Sermon for Reminiscere – Lent 2
1 Thessalonians 4:1-7 + Matthew 15:21-28
Last week we watched Jesus do battle against the devil, armed only with the Word of God and faith in His heavenly Father. Today in the Gospel we see Him casting out another demon. Actually, more than one. The demon who was demonizing the Canaanite woman’s daughter was the easy one to cast out. It’s the other demons with whom Jesus takes more time.
When the demons used to take possession of a person’s body, it was easy to see the devil attacking the human race. It’s when he attacks more subtly that he poses a bigger threat. Like when he tempts us to pride, to a sense of entitlement before God and man; when he tempts us to think the worst about God, to ignore His Word, to doubt His care and grace. Those demons do their work in secret, without anyone even knowing they’re there. They were around at the time of Jesus, and they’re around still today. In the Holy Spirit’s account of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman, He fights for us against those very demons.
Let’s review the story. Jesus left the land of the Jews, to go to the northern regions of Tyre and Sidon. Gentile territory. Why? We’re not told. Except, for the events recorded in our Gospel. We learn now, after the fact, that Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman was the enduring reason for His visit.
His reputation preceded Him. St. Mark tells us that He went to a house and tried to keep His presence quiet, but word got out. See how powerful the simple word about Christ is! A foreign woman, who had nothing to do with Israel, heard that this Jesus was the Lord, the Son of David. Who was David to her, a Gentile? No one. But she must have also heard that the Son of David, the promised Messiah of the Jews, had come to save both Jews and Gentiles from the power of the devil, which was absolutely true.
So she sought Him out. She found Him. Her daughter was suffering greatly from a demon. She cried out for help.
And Jesus didn’t respond. At all. It doesn’t say He ignored her or pretended she wasn’t there. He may have been looking right at her. But He said nothing as she kept crying out for help. How strange!
She kept pleading for her daughter. And Jesus’ disciples couldn’t take it anymore. She kept calling after them, and Jesus kept not responding. The woman’s constant cries and the Christ’s apparent unwillingness to help her were all making the situation very awkward. Better to just send her away than to let this crying continue unanswered, right Jesus? Send her away!
But He didn’t send her away. That would have been the end of it. But He didn’t. Instead, He said, I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. This woman and her daughter were Gentiles—like you and I—not members by birth of the house of Israel. There used to be something very special about being an Israelite. Up until the time of Christ’s death on the cross, Israel was the chosen people of God. They had the Word of God. Theirs were the promises and the sonship and the eternal inheritance of God’s kingdom.
But the Old Testament spoke of the Christ as being the light of the Gentiles, too, who would bring them into the house of the New Testament Israel—the Israel, not of bloodlines, but of faith in Christ. And here, it was Jesus who left Israel to go visit the land where the Canaanite woman lived.
Now, if there were any sinful pride in this woman, she would have gotten angry at Jesus’ reply and walked away. If she had had any sense of entitlement before God, she would have given Jesus an earful. How dare You make a distinction between Jew and Gentile! How dare You not give me a handout! But, no. That is the common reaction among people today, but not of this dear woman. Hers was the opposite. Instead of running away, instead of getting angry, she fell at Jesus’ feet. She “worshiped” Him, as the NKJV puts it. “Lord, help me!”
She sees indications that Jesus may not be willing to help her, but she also sees that He hasn’t sent her away. He hasn’t told her “no.” And the word that she has heard about Christ is still sustaining her faith in Christ, that He will be gracious to her and have mercy on her.
Why, because she deserves it? Jesus’ next words would address that demon. It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs. Presumably, the children of Israel were the children of the house, while the Gentiles were the little dogs at the table, begging for food. (Another ethnic reference. How dare He!) And yet, what had Christ experienced so far in His ministry? The children—the Jews—had largely rejected their Christ. If He applied the Law to them and pointed out their sins, they got angry. If He said anything they didn’t like, the “children” walked away. But here He is, with this supposed “little dog,” the Gentile woman, and she is not getting angry. She is not walking away. She is not puffed up with pride in herself or with some idea that she deserves His help. In fact, she accepts His words, and in so doing, demonstrates more faith in Christ than anyone in Israel had.
Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table. She is perfectly content to be seen as a little dog at the Lord’s table. As the Psalmist once said, For a day in Your courts is better than a thousand. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God Than dwell in the tents of wickedness. For the LORD God is a sun and shield; The LORD will give grace and glory; No good thing will He withhold From those who walk uprightly. O LORD of hosts, Blessed is the man who trusts in You!
See, the Psalmist never said, “Blessed is the man who trusts in You—as long as He was born to the house of Israel, because if not, then cursed is the man who trusts in You, O Lord!” No. Just, “Blessed is the man who trusts in You!” And this woman did trust in the Lord God of Israel, in Jesus the Son of David. And she was, indeed, blessed.
Now that the time of testing is over, now that the demons of pride and doubt and despair have all been vanquished, Jesus has nothing but praise and divine help for the Canaanite woman and her daughter. O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire. And the demon that afflicted her daughter was forced to leave her at that very moment. Easily. He said it would be gone, and it was gone, powerless against the will of the Son of God.
What does Jesus praise in the foreign woman? He praises her unshakable faith, which was able to extinguish all the flaming darts of the devil. As St. John wrote, Whatever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. In fact, the Gentile woman’s faith stood out in stark contrast to Israel’s unbelief, and while it looked for a moment like Jesus was praising the Jews and disparaging the Gentiles, the opposite was really true; her faith was a shining example that put all the unbelieving Jews to shame.
That faith showed itself in her persistence. Would you have given up? Would you have let Jesus’ silence deter you? If it seems like God is ignoring you, the devil tempts you to jump to a conclusion: He doesn’t care. And from there, the devil tempts you further: Give up on Him.
Her faith showed itself in her humility. Would you have been put off by Jesus’ “racism” (what a silly word) or His ethnic references? Would you accept being referred to as a little dog by the Son of God, or would your pride have taken over and caused you to curse the Son of God?
Her faith also showed itself in her love for her daughter. Would you stick with Jesus, no matter what, for the sake of your child? Even if it seems for a moment like Jesus isn’t going to help? The woman teaches us to pray to Jesus for our children, not casually, not half-heartedly, but earnestly and unceasingly. The devil wants to have them, too. But faith in Christ expresses itself in the unrelenting prayers of a parent that Christ would not let the devil have his way with our children, and Jesus’ interaction with the woman show us that He is eager to hear such prayers, offered up in faith.
The demons are still out there. The temptations to pride, to doubt, to self-importance, to second-guessing the will of God—they’re all around us. But Christ fights for us in the Gospel, to keep us trusting in Him for deliverance from sin, death, and the power of the devil. May your faith in Christ be strengthened today through the Gospel and through the Sacrament, so that you remain persistent in prayer, humble before God and man, and devoted to one another in love. Amen.