That it behoves us, more especially, to carry the cases of our children to the Lord, and to make them our own. It may be, they are too young to understand or feel their own malady, or to know where help is to be had; in this case, surely, it is our proper business to personate them before the Lord: or, it may be, their minds are blinded, and their hearts hardened by the deceitfulness of sin, so as to have no desire to pray for themselves; and then we can do no less than carry their case to him who alone is able to help. - AF
The Prayer of Faith, Exemplified in the Woman of Canaan
By Andrew Fuller
"Then Jesus went thence, and departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. And behold a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Then came she and worshiped him, saying, Lord, help me! But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs. And she said, Truth, Lord; yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their master’s table. Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman! great is thy faith; be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour." – Matthew xv. 21-28.
WHEN John the Baptist sent a message to Jesus, saying, "Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another," Jesus gave an indirect answer, an answer containing a reproof. Whether John himself retaining, like the apostles, the notion of a temporal kingdom, and therefore expecting on his being put in prison that a great revolution would follow in favour of the Messiah, and hearing of nothing but companies of poor people repairing to him to be healed of their infirmities, began to hesitate whether he might not have been mistaken; or whether he only personated some of his disciples; somebody appears to have been stumbled at the simplicity of Christ's appearance. Hence the indirect answer of Jesus: "Go and show John again those things which ye do hear and see the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. – And blessed is he whosoever shall not be offended in me." To be encompassed by crowds of afflicted people supplicating for mercy, and employed in relieving them, was sustaining a character, though far from what the world calls splendid, yet truly great, and worthy of the Messiah. The short account of this poor woman is more profitable to be read than a long and minute history of military exploits.
In endeavouring to improve this brief story, we will notice who the petitioner was – what was her errand – and the repeated applications which were made, with the repeated repulses, but ultimate success, that she met with.
I. Let its observe WHO THE PETITIONER WAS. She is said to be "a woman of Canaan." Mark says she was "a Greek;" but the term, in this and some other connexions, seems to denote only that she was a Gentile, and not that she came from the country called Greece; for, in the same passage, she is said to have been "a Syrophenician by nation."
She was a Gentile; one of the first-fruits of that harvest of Gentiles that was shortly to be gathered in. Our Lord, though he was sent, as he said, "to the lost sheep of the house of Israel," yet extended his mercy to individuals of other nations; and it is worthy of notice, that those few who were gathered at this early period are highly commended for the eminence of their faith. Like the firstfruits of the earth, they were the best. It might still be said, on a review of things among us, that such faith as that of the woman of Canaan and the Roman centurion is rarely to be found in Israel.
Further, She was not only a Gentile, but one of those Gentiles who were under a peculiar curse. She appears to have been one of the descendants of the ancient Canaanites; many of whom, when driven from their own country, settled on the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. We know the curse to which that people were devoted, even from the days of their ancestor Canaan, the son of Ham. We know also that Joshua was commanded not to spare them, and that Israel was forbidden to make leagues with them. This curse, however, came upon them for their being an exceedingly wicked people. The abominations of which they were guilty, and which were nursed by their idolatry as by a parent sin, are given as the reason why the land vomited out its inhabitants, and why Israel must form no alliances with them, lest they should learn their ways. There was no time in which the God of Israel refused even a Canaanite who repented and embraced his word. Of this, Rahab the harlot, Uriah the Hittite, Ornan the Jebusite, and others, were examples. The door of mercy has ever been open to faith; and though it seemed, in this instance, to be shut, it was only to prove the party, and to induce her to plead with greater importunity.
II. Let us notice HER ERRAND. It was not her own case, but a case which she had made her own; that of her young daughter. She pleaded it, however, as if it were her own – "Have mercy on me! – Lord, help me!" From this part of the subject we may learn,
1. That, in our approaches to Christ, it becomes us to go not for ourselves only, but for others around us, and to make their cases ours. He to whom the application was made could not but approve of this principle; for it was that on which he himself was acting at the time. He took the cause of perishing sinners, and made it his own. "He bore our griefs, and carried our sorrows." A spirit of sympathy is the very spirit of Christ, which they that are joined to him must needs possess.
