Faith Changes My Willingness to Pray for Others

Faith Changes My Willingness to Pray for Others

March 13, 2022 • Rev. Rob Fuquay

Matthew 15:21-28

Have you ever been turned off with Jesus? If so, why? Was it the way you experienced Jesus through people who said they followed him? Was it the judgment you felt? Narrowness? A feeling that being associated with Jesus made you a less critical thinker, a self-righteous person, or someone who had to believe things you don’t believe?

Have you ever been turned off with Jesus?

Few people have ever had a reason to be turned off by Jesus like the woman in our story today. She is not given a name, instead just a derogatory title, a Canaanite. You can always tell what we think of people when we give them labels rather than names. “She’s went to IU.” That probably tells you which school the person speaking went to. “He’s a southerner.” “That person’s an immigrant.” Prejudice is often revealed by the labels.

In this case Canaanite wasn’t just a racial term. The more appropriate word at that time would have been, Syro-Phoenician. That’s who lived in the region of Tyre and Sidon where Jesus had gone. Instead, she’s called a Canaanite which associates her with people of the Old Testament. Canaanites were Israel’s arch enemy. They worshipped gods like Baal, a sexual fertility cult. Child sacrifice was part of their worship. To use the word Canaanite is intended to make us think disparagingly of this woman before we know anything about her.

So what was Jesus doing in her neck of the woods? He went there to escape the tension he created with the Pharisees. If you read the early portion of chapter 15, Jesus calls the Pharisees, the Jewish religious leadership, hypocrites and blind guides. He is criticizing them for the way they let their rigid focus on religious rules get in the way of developing a loving heart which in turn creates loving behavior toward others. He said, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, theft, slander and insults.” (Matthew 15:19)

We’ll come back to those last two words in a moment. Jesus has gone to Tyre and Sidon to get away for a respite. While there, a woman comes up to him and says, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly…” (v.22)

Last week I pointed out how the disciples were on a faith development journey with Jesus. They started out calling him teacher, then eventually Lord. Well, by this point they were calling Jesus Lord, but not Messiah. Not Christ. But this woman used a messianic title for Jesus, “Lord, Son of David.” And she’s not even Jewish! She recognized Jesus as the Christ before the disciples did. She is the first person in the Gospels to do so.

But Jesus ignores her. I guess he was pretending she wasn’t there. The disciples are annoyed by her presence and ask Jesus to send her away. Ever notice the amount of times the disciples want to send people away? Children? Get away! People who are hungry? Send them home? A Canaanite woman? Just leave! Their faith has room to grow.

But instead of sending her away, Jesus finally responds, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” In other words, “You don’t have a position in my mission!” I came for people on the other side of the border, not here. Just listen to what Jesus told the disciples a few chapters earlier: “Stay away from the Gentiles and don’t go to any Samaritan town. Go only to the people of Israel, because they are like a flock of lost sheep.” (10:5-6)

But this woman won’t give up. Now she gets on her knees before Jesus and says, “Lord, help me!” That’s as much an act of faith in Christ as there could be, isn’t it? Have you ever had a time in your life where you prayed like that woman? You were desperate. You had nowhere else to turn. You got on your knees and prayed, “Lord, help me!”

And this is where we need to remember Jesus’ words criticing religious leaders because of their “insults and slander.” He says to the woman, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” Then the woman counter punches and says back to Jesus, “Yes, Lord…” Let me just ask the women here, would you still be calling Jesus Lord after that statement? “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the Master’s table.” At that Jesus “Your faith is great! Your request is answered.”

There’s no getting around the unpleasantness of this passage. After condemning other religious leaders for slander and insults Jesus calls this woman a dog. Many have tried to lessen the offense. Some say the Greek word here is a less diminutive term for dog. Instead of the wild street dogs Jesus was referring to a house pet. So if Jesus called you something like a Golden Doodle, that wouldn’t be offensive, right?

Others say, what we don’t have in this verbatim is the way Jesus said it. He probably winked at her as if to communicate, “I’m just calling you what other Jewish men would, but you know I don’t mean it!”

