The Canaanite Woman Had Great Faith  - August 17, 2014

Exodus 45: 1 – 15

Romans 11: 1-2;29-32

Matthew 15: 21-28

The readings today are so rich and powerful.  It is hard to do justice to any of them in the time we have together.  I simply love the first reading about Joseph and the reunion he has with his brothers. The forgiveness shown is nothing short of miraculous.

Sibling rivalry, jealousy and family members who don’t get along for one reason or another.  Sound familiar?  Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery years before, because of their jealousy.  He has not only survived but he has prospered.  His special talents and skills have taken him to the second highest office in Egypt.  At this time Egypt and the surrounding countries are suffering from a famine foreseen by Joseph in his dreams.  His brothers come and are looking for food.  What will Joseph do?  For a moment, put yourself in the place of Joseph.  What would you do?  How would you respond after your brothers threw you into the pit only to be sold into slavery and taken to a foreign land?  Look into your heart of hearts?  Is there a family member who have not forgiven or would rather not have around?  Reflect on the words from our gospel:  “Are you s till without understanding?  Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach ….But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.”  When Joseph reveals his identity, the brothers are dumbfounded by fear and unbelief.  They are worried that he will repay them in kind.  But no, he forgives them and gives his reason:  “God sent me before you to preserve life.”  “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.”   This is where human conflict and divine care come together.  Both the Old Testament reading and the gospel are about unity, inclusivity and faith.

     Did you know that there are only two people in the Bible who were praised by Jesus as having “great faith?” And here is what is remarkable. Both of these individuals praised by Jesus for their great faith were Gentiles.

     One of these with great faith was a Roman centurion in the town of Capernaum. You remember the story. This centurion’s servant, whom he valued highly, was sick and about to die. The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some Jewish elders to Jesus, asking him to come and heal his servant.

     When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this,” they said, “because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” So Jesus went with them to the centurion’s home.

     He was not far from the house when the centurion sent Jesus a message via some friends: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

     When Jesus heard this, he was amazed, and turning to the crowd, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” When the centurion’s friends returned to the house, they found the servant well.

     The Roman centurion was one person Jesus praised for his great faith. The other was the persistent Canaanite woman in today’s lesson.

     Her story is even more remarkable than the centurion’s. In Jewish eyes, to be a Canaanite was about as low as a person could get. The Canaanites were looked upon by the Jews as an immoral people. In fact, in the time of Joshua, God had commanded the army of Israel to completely destroy the Canaanite people. Israel did not fully obey God’s order and some Canaanites survived the invasion. This woman was their descendant. For a Canaanite woman to be called a person of great faith was an amazing development. Let me remind you of the details of her story.

     The story is set in the region of Tyre and Sidon, two Gentile cities in the northern region not far from the Mediterranean.  This Canaanite woman came to Jesus, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”

     So, we see her situation. She is experiencing one of life’s greatest heartaches. Her daughter whom she loves dearly is suffering terribly. Is there a mother in this room who would not prefer to suffer yourself rather than to have one of your children suffer? You will travel to the ends of the earth and empty your bank account if your child’s suffering is severe enough. And this girl’s suffering was evidently severe.

     We don’t know what this woman meant when she said that her daughter was demon-possessed. Her daughter’s pain may have been physical or it may have been emotional. Does it matter? Pain is pain.

Whatever the cause of her daughter’s suffering, this woman believed that there was someone who might be able to help her. His name was Jesus. She had heard that Jesus was a great teacher and healer. She knew he was Jewish, but if he could help her daughter that is all that mattered to her. And so she came to where Jesus was and she cried out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”

     And at this point, something happens that is quite troubling. Matthew tells us that “Jesus did not answer a word.” This woman is in absolute distress, she cries to Jesus for help, and all she gets is silence. Boy, we have all been there, haven’t we? Theologians have written profusely about the silence of God. If you have ever confronted a great challenge in your life, you have probably experienced this silence. You’ve brought your need to Jesus and you’ve prayed with all your heart and soul, and the silence was deafening. Where is God? My son or daughter is suffering, why won’t God hear me?

     Many of the most notable people in the Bible were confronted with the silence of God. Job lost his family, lost his health, lost the confidence of his wife, lost all of his wealth. Few people ever suffered like Job. But when Job asked God why, God refused to tell him. 

     Before Job there was Abraham. Abraham was 100 years old before his first son was born. For many years Abraham wondered not why, but when? When will I have a son? But God was silent.

     This poor Canaanite woman cried out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly,” and Jesus said not a word.

          Have you ever noticed that Jesus never sends anybody away? It doesn’t matter their sex or their ethnicity or even their religion. He never turns anyone away.

     With a crushing load of love for her suffering daughter, she pleads, “Lord, help me!”

     At this, Jesus made a reply that has puzzled scholars for two thousand years. Jesus replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

     That still sounds harsh to us, but it may not have to those who heard him say it. Certainly the Canaanite woman was not offended. “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the household pets eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

     Point. Counterpoint. You can see a smile spread across Jesus’ face. It was not often that he met his match in a theological argument, and this by a woman, and a Gentile at that.

     This woman understood that she was not a part of the community to which Christ was sent, but she knew she still had a place within God’s household. She was going to lay claim to the crumbs that were rightfully hers.

     And what was Jesus’ response to this Canaanite woman? Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

     You have to love this woman. It’s obvious that Jesus did. She understood that faith is more than subscribing to a certain creed. Faith is life lived in the knowledge that we are all part of God’s family. And because we are a part of that family, we have an innate dignity that no one can take away from us. It makes no difference what our background is, what color our skin is. We are God’s children. And when we trust God, miracles happen.

    General William Booth once said, “God loves with a great love the [person] whose heart is bursting with a sublime passion for the impossible.”

     The Canaanite mother dared believe the impossible--that her daughter could be healed, if only Jesus said the word.

     Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

     This Canaanite woman was considered an outcast by the religious people of her time. Still, Jesus responded to her need. It may be that there is someone here today who feels estranged from God for some reason. Maybe you have been hurt by the church at some time in your life. Maybe you have been hurt or rejected or betrayed by someone who represented Christ to you. Or maybe you have given into a temptation and the weight of your mistake has caused a wall to be erected in your own mind that makes you feel a stranger to God’s grace.

     Listen, the Canaanite woman was a part of a despised people, but that did not keep her from having a claim on God’s grace just like every person who has ever walked this earth. Bring your hurt, your need, your urgent plea to Jesus. He always responds to the persistent pleas of persons with faith. He knows your need. Give him the chance to respond and bring healing to your situation.

     It’s amazing the things that you can accomplish in life if you simply have faith and determination.