2. That it behoves us, more especially, to carry the cases of our children to the Lord, and to make them our own. It may be, they are too young to understand or feel their own malady, or to know where help is to be had; in this case, surely, it is our proper business to personate them before the Lord: or, it may be, their minds are blinded, and their hearts hardened by the deceitfulness of sin, so as to have no desire to pray for themselves; and then we can do no less than carry their case to him who alone is able to help. What less, and in many instances what more, can an afflicted parent do for an ungodly child? It is true we have no ground to expect the salvation of our children, while they continue hardened; but Jesus is "exalted to give repentance and remission of sins;" and while we present our supplication in a way of submission to his will, he will not be offended with us. It was the practice of holy Job to offer sacrifices for his children; and it seems to be a part of God's plan frequently to bless the children at the intercession of the parent, and thus to express his approbation of something which they have done for him. "The Lord give mercy unto the house of Onesiphorus," said Paul, "for he oft refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain."
III. Let us remark THE REPEATED APPLICATIONS, THE REPEATED REPULSES, AND THE ULTIMATE SUCCESS WHICH CROWNED THE WHOLE. Here were no fewer than four applications; three of which were made by the woman herself, and one by the disciples, on her behalf. Three out of the four failed; but the fourth succeeded. Let us examine them, and the success they met with, distinctly.
The first was made by the woman, and is described as follows: "She cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil." We might remark the brevity, the fulness, and the earnestness of this petition; but there is one thing which our Lord himself afterwards noticed, and which therefore is particularly deserving of our attention: it was the prayer of faith. She believed, and confessed him to be the Messiah. Her addressing him tinder the character of "Lord," and as "the Son of David," amounted to this. It was a principle universally acknowledged among the Jews, that the Lord, or King Messiah, should be of the seed of David. To address him, therefore, under this character, was confessing him to be the Christ. This was the appellation under which he was more than once invoked by certain blind men; and in every instance the same idea was meant to be conveyed. These poor people did not address our Saviour in a way of unmeaning complaisance; they understood that the Messiah, "the Son of David," was to be distinguished by the exercise of mercy; hence they continually associated these ideas. "Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David!" – "Jesus, thou Son of David, have mercy on us!” And this is the very character given to the Messiah in the Old Testament, especially in the seventy-second Psalm: "He shall deliver the needy when he crieth; the poor also, and him that hath no helper." Thus they had heard, thus they believed, and thus their faith wrought in a way of effectual prayer.
But whence had this woman, an alien from the commonwealth of Israel, a stranger to the covenants of promise, this wisdom? Providence had placed her on the borders of the Holy Land, and she appears to have profited by it. The true religion contained in the oracles of God had its influence not only on Israel, but on many individuals in the neighbouring nations. It was foretold that they who dwelt under his shadow should return; and here we see it accomplished. Probably this poor Canaanite had often gone into the Jewish synagogue to hear the reading of the law and the prophets; and while many of those who read then gained only a superficial acquaintance with them, she understood them to purpose. One would almost think she must lately have heard the seventy-second Psalm read at one of these assemblies, and have made up her petition out of the passage forecited. "He shall deliver the needy when he crieth; the poor also, and him that hath no helper;" – then why not me? I will go, and turn this prophecy into a prayer: "Have mercy upon me, O Lord, thou Son of David!" It is good to have our residence near to the means of grace, and to have a heart to make use of them. It is good to grow upon the banks of this river of the water of life. It is pleasant, also, to think of the good effects of the true religion among the posterity of Abraham. It is thus we see the fulfilment of the promise to that faithful man, "I will bless thee, and thou shalt be a blessing."
But while these things afford pleasure to us, they must, methinks, have been very provoking to the Jews; and happy had it been for them if they had been provoked to a godly jealousy. Many among them were far behind these strangers in knowledge and in faith, though they enjoyed very superior advantages. The Saviour was continually among them, crying, and calling at their gates, and at the entering in of their cities; yet they generally disregarded him: whereas, in this case, he only took an occasional journey, and that in secret (for when he entered into a house, "he would have no man know it"); yet here this poor woman found him out, and presented her supplication. How true is that saying of our Lord, "The last shall be first, and the first last!" and how often do we still see persons of inferior advantages enter into the kingdom of God before others who have possessed the greatest abundance of means!
