Tomato Plant Faith
Last week we heard Jesus call Peter's faith "little." This week Jesus calls the faith of a pagan, Canaanite woman "great." What's the difference? Hers was tomato plant faith.
Her faith was buried deep like a tomato plant needs to be. I didn't know that about tomatoes when I first planted them. I only planted them as deep in the garden as they were in the little plastic pots. They grew all right. They grew spindly, wiry, weak, and sickly. Three quarters of a tomato plant need to be buried in the dirt. What is above the soil in the store becomes a root if buried beneath the soil.
The Canaanite woman's faith was buried deep. I know this because Jesus buried it. She comes to Jesus repeatedly crying out that's what an imperfect means for Jesus to help her daughter who is basely, terribly demonized. What does that mean? Did a demon pitch her down in fits like the boy in Luke 9? Did a demon bow her back for years like it did the woman in Luke 13? Did she run naked among the tombs like the demon in Luke 8? Or perhaps she had 7 demons like Mary Magdalene? In any case this mother cried and cried for Jesus' help, and yes, it is that word from last week for animal, guttural, emotion stained sounds.
And what does Jesus do? She came to Him with the faith that He could and would help her daughter, and Jesus buried that faith. "Jesus did not answer a word." The Greek is more pointed. "He did not answer her a word." Remember Job's "friends" who in his depths spoke not a word to him for 7 days letting all the guilt, fear, and worry seep deep into his soul?
Gentle Jesus meek and mild who won't quench a smoldering wick, steps on this mother's faith hard and keeps on walking while she keeps on yelping. Here comes another shovel full of dirt. The disciples kept on insisting that Jesus must help her. They say, "Send her away," and Jesus understands that they mean send her away by granting her what she asks. He says, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."
"Shot through the heart/ And [Jesus is] to blame/ [He] give[s] love a bad name." Isn't that right? Jesus doesn't even deign to speak to this desperate mother, but to the disciples. "It's not my job," says Jesus. "Not my problem," says the Lord of love. Far from being Jesus' little lamb, this poor, crying, heartsick mom is Jesus' little punching bag.
Think that's an overstatement? Hah! That's an understatement. Listen to what Jesus, the One who Scripture says will not break a bruised reed, says when He does finally condescend to speak to her. "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs." The most common Jewish name for the heathen was "dogs" (Edersheim, Life and Times, III, 41). If this isn't trying to break a bruised reed, what is it? It's throwing another shovel full of dirt on a tomato plant to be sure it's buried good and deep.
You know all the dirt you put on and around a tomato plant isn't "dirt" to it. If the tomato plant could talk, it wouldn't say, "Hey, why are you throwing dirt on me." No, it would say, "Thank you; that's just what I needed." Remember from the Parable of the Sower that for faith to grow it needs deep not shallow soil, dirt not rocks, not the pleasure or cares of this world but good soil.
This Canaanite mother lives from the Word of Jesus even when there is no Word. Even when she meets with stony silence, even as Jesus is walking away from her, the disciples say "she keeps crying out after us." If you take your Bible seriously, you will find that prayers are often met with silence. How many days and night locked up in the ark did Noah pray to be out? How long did worried Abraham and the ridiculed Hannah pray for a child?
The Bible says God remembered in the case of Noah, Abraham, and Hannah not because it's possible for the all-knowing God to forget but because from their perspective it sure felt that way. Jesus' stony silence was not His last Word on the subject. It couldn't be because He also says, "Keep on asking, keep on seeking; keep on knocking," and He had promised, "I will answer; you will find, and it shall be opened unto you."
Even Jesus saying it wasn't His problem, doesn't deter her, but like dirt to a tomato plant it feeds her all the more. She was crying out from behind Him. Now once Jesus has paused to tell the disciples that He was only sent to Israel's lost sheep, she catches up to Him and kneels before Him calling Him still "Lord." King James and American Standard translate not "knelt before" but "worshipped" as it is translated elsewhere, and I think they're right. She worships the Lord who has just said He was not sent to her.
How can I say that? Because only a faith that leads to worship can withstand being called a dog. Jesus says, "It's not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs," and she replies, "Yes, Lord." She agrees with Jesus; she's a dog. How come? Because Jesus has pushed the door to mercy open a crack and faith pounces on it. Jesus uses the word for a small dog. You could say "puppy," or "house dog" as opposed to "yard dog" (Kittle). Puppies, house dogs are fed from what falls from their master's table. Every dog owner knows that sometimes you even let things "fall" on purpose.