Come on! There’s no way of getting around the fact that Jesus is just downright offensive.

This past August I preached on this same story and made the point that this was a critical moment in Jesus’ understanding of his ministry. This encounter the scope of his mission. Jesus realized he came for more than just Israelites. He came for all people.

Some folks have trouble with that. They believe in a Jesus who knew it all. He’s the Son of God. Nothing surprised him. He knew all along he would eventually go to the Gentiles, he just said what he did for hidden reasons.

But for me, I don’t have a problem with Jesus not knowing some things. I believe he was fully divine, but I believe he was fully human too, and the human side of Jesus might mean his faith was a lot like ours. He was growing in it. Even Jesus may have had some experiences that challenged his beliefs and even changed those beliefs. I think that’s what happened in this story. Jesus demonstrates a willingness to grow in faith.

But this story isn’t focused on Jesus’ faith. It’s focused on the woman’s faith. And what Jesus experienced caused him to say, “Woman, you have great faith.” Why? Why did she receive an approval for her faith no other Israelite did? What was great about her faith?

Let’s consider a few observations.

First, She Didn’t Let Silence Deter Her. She came to Jesus pleading for her daughter, but Jesus didn’t answer. He was silent. Ever had that experience? Ever pleaded with God about a need in your life and you just got silence? No answer. No sense that God even heard your prayer. Just silence.

But this woman didn’t give in. She dropped to her knees and kept pleading, “Lord, help me.” She’s undeterred by silence. That is great faith.

Her faith is great not because it is something she possess but expresses. The fact that Jesus used expressions like “great faith” and “little faith,” its easy for us to think that faith is a quantifiable resource like building muscles. The more you work out and lift weights the bigger your muscles get. The stronger you are. If you never work out or do any strength conditioning, the weaker you will be. So the idea if the stronger you are the more secure you are, the more you can handle life on your terms.

And we are tempted to look at faith like that. The more faith we have, the stronger we are, the more we can handle life on our terms. And we look for the God who will give us the ability to do that. Whereas genuine faith is just the opposite. We don’t really control anything. God does. Faith is an acceptance of our weakness. Faith understands we need God’s help in this life. Faith understands that God has been helping us even more than we know. What makes faith great is our admission of this, our willingness to be totally dependent on God.

Now I know that Jesus said if we have faith we can say to a mountain “move,” and it will move. That will have to be another sermon for another day, but the point even there is still the same. It isn’t us moving the mountain, it is God. We are simply depending on God to do what we cannot.

A great faith is one that keeps depending on God, even in silence. We keep knocking and asking and begging until something happens.

The great slave emancipator, Harriet Tubman used to pray a simple prayer: “Lord, I’m going to hold steady onto you and YOU’VE got to see me through.” That is great faith.

But notice something else about the woman in our story, She Didn’t Let Discouragement Dissuade Her. When Jesus said He came only for the lost sheep of Israel she didn’t give up. Think about that. She’s not facing silence now. She’s facing a flat out no. Silence is better. At least with silence there’s still the chance of a maybe. But to be told, “I’m not here to help you,” that’s pretty discouraging. But again, this woman is persistent as crabgrass. She keeps pleading.

But let’s be honest, it’s not her faith that makes her determined, it’s her desperation. Her daughter needs help. She comes to Jesus for her daughter. But why Jesus? She’s never met him before. Jesus has never been to her region. She’s never witnessed a miracle. All she has to go on is what she’s heard about him. But she comes to him because she’s desperate.

Sometimes faith just isn’t pretty. It can be ugly. Nothing glamorous, just pure desperation. Maybe no huge belief in what Jesus can do. Just a hope. But you go in desperation and you don’t give up. The refusal to be dissuaded is the greatness. Sometimes when we pray for others, we may never realize the results of those prayers, but we don’t give up because we hold onto a hope, that our prayers matter.

There’s a volunteer in our church who has great grandchildren who live several states away. She’s worried about their safety and care. She desperately wants to get custody of them so she can take care of them and give them the love they need, but its messy because the issue involves family. She’s looking for help but she’s not getting discouraged. Her faith keeps her going. She says, “I trust the Lord. I know God is good and will work through this for my great grandchildren.”

