Posted on March 4th, 2012
Increasingly, faith is falling out of fashion. A person with faith is a person without reason. A person with faith is a person without tolerance. A person with faith is a person with a closed mind. Faith is blind, faith is irrational, faith is for fools. For now, you may exercise your faith at home or at church, but it dare not make an appearance anywhere else, nor form your decisions about anything you do or say outside of home or church.
The acceptable form of faith is entirely private and subjective. If your faith leads you to make any judgments about right and wrong, you best not share them, for if you express your judgments, you will be judged.
But the culture’s view of faith is a caricature and a distortion. This morning we have a picture of faith, Biblical faith, in this account from Matthew’s gospel about a woman whose daughter is sick, even assaulted by a demon. We’re not told the details, and we don’t need to know them. What we do know is that this woman is extraordinarily persistent.
Long after you or I would have given up, she continues to press Jesus for help. “Have mercy!” she cries. But He does not answer. She keeps on crying, and the disciples are scandalized. Why won’t Jesus help? He always helps. So they intercede on her behalf. “Send her away” means “Release her,” help her, give her what she asks.
But Jesus replies that He wasn’t sent to help Gentiles, only Jews. Undeterred, she prostrates herself before Jesus, worshipping Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” He then calls her a dog, and at this point you or I would have spit on Him, snarled curses, or slunk away. She does not. She agrees with Him. “Indeed I am a dog, but dogs get scraps from the table.” She has trapped Jesus in His own words, and demands that He throw her a bone.
And this, I am sure, is what Jesus wanted all along. “O woman, great is your faith!” What is this faith that He commends? We have a clue in what she calls Him: “Son of David.” She knows who Jesus is. She’s heard of Him. Doubtless she’s heard accounts of how many people He has healed, how He has fed thousands, made the lame to walk and the blind to see. Her confidence is in what she has learned about Jesus, and by calling Him “Son of David,” also in the promises made about a Son of that great king who would reign forever and bring great peace.
So her faith is not blind. It is not irrational. Faith is, in the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Her faith is not in what she hopes for—the healing of her daughter—but rather her faith is the substance of the thing she hopes for. Her faith is in Jesus; not an abstraction, an idea, a concept, or a feeling, but a report, a message about who Jesus is.
What she is experiencing in Jesus’ responses is contrary to what she has heard. But her faith, her confidence in what she has heard about Jesus, overrides what she is currently experiencing. And that, I suspect, is the point behind this whole episode. It’s a hard lesson, to learn patience, and humility, and confidence in the Word. It’s a lesson that I am still learning, have really just begun to learn.
So, faith is not irrational or blind. It begins with confidence in what has already been said and done. What has happened in our language is a redefinition of faith to mean experiences, emotions, and ideas that dwell entirely in the realm of the subjective. Thus it is common to hear about “faith communities” and “people of faith” across all areas of religion and philosophy, making every kind of faith equally valid, and leading to a kind of syncretism where all religions and philosophies are thought of as different flavors of the same ice cream, different paths to the same destination.
The Roman Empire was, from a tactical point of view, brilliant in this regard. When they conquered a new people, the local deity went into the pantheon, became part of the plethora of gods offered worship. Many of the early Christian martyrs were considered atheists, which sounds strange to our ears; they were called “atheists” for not believing in the pantheon of gods, but in one God. Thus St. Polycarp, a disciple of St. John and one of the early Christian martyrs, when he was given an opportunity to escape being thrown to the wild beasts, was told by the proconsul to say, “Away with the atheists.” But the bishop calmly looked out on the crowd and instead said of them, “Away with the atheists.” For there is one God only to be worshipped, and one faith alone that can save, for only one God can save.
So it matters not if a Muslim believes fervently, or a Hindu, or a Mormon. For it is not the quality of the faith but the quality of the object of faith that matters. The object of faith for us Christians is Christ Jesus; faith in anything else may be well-intentioned and fervent, but it has a false and untrustworthy object.
The greatness of the woman’s faith in today’s Gospel was not an inner quality of persistence, for one can be persistently, stubbornly wrong. It was not an optimism, for one can whistle happily while sauntering right into disaster. No, the greatness of the woman’s faith was in the greatness of the object: her confidence was entirely in Christ Jesus, that He was, in fact, merciful. That mercy that she had heard of was what she would not let go.
You can have faith, strong, fervent faith that you will beat your cancer, get the job you want, have the child you’ve been longing for, or finally meet the woman of your dreams. But a strong faith is no guarantee that you’ll get these things, neither is a failed outcome a sign of a lack of faith on your part.
No, as Christians our faith is entirely in one thing, what the woman asked for today: Mercy. God’s kindness, pity, and rescue. And the ground of our faith is entirely on Christ Jesus, His death on the cross, His resurrection. That’s not blind or irrational, but testified to by many eyewitnesses. It is credible. You are not a fool to believe it, but wise beyond measure. For it is the one thing above all that matters.
So fret not that the world counts you a fool, not bright but a bigot. Rather rejoice, for the Lord remembers you when you are weak and lowly and despised. Great is your faith, because great is your Jesus. He has already shown you mercy, and will continue to do so even unto ages of ages.