Lent2 (Reminiscere) - St. Matthew 15:21-28 - March 1, 2015
1) When God says nothing, the sinful human heart thinks He is telling us something. When the Lord does not seem to answer our prayer immediately or in a visible way, the tendency of the human heart is to despair of God’s mercy and then supply its own answer and call it God’s Word. Take the example put before us in today’s Gospel lesson. This Canaanite woman comes to Jesus in faith, believing that Jesus is able to heal her demon-possessed daughter. She also believes that He is merciful and that it is Jesus’ desire to destroy the works of the Devil. She petitions Him, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.” (Matthew 15:22) But the woman’s petition falls on deaf ears. St. Matthew writes, “But He answered her not a word.” (Matthew 15:23) Here is Jesus, whom St. John calls the Word of God in human flesh, and He answers her not a word. The Word has no word for this woman. The disciples interpret Jesus silence as judgment and condemnation. They “urged Him saying, ‘Send her away, for she cries out after us.’” (Matthew 15:22) The disciples demonstrate that when God says nothing, the human heart thinks He is telling us something. Silence means unwillingness to help. No answer means that there must be some defect in the petition or the one doing the praying. They interpret his non-answer as His answer, as, “I have no time for you. You are not worthy of the things for which you pray. What do you have to do with me?” He then says within earshot of this woman, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 15:24)
2) What utter defeat for this poor woman. Ignored by Jesus. Shunned by His disciples. Placed outside the pale of Christ’s work. But this is where we often feel ourselves to be when we pray to our Father in heaven and receive no response, is it not? Do you ask and not receive? Do you seek and not find? Do knock only to think you hear the deadbolt of heaven’s door latching? It is times such as these when the Devil pounces upon your heart to work despair of God’s mercy. When you cry out to the Lord for relieve and no relief is given, Satan sows seeds of despair in the heart so that you begin to think that perhaps God isn’t gracious. Perhaps He doesn’t really want to help you. And perhaps there’s a reason for that, the reason being you and your unworthiness, your past sins, your current sins, your guilt and regret, or the dreaded boogey-man of ‘not enough faith.’ This is an evil conscience, when the thoughts of unworthiness wage war against your soul. This is to despair of Christ’s mercy, when you begin to think that perhaps Christ is not as merciful as you’ve heard, or worse, that He is just as merciful as you’ve heard, but not to the likes of you. This Canaanite woman is confronted with a non-answer. The Word has no word for her. Her flesh tempts her, as it would anyone, to either despair of Christ’s mercy and go sulking home or to assume that Jesus is demanding a specific work of obedience to make herself worthy of her prayer.
3) But she does neither. She does not let the Devil get the upper hand in her heart. She does not let the satanic bird of prey come and take away the Seed of faith God had once sown. In spite of Jesus’ non-answer she persists in prayer. “Then she came and worshiped Him saying, ‘Lord, help me.’” (Matthew 15:25) With this the Canaanite woman shows us what true faith does and what true faith does not do. Faith in Christ persists in prayer. Faith in Christ is a lively and active thing which will not allow Christ to be unmerciful. Faith refuses to see Jesus as anything but “merciful and gracious, Slow to anger, and abounding in mercy.” Faith believes that in Christ, God the Father “will not always strive with us, Nor will He keep His anger forever.” Faith trusts that “He has not dealt with us according to our sins, Nor punished us according to our iniquities.” (Psalm 103:8-10) Faith does not relent in its petition. Faith does not let go of Jesus even when it feels as if Jesus has no word for us. Faith is not disheartened, nor does it grow weary, but it always trusts that Christ will answer in goodness and mercy. Faith fights the temptation of evil thoughts to despair and think ourselves outside the pale of Christ’s work. Faith sees none of this, for faith has nothing to do with things that are seen. “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)
4) But Jesus rebuffs her again. A moment before He had said within earshot of her, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 15:24) But that word was directed at the disciples. Now Christ does have a word for her. But it sounds like a harsh and terrible word. “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” (Matthew 15:26) She is not a lost sheep of Israel. She is not a child of God from the seed of Abraham. She’s the wrong animal entirely. Jesus seems harsh and austere in answering this poor woman. But what He’s really done is given her a solid footing for her faith. She takes that Word of Jesus and runs with it. It’s as if she thinks, “I’ve cracked Him! He has given me this word, and although it seems harsh and dismissive, I will take it as a glorious sign that He has given me His Word! I will cling to it. I will pounce on it. I will wrestle that word to the ground and treasure it as my possession.” Faith takes whatever word Jesus gives us and does just that, even if the Word isn’t what we’d expect. So the woman of Canaan replies, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.” (Matthew 15:27) She has Him now. She clings to that word of Jesus and puts all her faith in that word, against what her conscience tells her, against what others think of her, seemingly against Jesus Himself. I am a dog, thus you have named me. But be good to your dog.