But what treatment did she receive from our Saviour on this her first application? "He answered her not a word." Who would have expected this? Does it accord with his usual conduct? In what instance had he been known to refuse such an application? It was very mysterious, and very discouraging. Is his ear heavy, then, that it cannot hear? or his arm shortened, that it cannot save? – "Answered her not a word!" Who could understand this as any other than a repulse? If the faith of the petitioner had been weak, she might have concluded that he would not answer her because he could not help her. If her heart had been cold, she might have gone away, as many do after having said their prayers, contented without the blessing. If her spirit had been haughty, she must and would have resented it, and have asked no more. In short, had she been any thing but what she was – great in faith, in love, and in humility – she would have turned away. And here we may see the wisdom of our Saviour's conduct: had he immediately granted her request, we had seen little or nothing of the exercise of these graces. But let us proceed.
Here is a second application made on her behalf; and this is by the disciples; they "came and besought him to send her away." I hope they meant that he would grant her petition. One might have expected something considerable from the intercession of the twelve apostles. He had consented to go and heal the centurion’s servant at the request of the Jewish elders; and surely his own disciples must have an interest with him equal to theirs. If the poor woman knew of their becoming her advocates, it is natural to suppose her expectations must have been raised: and this it is likely she did; for while they were speaking, she seems to have held her peace. Neither need they have been at a loss for a precedent; for though she was a heathen, yet they had lately witnessed his kind attention to a Roman centurion; and had they pleaded this, he might have shown mercy at their request. But to what does their intercession amount? Alas, it is mean and pitiful; it does not appear to have a spice of benevolence in it, but to have been merely the effect of self-love: "Send her away," said they, "for she crieth after us." O disciples! and does the voice of prayer trouble you? How little at present do you resemble your Master! We never read of his being troubled with the cry of the poor and needy. And this is all you have to urge, is it? Your charity amounts to just so much as that of some wealthy persons, who give a poor man a penny, not out of compassion, but in order to get rid of him!
What is the answer to this miserable petition? Our Lord takes no notice of the mercenary nature of the plea; and this was like himself: amidst the numerous faults of his disciples, he often exercised a dignified forbearance towards them. But what answer did he make? "I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel." It was true that his commission was especially directed to Israel; and, previously to his resurrection, he even forbade his disciples to go "in the way of the Gentiles:" nor is it any wonder that he should avail himself of this general truth still to withhold his favour, rather than grant it at such a request as this. The motive which they had urged was not likely to work upon him.
But think how it must affect the poor petitioner. Silence was discouraging; but this must have been more so. That might be imputed to other causes: she might suppose he was considering of her request; and though he had said nothing in her favour, yet he had said nothing against her this, however, is not only giving her a denial, but giving the reason of it; which would seem to render it irrevocable. To an eye of sense, it would now seem to be a lost case. It is not so, however, to an eye of faith.
Let us proceed to the third application. The disciples had been poor advocates. Make way for her, and let her plead her own cause: she can do it best. It is not one, nor two repulses, that will silence the prayer of faith; nor will aught else, so long as Jesus lives, and the invitations and promises of his word continue unrevoked. It was written, "He shall deliver the needy when he crieth; the poor also, and him that hath no helper;" and the efficacy of this declaration must be tried again. "Then came she and worshiped him, saying, Lord, help me!"
Observe, she prefaces her petition with an act of worship. She had before acknowledged him as David's Son; now she approaches him as his Lord. Prostrate at his feet, she adores him, and renews her supplication. It is short, yet very full. It has only three words, but more than three ideas, and these full of importance. She here, in effect, tells him that her case is urgent; that she is truly helpless; that no help is to be expected from any other quarter; that she is persuaded of his being able to save to the uttermost; and that it belongs to his character, as Messiah, to help those that have no helper. Though a Canaanite, assuredly she possesses the spirit of an Israelite: "I will not let thee go, except thou bless me."
