Last week I encouraged you to read the 14th chapter of Matthew. Let me encourage you this week to read chapter 15. It is also a quick read and similarly filled with poignant Truth.
According to this chapter of Matthew, faith comes in a variety of sizes. (Coffee lovers, think Tall, Grande, and Venti ) First, this story says there is selfish faith. Jesus challenged certain religious leaders at that point, saying that they gave lip service to the commandment, “Honor your father and mother” but used a loophole when it came to assisting their parents in times of actual financial need. “Oops, sorry,” they would say, “I’d love to help the old folks out, but I used that money to pay my pledge to the church.” Jesus spoke judgment to them, quoting a word from God found in Isaiah: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” (29:13) Whenever I am inclined to make the faith work for me (as opposed to vice versa), to make it say what I want it to say, to use it to validate my desires or opinions, then I am in the same boat with those teachers whom Jesus challenged. Remember throughout the years how disreputable people have proof-texted scripture, using words from the Bible to justify everything from slavery to misogyny to child abuse to the defense of unethical business practices to the justification of political candidates whose lives and philosophies were 180 degrees opposite from Christian values. Faith that works for me, rather than my working for it, gives me license to use the Bible without obeying it or even actually trying to understand it.
The second kind of faith disclosed in this passage might be called puzzled faith. That’s what we see in the disciples. After Jesus said what he did to the scribes, he turned to his disciples. “Try to understand” this, he told them at one point (verse 10), and later on he asked, “Don’t you understand yet?” (16) For me, a comforting reality here is that they were still disciples, just as much after this incident as before. Jesus did not dismiss them because they didn’t fully “get it,” nor does he dismiss us. That’s why we are called people of “faith” rather than people of proof or data. There are so many questions that are larger than our abilities to provide answers. “What came before Creation?” There had to be something. Nothing is created out of nothing. So, what existed prior to existence? The concept of eternity, you see, is too big for us to adequately define. We can’t explain it. We simply accept it on faith. Or, think about much smaller matters where that same principle applies. “What is electricity, and how does it work?” I have no idea, but I continue to flip a switch every time I walk into a dark room, fully believing there will be light. “How does a four hundred and fifty ton airplane stay in the air?” Some of you who understand aeronautics may be able to answer that. I don’t, and therefore I can’t. I just keep getting on board airplanes with absolute faith they will safely take me where I need to go. “Why does my wife love someone like me?” (Some of you have probably wondered that same thing about her.) It’s a mystery. But, I keep going home every evening trusting that my wife will be there. Sometimes we are what the late Leslie Weatherhead called “Christian agnostics.” It’s not that we don’t believe, it’s just that we have questions too big for mortal answers. Still, to actually struggle with religious questions is a sign that God and Christ and scripture and discipleship and faith matter to us. So when I lie awake at night asking questions for which easy answers do not come, perhaps God is honored by that. Perhaps our questions let God know what matters deep in our hearts and how we do, in fact, “hunger and thirst for righteousness.”
The third flavor of faith we see in this passage we call trust. That’s something that exists in spite of our lack of data. A Canaanite woman (not part of the House of Israel) comes to Jesus asking that he heal her daughter. But the disciples, Jewish men (thus, she has two strikes against her as a non-Jewish woman) say to Jesus, “Send her away, for she keeps bothering us.” And at that point Jesus and the woman enter into a little drama which forces the disciples to see how ugly their bigotry is. I have always thought the woman and Jesus knew each other. They hit this dramatic stride much too easily to be strangers. It’s as if they know what one another will say before the words are spoken, as if there are slight smiles and a wink of the eye between them. They’ve had this conversation before and know the script. In any event, once their drama reveals the ugliness of prejudice to the disciples, Jesus gets down to real business and says,
“Woman, you have great faith. Your request is granted.” The woman came to Jesus not necessarily understanding how he would respond to her request, but fully trusting that he would see her and hear her and do the best for her as, I suspect, he had on previous occasions with her. She had learned that Jesus was someone she could trust, and that opened the door for miracles.
Tall. Grande. Venti. One phenomenon (coffee), but three ways of experiencing it. And so it is with faith. It can be selfish, it can be puzzled (or seeking), or it can be the simple experience of trust. Sometimes we bounce around among all three. But hopefully at some point we land where the Canaanite woman landed, in a place where we can honestly say, “I may not understand it all, but I trust that Jesus is in my corner and I am safe with him.” And that’s when mere life begins to become life abundant.