The following is an adapted manuscript of my most recent sermons. The passage for the message was Matthew 15:21-28 (below). If you’d like to listen to the sermon you can check it out here
21 And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.”And her daughter was healed instantly.
– Matthew 15:21-28
One of the books I read in college was The Stranger by Albert Camus. The final scene of the book has always left me in awe. In the scene, the main character, Meursault, finds himself in jail awaiting his execution. A prison chaplain comes to visit him about religious matter, and, after a few comments back and forth, Meursault flips out on him. He says that nothing matters and that there is no way for the chaplain to know that anything he’s talking about is true. It’s arrogant for the chaplain to have such certainty that what he believes is reality. Instead, Meursault thinks later, he should give into the indifference of the universe. There is no meaning. He can’t deny the evidence before him that life makes no sense and it is either arrogant or weak to hold onto faith when the overwhelming evidence points to a cold, purposeless existence. So, his argument goes.
Camus is not the only one to take this view of faith. So many others say that faith is something weak people adopt. To have faith means you can’t grapple with the hard realities of life and instead have to pacify yourself with religious fairy tales. Faith is for people who refuse to see things as they really are.
What we see in this passage is that having faith, and holding onto it, is anything but weak. The woman in this story goes up against a whole host of obstacles to her faith. She has this deep spiritual conviction based on at least some knowledge of the Old Testament and her own personal experience and she endures attacks on that belief until, in the end, her faith is demonstrated to be rightly held and placed in the right person. She doesn’t demonstrate weakness here, she demonstrates strength to hold onto her faith, and is ultimately proven right for it.
Put yourself in her place for a moment. She’s probably at the end of her rope. Tremendous darkness has come upon her home. The daughter she loves so deeply is being devastated by this dark, spiritual evil. Pain and anxiety is all she knows right now.
Some of you can relate easier than others. If you’ve ever had a family member suffer tremendously, you’ll know how excruciating it can be on the whole family.
Yet even through all of this, she’s not paralyzed. She moves forward and holds onto her faith.
But what is her faith? What is it that she holds onto so tightly in this story? It’s two things: First, God is in control, and second, He will take care of me. That’s what her faith is, God is in control and he’ll take care of me. What we see is she is convinced of this despite stark evidence to the contrary in this passage and she’s ultimately proven to have placed her faith well.
The big question for us is, “how do we get this faith?” How do we hold the same truths that this woman did, that God is in control and he’ll take care of us, even when life circumstances make us feel otherwise?
Faith really is a tool in a lot of ways. It’s a tool that connects us to God. And just like most tools, if you hold it too loosely, it will be useless. If you hold a hammer too loosely and you can’t drive a nail in. You hold a bat too loosely and it will slip from your hands when it encounters the ball. Faith is meant to face resistance because it’s a tool and the challenge for us is how we are to hold it tightly. This passage sheds light on how to have the strong faith that the woman had that produced something great in her life.
To see this we’re going to look at three things: 1) The Obstacles to Faith 2) The Foundation of Faith and 3) The Result of Faith. Let’s begin.
1) The Obstacles of Faith
In this account we see four main obstacles to this woman’s faith. These are things that could have made her drop her faith, lose trust that God is in control and that He will care for her. In fact, I’m fairly certain that each of us will know people who mentioned these issues as reasons why they don’t believe in Christianity any longer, if they ever truly did.
First we see that this woman was born in an unexpected family. The text reads that she was a Canaanite that Jesus met while in the region of Tyre and Sidon. She’s not from a religious family, she’s from a pagan one. She wasn’t born into a home believing in the God of the Bible, she probably grew up with much different beliefs. For her to approach Jesus, a popular religious leader of the Jews, she’s really going outside of her family of origin and upbringing.
Not only that but she’s a Canaanite. They are the people God judged and kicked out of the promised land. Not only did she grow away from God’s people, her people have bad blood with the Jews and their God.