If there be such a thing as holy violence, or taking the kingdom of heaven, as it were, by force, surely this is it; and knowing the character of Christ, we should have concluded that this petition must be successful. But "Jesus answered and said, It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs." What imperfect judges are we of times and seasons! Just now we should have supposed her cause was gained, and yet it was not so; and now we should have been ready enough to conclude it was lost, and yet it is not so. Let us learn to wait patiently for the Lord, and neither conclude, when we enjoy great fervour and freedom in our approaches to him, that our prayers must be answered immediately or not at all; nor when thrown back into darkness and discouragement, that now there is no hope. Had this poor woman rested her expectation on her own feelings, or on any thing short of the Lord's own word, she had fainted in this trying moment. What a crowd of thoughts might she at this time have cherished; hard thoughts, proud thoughts, and despairing thoughts! – And is this the Messiah, of whom such glorious things are spoken? Is this the compassion that he is to exercise "to the poor, and to them that have no helper?" No mercy, no help for a stranger, even though prostrate at his feet; and, as if it were not enough to refuse his assistance, he must call me a dog! I will ask no more: whatever be my lot, I will bear it! – Such might have been her reflections, and such her conduct; but she was a believer, and faith operates in a different way.
Yet what could our Saviour mean by such language? Did he really intend to countenance that contemptuous spirit with which the carnal Jews treated the Gentiles? Surely not. Did he feel towards this poor stranger as his words would seem to indicate? No: his roughness, like that of Joseph towards his brethren, was assumed for the purpose of trying her; and she endures the trial with singular perseverance. She neither resents being called a dog, nor despairs on account of it; but is resolved still to follow up her suit. Yet what new plea can she find to offer. Let us hear the fourth and last application: "Truth, Lord; yet the dogs eat of the crumbs that fall from their master's table." Most admirable! Such an instance of spiritual ingenuity, of holy and humble acumen, was perhaps never known before, nor since. Now the conflict is at an end; the victory is gained; the kingdom of heaven is taken by the prayer of faith. Jesus, like Joseph, can restrain himself no longer, but appears in his true character: "O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt!" Let us review this charming crisis, and mark the ground from which this last and successful plea proceeded. It was the ground on which the Lord had placed her. He intimated that she was a dog, unworthy of the children's bread; she readily admitted it, and as a dog presented her petition. Here, then, is the grand secret how to succeed in our approaches for mercy. We must stand upon that ground where the Scripture places us, and thence present our petition. Does the Lord tell us in his word that we are guilty, unworthy, ungodly, deserving of eternal death? On this ground we must take our stand, and plead for that mercy which is provided for characters of this description. All applications for mercy, on any other ground, will be unsuccessful.
The last answer of Jesus, as well as the last prayer of the woman, is worthy of special notice. There are three things remarkable in it; the recommendation of her faith, the granting of her desire, and the affectionate manner in which both were addressed to her.
"Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith!" This accords with his general practice. The blessings of healing, as well as those of a more spiritual nature, were ordinarily suspended on believing, and, when obtained, were ascribed to it. Hence such language as this: "If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth. – Thy faith hath saved thee. – Thy faith hath made thee whole." Did our Lord, by this language, mean to give away the honour of salvation from himself? No: it is not used for the purpose of transferring honour to us, but for giving encouragement to faith. Neither is there any opposition of interests between Christ and faith those who are saved by faith are saved by Christ; for it is of the nature of faith to go out of itself, and draw all from him. Christ's power and grace operate as the cause of our salvation; faith as the means of it; yet, being a means absolutely necessary for the bringing of Christ and the soul together, as well as for the promotion of all other graces, it is constantly held up as the one thing needful.
Perhaps, if we had commended the Canaanitish woman, we should have admired her great importunity and great humility; but our Lord passes over these, taking notice only of her faith: and wherefore? Because faith was the root, or principle, from which the others sprang, and by which they were kept alive.
Our Lord often commended the faith of believers; but I recollect only two instances in which he speaks of it as being great; and they are both of them Gentiles: one is the Roman centurion; and the other the woman of whom we are discoursing. There doubtless was an eminency, or peculiar strength, in the faith of each of them; but that which more than any thing rendered it great in our Lord’s account was its being exercised under such great disadvantages. To Israel pertained the promises. If Gentiles partook of the root and fatness of the olive tree, it was by being grafted into it, contrary to nature. Yet, amidst these disadvantages, they abounded in faith, which, for the degree of it, was not to be found in Israel. Thus we are often provoked to jealousy. Persons whose religious advantages have been small, compared with ours, are nevertheless before us in faith, and love, and heavenly-mindedness. Thus it is that the pride of man is stained, and no flesh suffered to glory in the Divine presence.
