Today’s gospel reading is all about distilling things down to their most essential parts. As He interacts with this Canaanite woman, Jesus distills her prayer to its most basic form, her knowledge of herself to its most basic form, and her trust in God to its strongest.
First, Jesus addresses her prayer, her request. She comes to Him with the plea, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” Her request follows a very familiar pattern, the same pattern in which we pray. We address God, acknowledging who He is, followed by the request and desired outcome. She is looking for her daughter to be freed of the demons that are possessing her. The mother is asking the only person she knows can help: the Messiah, the Son of David, the Lord of all the earth. But after ignoring her and having the disciples turn against her, her petition is distilled to its basic form: “Lord, help me!”
Every possible petition, everything this mother and her daughter needs is caught up in one word. It’s a deeper word than even “have mercy.” Mercy is the withholding of what is deserved, particularly a punishment. But this word, “help,” is an expression of religious need. Her truest need isn’t the withholding of a punishment, but religious help. She needs to be taught the right way to believe. Her daughter needs the exorcism of her demons. The help she needs comes only from God Himself.
So that is precisely what Jesus gives. But the needed medicine is never easy to take. After her first request, Jesus ignores her; He denies her request for mercy. Why? She thought she was someone worthy of help. She certainly knew the situation was dire and that Jesus was able to help, but she did not yet understand what kind of help she truly needed.
Jesus’ response to the disciples, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” causes her to think that His denial was just because she was someone who wasn’t supposed to exist. To understand this, you have to remember your Old Testament history. When Israel began to take over the Promised Land, God gave very clear instructions: every living thing, whether man or beast, was to be killed. Not a one was to be left standing. But Israel disobeyed. They allowed some to live, thinking they could coexist with those who worshipped other gods. But those who worshipped false gods eventually led Israel into unbelief. They forsook the true God who led them out of Egypt and gave them the land long ago promised to their forefathers. So, this woman, in the eyes of a Jew, was the most unworthy of anything, let alone attention.
But it was Jesus’ third response to her petition that opens her eyes. When He says “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” she knows exactly what He means. Dog was slang for a filthy, damned sinner. Now she understands. Jesus has said no because she did not yet realize what she truly was: a sinner, someone who did not deserve mercy or religious help.
But then her faith became evident. After calling her that, she didn’t give up, she didn’t get angry. She replies in faith: “Yes, Lord.” She understood. Her eyes were opened to reality. She was denied not because her prayer fell short, or because she was the wrong ethnicity, but because she was a sinner and she didn’t yet realize it.
Once her eyes were opened, everything changed. The healthy aren’t excited by the doctor’s presence, but the ill are. It was at that precise moment she understood who God was, who Jesus was, because she understood who she was. That’s why she responds, “Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” In other words: “I don’t deserve help, and I don’t deserve mercy. But you love to give them. You give your gifts to people who do not deserve them, as you have done from Adam and Eve’s fall into sin until this very day. You cause the sun to rise and the rain to fall on the godly and on the ungodly alike. I’m not asking for a seat at the table, to be declared righteous. I don’t deserve it. I’m only asking for a crumb, for one bit of kindness for my daughter. I don’t even deserve that, but I’ll be glad for any crumb that falls from Your table.”
And Jesus rejoices. She didn’t fight. She didn’t try to self-justify. She didn’t give up. But she persisted in pursuing His gracious action toward sinners. She essentially said to Him, “Yes, Lord, it is true. I am a sinner and unworthy of your grace. Nevertheless You have promised forgiveness to sinners, and You came not to call the righteous, but to save sinners. Give me what You desire to give to sinners.”
This woman is a model for us. We need to believe the Lord, to trust completely in His Word despite what we believe to be true, despite what our hearts think the situation is. That means when Jesus confronts us with the Law and its accusations and says “You are a sinner” we don’t respond with “Yeah, but…” but hang our heads in contrition and say “It is as You have said. I am a sinner deserving of nothing good.” But then we must also believe what God has said in His Word, saying back to Him that which is most certain and true: “Yes, I am a sinner, but I have come to You to make use of the right which You give to every sinner, namely the forgiveness of sins.”
Our eyes and hearts may feel forsaken by that declaration of our sin, but that is when we have to put our complete trust and confidence, not in our fickle emotions, but in the steadfast, immoveable Word of God. He has declared mercy for sinners. He has declared a seat at the table for those who were once dogs underneath it. This very place, this very day is unshakable proof of what God thinks of you and wants to do for you. He has come to you in love to absolve you of all your sins, to create faith in you as He speaks His Word into your ears and your hearts. He will come to you in His Body and Blood to forgive you and to literally dwell inside of you. This is what God thinks of you. This is what God does for you. And in a few weeks we will see what has made this Sunday and every Lord’s Day possible. Because Jesus died on the cross and rose from the grave you have confidence before the Father. The Blood of Jesus paid the price for your sin and appeased the Father’s righteous wrath. The fruit and benefit of Christ’s saving work is dispensed to you as a gift in the Means of Grace. He sends you His Holy Spirit to point you back to Jesus and His promise to forgive sinners.
Just as Jesus sought to distill everything down to its most basic, most potent form for the Canaanite woman, Jesus does for you. He distills everything down to the promise given in His Word. I have defeated sin, death, and the devil for you. I have gone to prepare a place for you. Now what you most desire—eternity with God, the restoration of the perfection known in Eden is yours. When you believe this, when the Holy Spirit fixes your gaze and your heart on that promise of Jesus, then He says to you, “Great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.”
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.