February 24, 2013
Some things you never forget. I will never forget one of my seminary profs saying that there is nothing more misunderstood than faith. Based on the disciples’ reaction to this Canaanite woman in the Gospel reading, I would say that he’s right on. This woman, as Jesus said, had great faith. The disciples, they thought she was an irritant. They thought Jesus should have nothing to do with her. He showed how He had everything to do with her. This is the heart of faith. Jesus doesn’t so much teach what faith is as He gives it.
He gives it by being the object of it. He is the object of faith by accomplishing what is necessary for salvation. When you look to the one thing in which there is certainty for the salvation you need, you have faith. When you look within yourself, or rely on your faith, or find that Jesus’ apparent help for you is lacking, you lack true faith.
So let’s get to the heart of faith. Getting to the heart of faith is wrestling with God. If you are concerned if you have faith, or if your faith isn’t strong enough, you are getting to the heart of faith. Because faith is centered in Christ. Faith is not faith if you are content. Jacob wrestled with God. The woman in the Gospel reading wrestled with Jesus. Both had strong faith because both set their focus on Christ. The life of faith is the life of struggling with God. If faith is not centered in Jesus it is not great faith and it is not true faith. If you are not struggling with God then you are going to become content. If you are content, you will not see your need for mercy and your humble state before Christ.
Getting to the heart of faith is getting to the heart of life in Christ, or you could say, the life of faith. How would you summarize this description of the Christian life in the Epistle? This is what is referred to as sanctification, or holiness. This is a description of the life of faith. The life of faith is life in Christ. Faith receives. Whether it’s forgiveness and salvation, or whether it’s sanctification and holiness and a life of good works.
When people come to a passage like we have in the Gospel reading, they often try to get to the heart of it. What is the upshot of it? Many would approach it this way: What did the woman do? She had great faith, and therefore her request was granted. Therefore, go and do likewise. You have great faith too, and Jesus will grant your requests. If you don’t have great faith, then don’t expect great things from God.
The problem with this is that it looks at the woman and forgets about what the woman was actually doing. What she was actually doing was nothing. We’d like to think that she was some stalwart, when in fact she was at the end of the line. She had nowhere else to go. Nowhere to turn. No hope. She had hit rock bottom. This is what we need to learn from her. Not what she did, not how great of faith she had. We need to see in her how great a need she had; how hopeless her situation was.
While we like to learn from the passage that we ought to have great faith like the woman did, what is truly being taught here is that we are doing the exact opposite of what she did. While we spend our time looking to the woman, she spent her time looking to Jesus. She was under the realization that she had nowhere to go but to Christ alone. He must do it all. He must grant the mercy. He must provide the hope. He must be the only one who can help me, because my efforts, my hopes, my wishes, my faith, are all nothing. Jesus is everything, and that’s why I appeal to Him. There is nothing I can do to bring about the answer to my prayer.
And yet, Jesus says something stunning. “Great is your faith.” Did she have greater faith than others? Do some of us have greater faith, while others have less faith? It’s very tempting to say that she had greater faith than the disciples did. She was a Gentile, they were good Jews. Surely they had greater faith than she. But Jesus said she was the one who had great faith. We can safely say that the disciples had faith in Jesus. But we can also safely say that, as with all of us, they were utterly uncomprehending when it comes to faith, and what it is, and why it’s at the heart of the Christian life. As my prof said, there’s nothing more misunderstood.
What was it, then, that Jesus meant by saying that the woman had great faith? He was referring to the intensity of it. It was firm faith. The greater the need, the greater the faith. The greater the need, the greater the Savior. The greater the Savior, the greater the faith. Faith is not so much an intellectual assessment of your situation as it is a complete understanding that you’ve come to the end of the line. You have nowhere else to go. You have no more hope when it comes to everything you have tried or what you hope might be out there. Therefore, the trust. The utter humility that you are at the mercy of the Lord you appeal to.
Faith is only as good as the object to which it looks. If you have faith in a grain of sand, good luck. You may have the greatest faith of all. You may trust in that grain of sand with all your heart, your soul, your strength, and your mind. But your faith will be in vain. It will not be truly great faith because it will not be truly faith.
