How Great Is Your Faith (Matthew 15:1-28)

By | October 11, 2009

Super Hero Sundays #4


     This morning I want to start by telling you about Edith. Edith was one of the poorest African American women in Harlem. As a single parent, she was trying to raise four children while holding down one part-time and one full-time job, where between the two, she earned just enough for the bare necessities of life.

     She was poor, but she wasn’t a quitter. She kept close tabs on her three sons and daughter. Constantly worried about their safety or getting mixed up with the wrong crowd, she kept them glued to their homework and constantly told them they could get out of the cycle of poverty with a good education.

     Her biggest challenge was her oldest son, Jaimie. Physically handicapped from birth, he made up intellectually for his physical limitations. When he was a few months into his senior year in high school, Edith decided she was going to get Jamie a scholarship for college. It was the only way any of her children would get a higher education. And she felt there would be an extra benefit, her oldest child would be an example for the others.

     One morning Edith put on her best clothes and walked out to take the subway to downtown New York. Her friends sitting on the apartment steps kidded her about where she was going. Without any doubt she said, “I’m going downtown to get a scholarship for Jaimie.” Her friends laughed and said, “Sure, Edith, you just go on and tell some rich fella to get you a scholarship. Talk about naive!”          “I looked up a foundation that gives out scholarships and I know where their office is,” Edith replied as though that was all there was to it.

     “You know you can’t squeeze money out of those big-time moneyed people,” one of the women countered. “Anyway, I hear that foundation stuff wasn’t meant for poor black folks like us … you got to be the right color and from the right part of town ….”

     “Don’t you worry none about me,” Edith began, but was interrupted.

     “I ain’t worried ’bout you, honey,” one friend joked. “I’m more worried ’bout those poor folks on the foundation that you’re going to harass.” Even Edith was forced to smile at that remark as she went down the steps to catch the subway.

     “Ma’am, I appreciate your situation, and I’m sure your son is worthy,” a staff member of the foundation said in slight condescension, “but we have a very long backlog of applicants waiting for scholarships …”

     Edith interrupted, “I can’t wait. My son is handicapped, and he’s going to finish high school near the top of his class, and he needs to go to college next fall. I don’t have any money to pay his way. He wants to go to Harvard or some other school like that.”

     Edith got nowhere on her first visit, nor on any of the next six or seven visits. But she wasn’t about to give up. She brought snapshots of her kids. She brought school report cards. She brought her work record and her small earnings record. Then one spring day as she returned from still another trip downtown, she proudly announced to her friends sitting on the apartment steps, “Well, now we just have to see which one of the colleges Jaimie wants to attend.”  (1)


     A. Let’s look at the passage I’ve chosen for this morning.

Matthew 15:1-28 (NRSV).
[1] Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said,
[2] “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.”
[3] He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?
[4] For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’
[5] But you say that whoever tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ then that person need not honor the father.
[6] So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God.
[7] You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:
[8] ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me;
[9] in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.'”
[10] Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand:
[11] it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”
[12] Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?”
[13] He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted.
[14] Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.”
[15] But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.”
[16] Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding?
[17] Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?
[18] But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.
[19] For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.
[20] These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
[21] Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.
[22] Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
[23] But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”
[24] He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
[25] But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”
[26] He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
[27] She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
[28] Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.


     Edith reminds me a lot of the woman in the passage. They both had the same tenacity and persistence. They didn’t give up and they got what they went after.

     At first look, our reading seems to have two separate and unrelated stories. In the first part, Jesus argues with the scribes and Pharisees about washing your hands before eating. It seems like a silly thing to be arguing about but the Pharisees jumped all over Jesus and his disciples because they saw them eating without going through the ritual cleansing before meals.

     Jesus then goes into a short discourse about it not being “what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth.” Apparently even the disciples didn’t know what he was talking about, because he had to explain further by saying, “what comes out of the mouth get its start in the heart. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. That’s what pollutes life. Eating or not eating certain foods, washing or not washing your hands—that’s neither here nor there.” (Msg)

     B. Then we jump into the second section. This confrontation with the Edith type character. This passage has troubled scholars for years. Let’s face it, Jesus doesn’t come off looking very good in his treatment of this woman. If all we had was this passage, we’d think Jesus flunked politcal correctness 101. First he ignores the woman. Then he tells her she’s not the right kind of people and then he calls her a dog. That doesn’t sound like the Jesus we all know and love, does it? What’s going on?

     Scholars have tried to explain away or soften this seeming inconsistency in Jesus’ character. Most of the scholars I’ve read seem to want to look at this passage as unrelated to the one before. They see the argument with the Pharisees as separate from this encounter with the Caananite woman. But I think they are linked together. I think Jesus explained what he meant to the disciples and then took them on a field trip to put what they had learned into practice.

     You see, the 12 disciples were all Jews. They knew the laws of ritual cleansing. And they knew they could be burdensome. But because they were Jewish, they had a certain mind set about anyone else who wasn’t Jewish or who was a gentile. So Jesus, takes these good Jewish boys up to Tyre and Sidon, a couple of good gentile towns. And that’s where they have this confrontation.

     Now, if most of us had been met like the Caananite woman was met by the disciples and by Jesus, we’d have been out of there in a flash. But like Edith, she just kept on coming, kept on hollering for Jesus to heal her daughter. The disciples come whining to Jesus about her, “Tell her to go away.” Jesus ignored both them and her.