It would be easy for someone born outside the family of Christian faith to reject it without even truly considering it. It would have been easy for the Canaanite woman to do so. It’s easier to live in ignorance, right? To live in comfort? Ignorance is bliss because you don’t have to leave the comfort of your previously held beliefs to consider something else. It’s uncomfortable, painful even, having to reconsider your whole way of looking at things! For someone born so far away from God, rejecting what she didn’t know and didn’t understand would have been completely understandable. But she doesn’t.
Instead, the Canaanite woman didn’t let the ignorance of being born far from God keep her from him. Look at what she calls Jesus, Son of David. The biblical figure David is not someone she would probably know unless she did some investigation. Along with this, she wouldn’t know about the Son of David being the title for the Jew’s divine king unless she put in an effort to study. She’s obviously didn’t let being born into her family, unacquainted with God, keep her from him. She found something in her studies that spoke to her, that convinced her that this God is real and has convinced her enough to trust him. That’s why she’s coming to Jesus, she’s acting on that faith.
Second, she has to deal with offensive believers. Look what happens in this passage. This woman calls out to Jesus to heal her daughter. This isn’t an unusual or surprising request. We’ve seen Jesus heal countless people up to this point, sometimes even without them needing to be present. So, she’s pleading with Jesus to heal her daughter. And what do the disciples do after Jesus ignores her cries. Do they try to reason with Jesus to get Him to use some of his power to heal the daughter like he’s done for so many others? No. They ask Him to dismiss her!
First, a comment. It’s often been argued that the first century authors of the Bible took some creative liberties with the Gospel stories. Meaning, they changed the stories to fit in with what they wanted the Church beliefs to be, not what Jesus actually said. They changed everything, and we have a corrupted Bible now, with no way of figuring out what the TRUE Jesus said.
If that’s the case, don’t you think they would have touched up the story where they demonstrate cold, offensive attitudes toward this woman? Don’t you think they would have changed it to, “and the disciples waited patiently for Jesus to prove his point for they, in their great wisdom, knew what He was doing all along.”
Second, how often is this the case? Christianity obscured by Christians. We hold the best way to know and interact with God is through the Bible, but it’s much easier to measure God’s goodness based on his representatives in this world, Christians. People will judge a group more quickly by its followers than its teachings. The followers should be the ones living out the teachings, right? So it only makes sense that they would be a good model for their God.
Despite this, the woman doesn’t let this stop her. She doesn’t give up her faith even though the believers she knows cast her away. She’s convinced that God, and Jesus, won’t.
Third obstacle, she hears silence from God. It’s a striking part of this passage when Jesus, the man who is God in human form, ignores the cries of this woman who so desperately is pleading him to help her. When He finally does answer her, He reminds her that his duty is to His people first, the Jews, bringing her back to the first obstacle of her pagan birth.
How often have you seen this play out? A family is devastated by a medical diagnosis and cries out to God who seems not to hear them. A single person pleads with God to end their loneliness to no avail. A man is betrayed by a trusted friend and God doesn’t seem to care. This woman was suffering from unimaginable spiritual, emotional, and relational pain at the state of her daughter. When tremendous darkness, pain, and suffering show up and God seems so far away, it’s unbearable.
When pain enters into our lives and stays, the gut reaction is to question whether or not God is paying attention. The two most common questions are, “God, do you even care?” or “God, are you even there?”
We see in Scripture that oftentimes we are not given the reason behind why we (or anyone) suffers. In the book of Job, God lets Job suffer total loss in his life and in the end, he doesn’t let Job know why it happened. God had a good reason and its laid out in the first chapters of the book, but Job never finds out why. Instead he’s only left with the comfort that this woman continues to hold onto: God is in control and He will take care of me.
Job endures and so does the woman. She doesn’t let the silence from God keep her from going to him, and in the end, she perseveres with her faith.
Last obstacle, she had to endure the offensive message. Look what it says in verse 25 and 26, “But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” What is Jesus saying here? He’s saying that she doesn’t belong at the table.
You don’t usually choose to eat with someone you’re not fond of. When you see someone you care for that you haven’t seen in a while, it’s only natural to say “let’s grab dinner!” Eating together is such a relational thing. Often, it’s where people truly connect.