The Canaanite woman's response is even more faith-filled than this. She says, "Lord you must help me." Then Jesus says the children's bread isn't to be tossed to puppies or house dogs, and she responds by still calling Jesus "Lord" and then says, "but even the puppies eat the crumbs that fall from their Lords' table." The insert translates "masters" but the woman really says "lords'." That's how she turns Jesus' words. She continues to call Jesus "Lord" and then says even puppies eat the crumbs from their lords' table. Yes, fallen human masters do allow their dogs to eat table scraps; how much more so the holy Lord?
All I've said so far is an accurate description of great faith, but if you stop listening now you'll leave knowing the Canaanite woman had it, wanting it yourself, and thinking that desiring great faith is all it takes. No, the tomato plant can't bury itself. What makes faith great is its object. Peter had little faith because He looked away from the Jesus who commanded him "come" and focused on the wind and wave. This woman did not look away from Jesus despite His silence; despite His rejection; despite His name calling. And that takes a miracle. Faith that springs from such depths is a miracle, and it feeds from the very dirt it's buried under because it doesn't regard it as dirt but food.
Don't look so puzzled. "Count it all joy when you suffer" says James. "Suffer a good soldier of Christ," says Paul. The sufferings of this present world are to be counted as working a far more eternal weight of glory. It's not with victories, joys, and triumphs that our crucified Lord buries faith in the heart and feeds it. It's with afflictions, thorns, pain, and sorrow. Faith that arises from winning, happiness, and success is no miracle of God. Every winning sport's program has it. That's why, "I Believe" is a popular sign in their stands.
The object of God-planted great faith is not in our heart, not in our thoughts, reasons or views. It's not in "I believe" for the minute a Christian says that he must immediately pray, "Help Thou my unbelief." No the object of great faith is Jesus.
From the get-go this Canaanite mom knows who Jesus is. She calls Him "Lord, Son of David." She knows Jesus is true God and she knows Jesus is true Man. She calls Him the Old Testament name for God, Jehovah, and the Old Testament name for Messiah, the Christ, Son of David. She knows that in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth, the power of God has come to earth in a flesh and blood Man.
Do you know that? Or do you think the power of God is in the firmness of your faith? Do you think the power of God is in your positive thinking? Do you think the power of God is found in your believing in yourself? Then you're going to be turned away by God's first silence, His first rebuke, His first name calling. But if the power of God is here on earth in the Person of Jesus, then get Jesus and you got God's power; get Jesus and you got God.
But how can this Canaanite woman be so drop-dead sure that Jesus wants to have mercy, wants to help? Because she knows what you say after Communion: the mercy of the Lord endures forever and what I say before Communion, "Our help is in the name of the Lord." Do you think these words we pass back and forth between us are just sounds? No, they describe reality. Not a day, not a situation, not a problem can make the mercy of the Lord last less than forever or your help anywhere else but in His name.
God's power is on earth in Jesus' name, and Jesus worked so that power might serve sinners in mercy and help. Have you forgotten those passages where Jesus says, "Ask whatsoever you want in My name?" Jesus says this because apart from Jesus' name the Law says, "You can't ask for squat. You deserve not only to be unheard but punished by all that you fear." But under Jesus' name you find under the Law in big letters: DONE. All Laws kept; all punishments satisfied. In Jesus' name there is nothing more standing between your being mercied or helped than there is a crumb falling off a table or child feeding his beloved puppy.
Although Luther preached and spoke about this text, he said you had to be very careful doing so (Locci 1555, 300). You can make it all about the great faith of this woman rather than the great Jesus she believed in. Augustine has the right emphasis. He says Jesus here is the "restrainer of swellheadedness The more humble a person is, the more receptive and full he becomes. Hills repel water; valleys are filled up" (ACC, Ib, 31). But you can't make yourself humble or make yourself believe anymore than a tomato plant can bury itself. The Lord must do all 3. He buries us in life's dirt so that all we have to cling to is Him not others, not us, not our plans, not our powers, but Him. That is humbling, but that is filling, and that is great faith. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (20140907); Matthew 15: 21-29