In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Ghost.
The canaanite woman’s purpose is to teach us what our prayer life must be like. We suffer from a timidity that asks once, and, if we don’t get the desired answer, we just give up. This is one more time where Our Lord’s admonition to have a child-like faith is important. Think about how a child asks for something: repetitively, breathlessly, non-stop until they get what they want. If that’s not the Canaanite woman to a “T,” I don’t know what is.
She perseveres in the face of what seems like a heartless God. On the surface, Jesus is not only mean, but completely rude! The first time she makes her request, He doesn’t answer. The second time her request comes to Him by way of His disciples, He still doesn’t speak directly to her. Finally the third time He calls her a dog. And, in the first century, dogs weren’t domesticated, humanized pets like they are today. Dogs were filthy, unwanted animals.
Our sinful nature, the same person that makes timid, one-time requests of God, likes the “mean Jesus” picture. If God is mean, if God refuses to answer our prayers, refuses to answer the prayers of others on our behalf, and then insults us, it justifies our unbelief. If God is mean, what use is it to pray to Him? If God is mean and won’t give me what I ask for, even when it is something clearly good like exorcising a demon, then I should do what I need to do to make myself happy. If God won’t make me happy, I need to make myself happy. And that road is the one that leads to hell.
We must remember that everything God does, everything He allows, is for our ultimate good. He works through crosses to strengthen our faith. So Jesus was not being mean to this Canaanite woman. He was distilling her faith to the strongest it could be. He forced her to hold Him to His Word. She was unwilling to let the God of mercy walk away without being merciful. And she knew that she had no right to beg anything of God. She knew that she was a Gentile approaching the Jewish Messiah, but she also believed that He was the one sent to save all nations. She knew that, because of her sin, she really was a dog, unworthy to receive anything from God except for condemnation.
What Jesus does for her is give her a double blessing. Yes, her daughter was healed, but her faith was strengthened. He taught her to rely, not on what her eyes saw or her ears heard, but what her faith knew to be true. And what her faith knew to be true was the Word of God, promising that He is the God of mercy, the one who hears His people when they cry to Him. He is the God near at hand, not afar off. Jesus teaches her that faith must be on something outside of ourselves, as the writer to the Hebrews taught: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). Jesus taught her to be relentless in prayer, to confess that what the Word reveals about us—that we are sinners unworthy of anything from God—is true, but also that what the Word reveals about God—that He loves to have mercy, that He wants to be in communion with us—is true. You can’t say it any better than how she said it: I may be a dog, but even the dogs get the excess that falls from the table. In other words, I am a sinner, and a daily, terrible one at that, but Jesus died for me, forgives me all my sin, and has restored my relationship with God, my Father, and now I can approach Him with all confidence.
How she approaches Jesus with her request is exactly how He wants us to come to Him. He does not want us to come in fear, but with the Spirit of adoption that enables us to call Him “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15). God wants us to beg Him relentlessly for good heath, for the conversion of unbelievers, for good families, for happiness, for release from sin and the devil, for world peace, for Christian unity, any everything else. He wants us to ask Him for all those things and more because that is exactly what He has promised to give us. He wants us to ask because it is evidence of faith, it shows that we know He has promised to give us every good and perfect gift, if not here, at least in heaven.
We can ask these things with confidence because we know the end of the story. We know what awaits us and all believers on the Last Day. It is only when we lose sight of this promise of a new creation, of eternity with our God, that we start to see God as mean. Without the end in sight, God seems like He’s holding out, like He not only lets us suffer but might just enjoy it a little bit. But the Lord is not mean. Rather, He is teaching us to live by faith and to confess. And death is ultimately that portal by which He delivers us. Situations may improve in this world, but any peace and joy are fleeting and are unworthy to be compared to what joy and peace await us in heaven.
The purpose of this encounter between Our Lord and the Canaanite woman is to give us comfort and instruction, that we shouldn’t consider God’s actions towards us according to our feelings and thinking, but cleave only to His Word (Luther). That is the only thing we can hold onto that is completely trustworthy. Even when it seems like all God has for us is “no,” crosses, and heartache, we must turn from this feeling and lay all our hopes on the good promised in His Word.
This is especially important when it is our sin that distresses us. When our conscience aches, knowing our sins of thought, word, and deed, things we have done and things we have left undone, all the sin that offends God and bars our entrance into heaven, the sin that should prohibit us from ever obtaining any good gift in this life, that is when we turn to the Word all the more. We say, “Lord, it is true, I am a sinner and not worthy of [Your] grace; but still [You have] promised sinners forgiveness, and [You have] come not to call the righteous, but…to save sinners.” (Luther) If God’s Word reveals you to be a sinner, then you may claim the rights of all sinners, which is the forgiveness of sins. In that forgiveness you don’t get crumbs like dogs, but the full feast that belongs to the children of God because that is what has been earned for you by the death and resurrection of your Brother, the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
Is our faith as perfect or as great as the Canaanite woman’s? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Only God can measure faith. It’s not important for us to figure out if we have enough. What’s important is to repent and fall down in worship, to pray for mercy and to beg for crumbs. And when God seems silent or like He is punishing us we are able to persevere because the Holy Spirit causes us to cling to the Word by faith, the same Word that promises “a bruised reed He will not break and a smoldering wick He will not quench” (Is 42:3). We hold Him to His Word, we endure in prayer, seeking relief. We accept the crosses that come, but we don’t stop praying for them to be removed. And they will be. In His good timing, timing that is best for your faith and your salvation, God will relieve you. He will deliver you from this vale of tears and bring you to your eternal joy.
The peace of God which passeth all understanding keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
1 Thessalonians 4:1-7
Sermons from Mount Olive
Mount Olive follows the historic one-year lectionary (series of readings).