and not trust him. As St. James writes, “You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!” (Jas. 2:19).
III. Faith as honesty and vulnerability
There is another, notable point about the faith of the Woman of Canaan that we usually miss. She created a scene. She screamed about her demonized daughter and her need for help right in front of the nice rabbi and his pious followers. The pious followers told her to be quiet and begged their leader to get rid of the nuisance. Do we ever do that to people who come to Jesus for help? — “Go away, we’ve got a nice religious thing going on here.”
There were, no doubt, other people in the crowd who had pressing needs but were too ashamed to make them known. They did not trust Jesus enough to be open and honest with him, they were too ashamed to say anything, and their prayers were not answered. Often our prayers are not answered because we are not honest with God and others about what we are really struggling with. We are too ashamed and afraid to be known (See Genesis 3:9-10). Consequently, we walk along with crowd that is following Jesus, but we do not experience his power because our faith is not touching the real stuff of our lives
One reason people are drawn to recovery groups is that they tolerate and encourage honesty. You can stand up and say, I’m Joe and I am addicted to drink or drugs or sex.” There is freedom to say that because you are in a group with others who are also being honest. The church should be a community in which the members of the Body of Christ are honest and open with each other. This doesn’t mean we tell everybody our deep secrets the first time we talk. Trust takes time to develop. It means that we work over time at cultivating authentically intimate relationships, in which we are known to others and others feel safe being known to us. Genuine communion with God and others is the source of all healing and is the answer to our deepest prayers.
This is our central challenge in mission. The trappings of religion don’t matter to people anymore—and that is a good thing. But people are still alienated from God and from authentically intimate relationships with others. God wants his church to be a place reconciliation; a place where people can make good and honest confessions about the real stuff of their lives; a place where people can experience grace and healing over time as they grow in communion with Christ and with the members of his body.
This begins with each of us. We cannot bear witness to the healing power of Christ for the sins and afflictions of the world unless we have experienced it in our own sins and afflictions. So, let us learn a Lenten lesson about faith from an unacceptable and unclean pagan with a demonized daughter. Let us come to Jesus without any sense of entitlement. Let us trust Jesus and obey him and continue in our prayer until he answers us. And let us move past our shame and fear and practice being honest with God and with each other. If we follow the Woman of Canaan in this way, two things will happen. The trusted people we are honest with will not be shocked at our real stuff, because it will look a lot like their real stuff. They will say to us, “Welcome to the club.” And Jesus will say to us, “Great is your faith, let is be to you as you desire.”