     But she kept shouting. So Jesus says, “Look lady, I’ve only come for the lost sheep of Israel, I can’t be fooling with the likes of you.”

     I think the disciples heard this and semi, sort of believed it. They might have even nodded their heads in agreement. Scripture did say they were the chosen. But this woman wouldn’t be denied. She even got on her knees and begged.

     Jesus looked down and called her a dog. In those days ‘Dog’ was a term the Jews commonly applied to gentiles because the Jews considered anyone not Jewish, no more likely than dogs to receive God’s blessing. Jesus really wasn’t degrading the woman by using this term, he was reflecting the Jewish attitude so as to contrast it with his own, the attitude of love and grace.


     I think Jesus did this on purpose. He used the trip and the encounter with this woman as an object lesson for the Disciples. He drove home his point with a real situation. You see, even though the disciples had heard what Jesus had told the Pharisees, it really didn’t sink in. Because at the very first opportunity, they start complaining about this woman who keeps nagging them. They looked at her as “one of THOSE kind.” They didn’t get it.

     What Jesus is talking about is that in the Kingdom of God there are NONE of those kind of people. There is NO line of difference. NOTHING separates us. All the walls come down. We are one in Christ. One in the spirit. One in need.

     We forget that. Our society is so stratified and we have so many interest groups that we almost have to wear badges about what groups we belong to and our ethnic background or political affiliation so that everyone knows up front just who we are and what we believe so that we can socialize with those who are just like us.

     But you see, Jesus is the great equalizer. When we meet Jesus and come under the influence of His love and grace. We realize that we are all the same. We all need what only Jesus can offer, a healing of our broken relationship with God through the forgiveness and the love of God. All we have to do is have faith in Christ.

     Jesus wasn’t putting this woman down. He used her situation to open the eyes of the disciples. And to open our eyes as well.

     I think he was saying, that many of our broken relationships and most of our sense of alienation from on another comes from our own attitudes and prejudice. Clothes, homes, money, jobs, politics the color of our skin, our nationality, our faith relationship; all of these can be and have been used to build walls that separate us.

     But Jesus came to break down those walls that separate us from each other and from God. When we accept Christ as Lord and Savior of our lives, the things that separate us disappear. There is only one thing that is important – we are each sinners in need of a Savior. That is why we’re here, that’s why we belong.

     Jesus gave His life on the cross to redeem us and reconcile us with God. That act of reconciliation makes it possible for us to live a new, fulfilled and spirit filled life with Christ and for God. We belong because Jesus says we belong, not because we’ve adhered to and kept some set of archaic laws we don’t even understand.

     And we dare not go back and pick and up those old attitudes because when we do, it endangers our place in the Kingdom our our inheritance as brothers and sisters of Christ.


     A family of five was enjoying their day at the beach. The children were playing in the ocean and making sand castles when in the distance a little old lady appeared. Her gray hair was blowing in the wind and her clothes were dirty and ragged. She was muttering something to herself as she picked up things from the beach and put them into a bag. The parents called the children to their side and told them to stay away from the old lady. As she passed by, bending down every now and then to pick something up, she smiled at the family. But her greeting wasn’t returned.

     Couple weeks later this family learned that little old lady was a retired school teacher who’d made it her lifelong crusade to pick up bits of glass from the beach so children wouldn’t cut their feet. And as she picked up the broken glass, she prayed for the people who had dropped it, even though she didn’t know who they were. (2)

     Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, gave his life on the cross so that we might know the love, forgiveness and acceptance of our God. Jesus died for each of us personally. We can’t look at another human being without thinking to ourselves, Jesus died for them, too. We do a disservice when we jump to conclusions about people because of how they look, where they live or the type of work that they do. We are all equal Jesus’ eye.

     And when we live like that it makes all the difference in the world. Tell Vincent’s story.

     Was he healed? Of his Tourrets? No. Was there a deeper spiritual healing for both him and the church? Absolutely. now he sings for Jesus. He sang Heaven Shine Down and the peace and joy and love a God was evident.

     What would have happened to that young man if people in that church had looked at Vincent through the eyes of the world and not the eyes of Christ? They saw a child of God. They saw someone hurting and made him feel welcome rather than asking him to leave. Vincent has become a mighty witness both for Christ and for the church who lived and acted like Jesus.

     Jesus doesn’t see tattoos, piercings, scars, haircuts, makeup, style of clothing or misshapen bodies. Jesus sees our hearts and souls longing to be loved and accepted for who we truly are; longing for meaning and purpose in our lives; longing to make a difference.

     That’s what the disciples learned that day from the Caananite woman whose faith and persistence Jesus praised. That’s what WE learn from Edith as well.

     So, how great is your faith? Is it great enough and tenacious enough so that Jesus can use you as an example?

     Is it great enough to be used by God to break down the walls of prejudice that still exist in our country? In our city? Even in our Church?

     How great is your faith? Is it great enough to help you see beyond the physical appearance and sometimes the actions of someone and see who they really are in the eyes of Christ?

     If we are going to truly reach out to our community with the Good News of Jesus Christ, if we’re going to transform the world then we have to begin by transforming ourselves first and we can’t do that without first kneeling before Christ like the Canaanite woman in the passage did.

     How great is your faith?


This is the Word of the Lord for this day.


1.   1996 Lectionary Tales for the Pulpit, (C.S.S. Publishing) Electronic Edition

2.   Anthony de Mello, TAKING FLIGHT (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1990), p. 124.