Proper 15A Matthew 15: 10-28
The Rev. Dr. Philip Wainwright
Priest Associate, St. Andrew's Church
In today’s gospel, Jesus praises a woman for her faith: ‘Woman, great is your faith!’ I’m not sure He says the same about my faith. Perhaps some of you aren’t sure about that either. If so, we might do well to think about this passage, and what it is telling us about faith. ‘Faith’ is one of those words that people use in many different ways; this gospel is an opportunity to see what Jesus means when He uses the word. So let’s think about that.
Jesus calls the woman’s faith ‘great faith’. He uses the same phrase in another passage, and on several other occasions He describes someone’s faith as ‘little faith’. In order to understand what Jesus means by faith, it’s helpful to compare His notion of great faith with His notion of little faith.
Jesus uses the phrase little faith in the Sermon the Mount, when He is describing people who are afraid of not having enough to eat or to wear. Why do you worry about clothing? He asks. Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? The phrase is repeated in Matthew 16:8, after the feeding of the 5000, to refer to the disciples’ fear of going hungry. To worry about those things is to have little faith.
Jesus also uses the phrase in Matthew 8:26, when the disciples are afraid of dying in a storm that blows up as they sailing on Lake Galilee, and in 14:31, which we heard just last week, when Peter is suddenly afraid when He was walking on the water in obedience to Jesus’s call. That’s also little faith. So little faith is being afraid of living by God’s word. Afraid because you don’t have what you need, afraid because the boat is being rocked, afraid because the water is rising all around you.
Then there’s great faith. There’s the passage we heard this morning, of course, the Canaanite woman who asks for healing of her daughter. Jesus says ‘not likely, I’m only sent to the Jews.’ She begs, but He insists: ‘it isn’t fair to give the children’s bread to the dogs.’ She says, ‘even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from the table.’ Then Jesus: Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted. And her daughter was healed instantly. Now no doubt she was afraid that her daughter was going to die. But she was not afraid to bring her need to Jesus, and was not afraid to keep it on Jesus’s agenda until He dealt with it. The other occasion where Jesus calls someone’s faith great is Matt 8:10, where a centurion, a Roman soldier, asks Jesus to heal his sick servant. On that occasion Jesus says all right, I’ll come and heal him. The Centurion says You don’t have to come, I know how authority works, You can just say the word here and now and I know it’ll happen! Don’t wait even to go to my house, do it now! Jesus: I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.
So that’s great faith: not letting what you’re afraid of stop you calling on God, being sure that God will take care of you and can do it with no trouble at all, and being determined to keep asking for His help until you receive it or until you understand why He is not giving you what you’re asking for. Great faith is acting on faith, not just believing something but doing something because of what you believe.
The commonest statement I hear when discussions come up on faith is, ‘I wish I had greater faith’. The assumption is that we don’t have faith unless someone or something intervenes and gives it to us.‘I wish God would give me faith like that’—it’s God’s fault that I don’t have it!
But Jesus seems to have a different assumption. When Peter is beginning to sink beneath the water and cries out, Jesus holds out His hand to Him and says, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ Jesus assumes that God has given it, the faith is there, unless we turn away from it. Peter was doing OK until he began to doubt, and then the miracle vanished. When the disciples say, ‘Increase our faith’ (Luke 17:5), Jesus says, ‘If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it will obey you.’ You don’t need more, even the little you have is enough to move mountains if you would only act on it.
That’s why Jesus tells us that we can never enter the Kingdom of Heaven unless we become like little children (Matthew 18:3). Children are believers by nature, until someone sows doubt in their mind. Tell a four year old that you’re the strongest man in the world, and he’ll believe you—till some wise-guy ten-year old says ‘you don’t believe that, do you?’
When we are first told all that God wants to give us and do for us, our hearts rise up to believe it and act on it. Then we suddenly hear the wise-guy, we hear him in our mind because we have so often heard him in real life: ‘You don’t believe that, do you? You’re not going to actually live by that, are you’ And all of a sudden we’re not sure… what would the guys at the office say if I said I really believe what the Bible says? What would the kids at school think? What would my wife, my husband, my parents, think? And we begin to sink beneath the waves, as Jesus asks, ‘Why did you doubt?’
God cannot give us the overflowing blessing that He longs to give us unless we believe that He can and will do it, and are eager for Him to do it. Romans 3:25 says that the greatest blessing of all, salvation, is ‘received by faith’. That’s how the universe works. We can’t explain why that is, any more than we can explain why there’s gravity, why things fall down when you let go of them, but we can recognise that it’s true, and use the knowledge for our advantage.
Faith is given to us already. Would God would withhold the means of blessing from us when we know He wants us to be blessed? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all— how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? God has already given us the faith we want, it’s the only way we ever knew God in the first place. The only question is, are we willing to act on it? A little? Enough to hope that God will accept us when we die, but not enough that we will rely on Him for our earthly needs while we are here? Or a lot? Great faith, enough to trust him totally for all our needs, so that we can seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and leave our kingdom to His care?
Let me end by pointing out one interesting difference between those who demonstrate the two levels of faith. Those of little faith are the disciples, the insiders, the children of the master of the house, the heirs. Those of great faith are foreigners, outsiders, the dogs that sit under the table, a Roman, a Canaanite—but outsiders who recognise the truth about Jesus, that He really wants to provide what people need, and are going to ask for it boldly: the soldier with his comment about not needing to come, the woman with her refusal to take no for an answer. I don’t quite know what to make of that difference in terms of doctrine, but I do know that I feel more like an insider, a privileged one, and maybe that means that means I should look at my own faith a bit more closely. I may think I have great faith, when in fact I rarely act on what faith I do have. Perhaps there are others here this morning in that same spiritual condition. This story is a reminder to all of us not never to be afraid, but when we are afraid to call on God with all our heart no matter who’s looking and never to stop. God is trustworthy, He is with us when those we love are sick, when the waters are rising around us, and He will not abandon us. Let us not only profess that faith, but live by it.