What Jesus is talking about is not having more faith. Or having greater faith. What Jesus is simply talking about is true faith. It is faith in Him. That’s nothing else than to say that what Jesus is talking about is not her, but Him. He is talking about Himself. He is pointing her to Himself because her faith is in vain apart from it being in Him.
What he is doing is showing her that her faith is great because her need is great. She was weak, therefore she was strong. She had been brought low, therefore she was lifted up. She was in need, therefore she was filled.
The cry of faith is the cry of mercy. Faith that is considered great faith is vain faith. It is not true faith because it is faith apart from the only object in which there is true hope. Namely, Jesus Christ. Faith apart from Christ is great, but only in our own eyes. Was the woman looking to herself? No, she was looking to Christ. Was she seeking help by something she could do? No, but what Jesus could do. Was she making determinations about how she could muster more faith? No, she was appealing to Christ alone for her help.
Your sin is great. It is beyond what you can handle. It is so great that you are crushed under its burden and you have no hope. You can almost hear Jesus saying to you, “Your sin is great.” But hear this, your Savior is greater still. When you are weak, you are strong.
The way we approach passages like this in the Bible shows that we don’t understand faith. That we want to make faith about us. That we don’t have true faith on our own because we look to ourselves and our faith rather than looking to Jesus. True faith sees Jesus and appeals to Him for mercy. Faith is not going back to yourself when it appears that there is even no hope in Jesus. What, exactly, was Jesus doing when He didn’t answer the woman? What, exactly, was His point when He said that He wasn’t sent to people like her, Gentiles, but rather people like His disciples, Jews? What was He trying to tell her in comparing her to a dog?
Jesus, it must always be remembered, does what is best for you. What you don’t see is what He sees. What you don’t know is what He knows. What you count on is simply His word. What you count on is Him. Even if it appears He is silent. Even if it appears that He is dismissing you. Even if it appears that your faith is in vain. If it is centered in Christ, then your faith is true faith and great faith. It is true and great because the object it grasps is true and great. That object is the Person of Jesus. Faith clings to Jesus.
Faith is not faith if it is trusting in itself. If you put your trust in the fact that you have faith, your faith is in vain. If you look to what you need to do or how you need to be or what you have accomplished or even how you are humble and are putting yourself in the background, you are looking to the wrong thing. Your faith is in yourself. And so Jesus taught this woman that no matter the appearance of Him not helping her, her only hope was in fact in Him.
The heart of faith is Christ. The heart of Christ is you. The amazing thing about Jesus is that while He teaches you to not look to yourself but to Him, He, on the other hand, does not look to Himself. He looks to His Heavenly Father, and therefore to you. He doesn’t put His faith in you, He simply loves you with perfect love. Giving you what is truly best for you. Giving you what you truly and desperately need.
That’s why He put His faith in His Heavenly Father. It was His Father’s will to crush Him. To place upon Him all of your sin and guilt and punishment. Jesus did not waver. He did not veer from this. But He was weak. He was burdened with the load of the sin of the world. This was not some cosmic injustice on the part of God. It wasn’t some twisted child abuse on the part of God the Father toward God the Son. This was the eternal Father giving His only-begotten Son for the sin of the world. This was love in the flesh, God becoming man and suffering on behalf of man. Make no mistake, this was Jesus fully and joyfully choosing this in submitting to the will of His Heavenly Father.
This is the heart of faith. It is Christ. It is the cross. It is salvation—paid for, accomplished, secured—in Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. Faith apart from this is no faith at all. Faith not centered in Christ, in His suffering, death, and resurrection, is a pipe dream. It may make us feel good that we have such great faith, but it doesn’t save. Faith in Jesus Christ, in who He is and what He has accomplished, saves.
It is so much easier to learn a lesson from that woman—stir up your heart, muster up greater faith! Rather, learn from Christ. Receive what He gives. That, dear Friends, is Himself. He gives Himself, and faith clings to that. It simply receives. It simply rejoices. Go your way, He gives you everything you need, you can rest assured in that. Look no further than the cross to see. Amen.