Some people lose their faith because their need goes unmet, but sometimes it works the other way around. Some people’s need is too important to let go of their faith. Because they care about someone so much, they hold onto God even harder. Have you ever had a need that was so important to you it kept you from letting go of God?

Last of all, notice about the woman in our story that She Didn’t Let Her Diminishment Defeat Her. There’s no getting around the ugly way this woman was spoken to by Jesus. He called her a dog. It was probably not the first time she’d been spoke to that way by a Jewish man. And because she hoped, maybe even believed, this man was different, this man could help her, how easy would it have been to give up? To think, “He’s just another privileged, sorry man looking down on me.”

But she doesn’t! She persists. She won’t quit. And that is why Jesus says her faith is great, unlike anything he’s ever witnessed. Jesus was calling her determination an act of faith. Because she’s not trusting in the goodness of people here. She’s trusting in God’s goodness. She is refusing to believe that if God is really God, then this God would care about her as much as any other person. She’s not going to let the way people define God for her keep her from believing that God cares about her and her daughter. She might be diminished by man but she will not be defeated. And Jesus says a faith like that will change everything.

Think of her attitude in a figurative way. Have you ever been diminished by life? Ever felt that people or situations just became too much for you, that you have been whittled down by it all, and you want to just give up? Just know that faith in God is beyond faith in the things of this world. Faith in God means that when people or institutions or even churches let us down, God will not. When we have been diminished by realities, we are not defeated because we trust that God is doing and will do things we cannot see.

I love The Message translation of 2 Corinthians 4:8-10:

“We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized; we’re not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do; we’ve been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn’t left our side; we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t broken. What they did to Jesus, they do to us—trial and torture, mockery and murder; what Jesus did among them, he does in us—he lives!”

Several weeks ago Susan visited our daughter and her husband in California and found out they are expecting. We got to be with her for an ultrasound visit. Want to see? (video) That’s the heartbeat of my first grandchild.

Its interesting that it is this daughter having a child, because not that many years ago there were some days we wondered if we would ever get to share an experience like that with her. When she was 14 I was assigned to a new church which meant leaving the only place she knew as home. It was hard and she was mad. And her anger was often focused at us, her parents, and I’m sure at the church and maybe even God. There were days where we weren’t sure how things would turn out.

During that time I went to see a pastor friend who served a nearby church. He was a decade or so older than me. He told me about his daughter and the rough patch she went through in high school. He talked about how they went to counseling about it. And the counselor made him so mad. She looked at him and said, “Dad, you’re just going to have to let her go. You can’t control it.” He thought the counselor would help them write up a new contract and make agreements, and this was frustrating to him.

Then it was the Saturday night before Easter. His daughter came home drunk about 2am. He and his wife got up, they argued with her, she went to bed and slammed the door. He said it was about 3am, and I was standing in the shower saying, “God it’s Easter morning and I have nothing to say.” He said, “Sometimes as a pastor, you just find yourself at that moment. You are just so diminished by life, you do not have the faith you are expected to share. But you share you it anyway.

He explained how he tried to do what his counselor suggested, and give his daughter space and let go. Over time things began to change. Less fighting. Less arguing. Better decision making. The he said, one day I had this funeral at the church. It was for a child who died, and it was just one of those hard services, no way around it. I felt kind of diminished again to share a word of hope.

Anyway, after the service he went back to his study to hang up his robe and there was his daughter. He said, “What are you doing here?” She said, “I came to the service. I sat in the back, you couldn’t see me.” He said, “I didn’t realize you knew this family?” She said, “I don’t. I just know how hard it was for you, and I wanted to be here for you.”

He ended that story by saying, “Faith is sometimes believing in spite of your own unbelief.” He said I understand today exactly what the man in the Gospels meant when Jesus asked if he believed and he said, “I believe, help my unbelief.”

Sometimes faith is believing God can do good things even though you don’t see how, because, after all, what’s the alternative?