So what Jesus is saying here is that this woman has no right to sit at his table, has no right into the deep relationship that kids have with their parents or guardians. Jesus’ mission was to help a specific group of people, the Jews. He mission wasn’t primarily to help those outside that group. He’s telling her that she’s not a part of his mission, she’s not on his radar.
Yet even this does not stop the woman! Knowing this doesn’t shake her resolve that God is in control and that he will care for her. And he does. He heals her daughter. Not belonging at the table didn’t stop that. The silence from God didn’t stop that. The self-centered disciples didn’t stop that. Her family of origin didn’t stop that. She held onto faith and got the healing. How? That brings us to the second point, The Foundation of Faith.
2) The Foundation of Faith
How did this woman hold on to her faith despite all of these obstacles? We could probably point to many individuals who turned away from Christianity because of one or multiple of these problems. And it’s not hard to see why. These are serious issues to deal with. In light of the magnitude of difficulty each of these problems poses, for those of us who have faith, we can be sympathetic to those who struggle to hold onto theirs.
But we still have to figure out how to hold onto faith when these obstacles present themselves. So let’s consider what this woman did. She believed that God is in control and he will take care of her and she held onto that despite overwhelming evidence suggesting otherwise.
A little known fact about me is that I have a somewhat severe reaction to poison ivy. I grew up in rural Indiana so I got it almost every summer. If even a little gets on me it often spreads to much of my body. Honestly, I could probably just think about it and start breaking out. What happens when I get poison ivy is that I get a powerful rash that itches like crazy. But if I itch it, the rash spreads. The only way to get rid of it is to stop scratching the itch and suffer through.
At this point in my life, I’ve become more disciplined in dealing with poison ivy. I’ve learned that if I scratch, it will get worse. I have to convince myself that suffering through the itchiness will be more rewarding than giving into the itch. When the itch says, “Tyler, you know how enjoyable it will be to scratch me. Think about how good it would feel.” I have to say back, “I know that I’ll be happier in the long-run if I don’t scratch you.”
Now, how did I get to the point where I’m convinced that denying my desire to scratch that itch will actually lead me to more happiness? It was through the pain of past failed attempts to get rid of the rash. After years of suffering each summer, I began to be convinced that scratching the itch wouldn’t give me as much satisfaction as I had hoped. Pain can be a powerful teacher. The truths we learn through pain, even small pains like poison ivy, can ingrain truths faster and deeper than many other ways of learning.
This is exactly what was at foundation of this woman’s faith, a certainty that no matter what the evidence she experienced to the contrary, the truth that God is in control and he will take care of her is exactly that, true. Until I was convinced by painful experiences that avoiding scratching would lead to happiness, I couldn’t battle the evidence saying it’s good to scratch the itch. This woman was convinced of this truth that God is in control and he will care for her.
All of this, of course, begs the question, what convinced her of this? What convinced her that she could trust God? She held onto the little information she had. She knew Jesus was the Son of David. She must have had some knowledge of the Old Testament. What little she knew convinced her to hold onto her faith. Lucky for us, what she knew only in part, we can know to a much fuller degree.
Throughout this message we’ve said that the woman’s faith is that she believes God is in control and he will take care of her. There was another time a woman was questioned whether or not God is truly in control and he truly has her best intentions in mind, only it happened long before this. In Genesis 3 in the garden of Eden the snake poses this very question, and you know what happened? Eve and her husband Adam didn’t hold onto their faith. They couldn’t trust that God truly had their best in mind and that he’s the one who is (and should be) in control!
This is where it all began. Humanity as a whole turned from God, tried to take control for themselves and denied God’s care for them. Since then, each and every person has failed to have faith that God is in control and he will take care of them. Here we see the greatest obstacle to faith of all, what the Bible calls sin. It’s what keeps us from a seat at the table, the relationship with God, that Christ mentions to this woman.