Having commended her faith, our Saviour proceeds to grant her desire: "Be it unto thee even as thou wilt." The Lord does not excite a willing mind, with a view finally to cross it; or an earnestness of desire, in order to disappoint it; such willingness and such desire, therefore, are indicative of his designs. Christ only can satisfy the desires of the mind; and Christians are the only men in the world whose desires are satisfied. Caesar, in the full possession of empire, is said to have exclaimed, "Is this all?" And such is the disappointment that every sinner will meet with who sets his heart on any thing but Christ. It is not in the power of the whole creation to say to an immortal, guilty creature, “Be it unto thee even as thou wilt;” but Jesus hath the words of eternal life.
The tender and affectionate manner in which our Saviour commended the faith, and fulfilled the desire, of the poor petitioner, is deserving also of remark. It is introduced with an interjection, O woman! In the lips of a speaker abounding in affectation, such words signify but little; but Jesus never affected to feel when he did not. Whenever, therefore, an interjection is seen in his speeches, we may be certain he felt. He felt compassion towards her, on account of her affliction; but chiefly admiration and delight, on witnessing the peculiar energy of her faith. Thus he marvelled at the Roman centurion. The genuine, and especially the eminent, exercises of grace are, more than any thing, the delight of Christ's heart. In looking at the poor and contrite spirit, he overlooks heaven and earth.
It may be rather surprising to us that our Saviour should hold this poor woman so long in suspense; but if he had not, her graces would not have been so apparent, and the exercise of them so grateful to him. And thus we may account for many of the afflictions through which the Lord brings his servants. If tribulation work patience, and patience experience, and experience hope; and if, in his esteem, the exercise of these graces be of greater account than our present ease, it is not surprising that he should prefer the former to the latter; and this consideration should reconcile us to those providences which, for a time, hold us in painful suspense.
From the whole we may remark that genuine, yea, great grace, may be exercised in respect of temporal mercies. It was not for the salvation of her soul, or the soul of her daughter, that this poor woman was so importunate; but for the removal of an affliction. Yet such was the grace which was exercised in it, that there is no doubt of her being eternally saved. The exercise of spirituality is not confined to the seeking of spiritual blessings. We may serve the Lord in our daily avocations; and it is essential to true religion that we do so. Such prayer may be offered, and such faith exercised, in respect of our daily bread, as have the promise of everlasting life.
Finally, If our Saviour suffered himself to be overcome by one who sought for a temporal blessing, much more will he accept of those who come to him for such as are spiritual and eternal. His promises are much stronger in the one case than in the other. Though there were several general intimations that the Messiah would exercise compassion towards the bodies as well as the souls of men; and the numerous miracles which he wrought afforded full proof of his readiness to do good in every way; yet he no where bound himself, that I recollect, to heal all that came to him. I believe he never sent away an individual without a cure; but still he seems to have reserved to himself a kind of discretionary power to do so. But, in matters of everlasting moment, the word is gone out of his lips, "Him that cometh unto me, I will in no wise cast out." Here, every one that seeketh findeth, and to him that knocketh, we are assured by the Keeper of the gate, it shall be opened. If any man, therefore, be hereafter shut out of the kingdom of heaven, it will appear, in the end, that he sought not after it in the present life; or, at least, that he sought it not by faith.
We shall all be importunate, sooner or later; but importunity will one day be unavailing! Many will then seek to enter in, and shall not be able. Yea, they will cry earnestly, saying, "Lord, Lord, open unto us. – We have eaten and drunk in thy presence, and thou hast taught in our streets. But he shall say, – Depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity." O my hearers! let us agonize to enter in at the strait gate. All the zeal and earnestness which we may feel in other things is spending our money for that which is not bread, and our labour for that which satisfieth not. Incline your ear, and come unto Him; hear, and your souls shall live; and he will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David.
==================[From Joseph Belcher, The Complete Works of the Rev. Andrew Fuller, Volume I, 1845; rpt. 1988, pp. 236-243. Document provided by David Oldfield, Post Falls, ID. - jrd]
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