5) This is great faith. Jesus says so and heals her daughter at the very moment. So this woman becomes for us an example of the faith that Jesus wants to implant and grow in each of our hearts. The Canaanite woman persists in prayer, faithfully maintaining her petition against an evil conscience. When Jesus does give her a Word, even though it is harsh, austere, and dismissive, her faith clings to that Word for what it is: the very word of God given directly to her. “If Jesus thinks I am a dog and undeserving of His favor and help, then so be it. This is most certainly true. But even human masters are good to their little yapping dogs.” So she persists not only in prayer but she persists in the Word given to her by Jesus. This is most difficult lesson for human hearts to learn. When we do not get the answer to prayer that we feel we ought to be given, the human heart goes into overdrive to interpret God’s seeming non-response. When prayers don’t go fulfilled as we’d like them to, the human heart interprets that as God’s disfavor, that He is punishing us for our sins, or that He must be requiring some special obedience form us or a specific work from us. So we think, “If I get my life straight, then God will bless me with an answer to prayer.” But as sinners this is impossible for we daily sin much and too often trust our own hearts rather than God’s Word. We might think, “If I put away my pet sin, then God will open the floodgates of His mercy.” But this sort of thinking ignores the fact that we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment. It also places our good works, the fruits of faith, into a place they shouldn’t be, earning God’s favor. God shows mercy because of Christ alone, with no merit or worthiness in us.
6) But this Canaanite woman shows us how we are to cling to Christ’s Word and that we are cling to it for dear life. Not the words you think He speaks to you in your heart. God doesn’t work that way. He wants you to cling to the words that He actually gives you. He actually speaks in Holy Baptism. “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ,” St. Paul says in Galatians 3:27. The Triune God is present to wash away your sins and promises to always forgive your sins when you repent and return to His promises made to you there. God actually speaks to you in the absolution given by your pastor. It was not for nothing that Christ told His rightly called Apostles, “He who hears you hears Me.” (Luke 10:16) And, “Matthew 16:19, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” And again in John 20, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Christ truly speaks to you and forgives you all your sins through His rightly called man. He speaks to you in the Sacrament of the Altar when He says to you, “Take and eat, this is my true body for the forgiveness of all your sins. Take and drink, this is my very blood shed for the remission of all your sins.” He speaks to you in His written word, the Holy Scriptures. Christ locates Himself solely in the Word and Sacraments so that you know right where to go to find Him and so that you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is Christ that is speaking to you.
7) He does not locate Himself for you in your own heart, there to speak with you. Too many people in our age think God is putting messages into the hearts that flatly contradict the Scriptures and the voice of Jesus in the sacraments. Too many people relish the uncertainty of their own thoughts and call them the Word of God. Far too many people want God to direct every aspect of their earthly life and wait for an audible voice before they make any decision, in spite of the fact that our Lord has left much to our freedom. If the Canaanite woman had of looked for the Word of God in her heart, dread and despair would have drug her in the pit of Hell. Christ, through this woman, teaches us that we are forsake what our hearts say, what our feelings dictate, and our own opinions about what God is telling us so that we rest solely upon the sure and certain Words of Christ in the Word and Sacraments. There we have a sure prophetic Word that forgives all our sins. Through these means, Jesus preaches to you that we have a good and gracious God. He will give you all that is necessary for this body and life even as He gives us everything necessary for the life of the world to come. Do not despair. Do not look for God’s Word in places it’s not. Trust solely in His the Word He does give in Christ Jesus, that is all He has given and it is enough. Amen