No one can trust God on their own because no one is born wanting to trust God. This is not simply a difficult hurdle like other obstacles, this is a hundred-foot brick wall. You can’t scale it or go around it. There’s only one way to break through the wall and that’s through Jesus.
Consider the life of Jesus for a moment. Did he have obstacles to his faith? All of them.
He was born into the ultimate unexpected family: He was King of the Jews and yet was he born in a palace? No, he was born in a stable with filthy farm animals. Did he grow up among the elite? No, he grew up a poor carpenter on the wrong side of the tracks. When it was told he was from Nazareth the first reaction was, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”
He suffered at the hands of offensive believers. The religious elites frequently denied his teachings, publicly mocked him, and ultimately signed his death warrant. Even his own religious community, his friends and family, left him in his hour of dire need.
He heard silence from heaven. When he first began his ministry, at his baptism, the heavens opened up and God said audibly, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” On the cross Jesus cried out, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” And he heard back nothing. He felt the total neglect of God.
And he took in the offensive message. Silence never means nothing. It always communicates something, and on the cross, God’s silence to Jesus screamed, “I have turned my back on you.” He heard the message of total rejection from God.
And he suffered all of this, much more than any of us could suffer, to take down that wall that divided us and God. The wall to faith. In II Corinthians 5 it says, “He became sin who knew no sin, so that in him, we can become the righteousness of God.” That’s why Jesus suffered on the cross, to give us the ability to have faith. To take away the greatest obstacle to trusting God is in control and he will take care of us. He became the barrier, so God could get rid of it through him.
Here is where we have our assurance that God is in control and he will take care of us. The cross is our guarantee that he is in control and will care for us, because, on the cross, God was in control and he did take care of us! He was totally in control of the situation and he let it play out so that we could be cared for. He met the greatest need we’ve ever had, separation from him. It guarantees us of his love for us. If this is the length at which he would go, suffering more loss than we can fathom, in order to see us taken care of, we can hold to faith even when our circumstances don’t line up.
So look to him, ask him for the faith. He was overcome by all the obstacles of faith so that when you encounter obstacles to faith, you can endure.
3) The Result of Faith
So we’ve seen the obstacles to faith and the foundation of faith, now we look at the result of faith. What’s the result of trusting that God is in control and will take care of you because of what Jesus has done on the cross? It does a lot of things but for the purposes of time I’ll just cover two of them: It helps you endure and helps you obey.
First it helps you endure. As we’ve already seen with the Canaanite woman, the woman who holds on to faith strongly can endure the painful things of life without being crushed. She suffers both earthly and divine pain and it doesn’t devastate her to the core, and, in the end, she ends up better off than she did beforehand, her daughter is healed.
It’s only a matter of time before all of these obstacles present themselves in our lives, to varying degrees. Each new phase of life presents a new set of challenges as well. The faith that lasts, the faith that is built on Jesus’ work on the cross will surely be affected by these things but not destroyed. Shaken, but not overwhelmed.
C. S. Lewis puts it this way, “Faith is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.” Your moods will change. You will face hardship. But if you have faith, true faith, faith that is based on reasoning out that God is in control and has taken care of you through the cross, you won’t walk away unscathed from the obstacles, but you will walk away. You may walk with a limp, but you will walk away with your faith, and your life, intact.
Second, faith helps you obey. Why do we do bad things? Why do we have bad, unhealthy habits? Why do we sin? We do so because we get some small joy from it that we reject God to get. If faith is the ability to hold onto the concept that God is in control and he will take care of me, the Christian can trust that when life gets tough, she doesn’t have to self-soothe or self-medicate. Instead of trying to take control of our own lives, we can trust God knows the pain we are in and will take care of us. The darkest days will eventually end, the resurrection of Jesus shows us that. We can handle being out-of-control if we trust that God IS in control and he has a better plan for our lives than what we can plan for ourselves in this moment.
Look to Jesus. He overcame the obstacles to faith so that you and I can endure. He offers this faith to anyone who asks for it. It may sound too good to be true, but it is. When you have it, it will help you endure the darkest days, love the most unlovable people, and obey, even when its painful.