To Live Faith

SJF • Proper 15a • Tobias Haller BSG
Jesus said, “Great is your faith; let it be done for you as you wish.”

Our gospel today portrays a woman with both great faith and great perseverance. Her story reminds me of my favorite film, also a study in perseverance, by the great Japanese film-director Akira Kurosawa. It’s called Ikiru, which means “To Live.” I was just telling a some members of the parish about it at coffee hour a few weeks ago, and I want to share something of it with all of you today, as it speaks very eloquently to our gospel message.

The main character in the film, Mr. Watanabe, is a civil servant in the public works department of a big city. The time is a few years after the Second World War, when Japan is beginning to rebuild from its devastating defeat. Watanabe spends his whole life working — but he accomplishes very little. His days consist almost entirely of shuffling papers from the in-basket to the out-basket, dutifully stamping each of them with his rubber stamps, but accomplishing nothing at all of practical use. Most of the folks who come to his department get the run-around and are sent off to a different department in City Hall. (Does any of this sound familiar?) Watanabe’s staff have given him a nickname, The Mummy — and he looks like one and has just about as much joy out of life.

Then, one day, he discovers he is dying, and has only a few months to live. He doesn’t know what to do — so he tries different things, going through all the stages of the process of coming to terms with this new reality: denial, anger, and fear. He gets drunk and sings sad songs about how short life is; he tries to reconnect with the son he loves but can’t relate to — but he finds no any answers.

Then one day he has a revelation, and it is as if he has been reborn. A young woman from his staff, who had quit working in the office when she couldn’t take the boredom any more, has gone to work at a toy factory. She shows the old mummy one of the toys she makes, and says at least she knows that somewhere a child will be made happy because of something she has actually done. And in a flash, Watanabe realizes that he can do something with his life, he can make a difference in these last few months that he has to live; he can really live, and do something.

Back in the office, he grabs a paper off the top of his stack, and he sets about trying to accomplish something in City Hall — getting a fetid swamp drained, one that has been making children sick in a local neighborhood, and having a playground built in its place.

Of course, no one else at City Hall is interested in doing anything either. But ultimately they can’t resist this persistent toothpick of a man looking at them with huge sad eyes — sitting opposite their desks and refusing to move until they pull out their own rubber stamps to sign off on the aspects of the work under their control, and needed to proceed.

In one scene, Watanabe confronts a mob boss who has a politician in his pocket. The big yakuza in the shiny suit looks down at this dried-up little shrimp of a man and says, “Don’t you know I can have you killed.” And Watanabe looks up at him, and breaks into a huge smile — he has no fear of death, you see; he knows he’s going to die but he has just begun to live. This completely freaks out the mob boss, and gives him such a start that he relents. The playground is built, and Watanabe lives just to see it completed, and then dies, knowing he has accomplished something: he has lived.

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Our gospel today shows us another example of such persistence, persistence and faith even in the face of resistance. And the resistance comes from a surprising place, for it shows us Jesus in a light that is so unlike him it may take us a while to appreciate what is going on in this passage. A Canaanite woman cries out to Jesus asking him to save her daughter. Jesus gives her the cold shoulder — not saying a word. The disciples complain, and Jesus says, essentially, “Not my people, not my problem.” She kneels before him, refusing to give up, and begs for his help. And he then says something so shocking it is hard to believe it comes from the lips of our loving Savior, “It isn’t fair to give the children’s food to dogs.’

Yet still she persists, this unrelenting woman with the sick child, who will be driven away neither by silence, by complaints, or by insults: she reminds Jesus that even the dogs get scraps. And finally, after ignoring her, shrugging her off, and even insulting her, Jesus relents, and acknowledges her persistence — and her great faith; and her daughter is instantly healed.

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Great faith — an interesting contrast to our gospel of last week, where Jesus dealt with Peter’s “little faith.’ How interesting that Jesus should find little faith in his own disciples, but great faith in a Canaanite — one of the remnant of the hated people whom God had told the Israelites to cast out of the promised land. One cannot help but compare Saint Peter, untrustworthy Saint Peter, the one who would deny his Lord three times before the cock crowed, with this poor pagan woman who persisted three times in imploring help for her sick child. Who has the greater faith? It’s easy to see, and Jesus confirms it by responding to her appeal.

In the same way, years before, Isaiah had assured people who thought they had no hope, and no reason to hope, for inclusion in the life of salvation, that their faith too would be rewarded. To the eunuchs and the foreigners — outsiders and outcasts, people not allowed to be part of the assembly of the faithful, not allowed to set foot on the Holy Mount and enter the courts of God’s Temple — where the sign said, “No Gentiles Past This Point” — Isaiah assured them that God would give them a special blessing, a monument and a name, and accept their sacrifices in a house that would not just be for the children of Israel, but a house of prayer for all people.

And then, years later, Saint Paul would write to Gentiles in Rome, with much the same message — assuring them that the littleness of faith shown by those of his own people who had not accepted Jesus, was only so that mercy could be shown to the Gentiles — themselves once people of no faith, now blessed to be included in the wide embrace of salvation. Where before only the children of Israel were assured of a life in the world to come, now others would be ushered in, brought into the kingdom and the wedding banquet by the Son and Bridegroom himself.

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So why was Jesus so hard on this Canaanite woman — was it to test her, and the disciples, to see what she and they would do, to see whose faith was stronger — and perhaps to shame the disciples’ little faith with her great faith? We do not know, but I think that’s as good a guess as any. Jesus knew Isaiah backwards and forwards — you recall he read from it at the beginning of his ministry. He knew that salvation was not just for Israel, but for all the scattered flocks — all of them God’s creation, the God who hates nothing that he has made.

So just as Jesus at first, before feeding the multitude, challenged the disciples to give them something to eat, when they just wanted to send them away, so to here he has an eye on the disciples. And isn’t it striking just how often the disciples wanted to send people away? When people brought children for Jesus to touch — send them away! When the hungry crowds hungered for food — send them away! When people were doing works of power in Jesus’ name even though they weren’t part of the apostles’ band — let us call down fire from heaven to destroy them! Those apostles sure seem to have thought that less is more, the fewer the better, even though in each case Jesus tried to show them a better way.

So too here no doubt he had a watchful eye on them to see if their generosity might be awakened by this persistent woman’s plea, or his refusal. Of course, just as they complained that there wasn’t enough to feed the multitudes, that it was annoying to have all those children coming to Jesus, or that people were doing works of wonder even though they weren’t part of the “in crowd,’ so here they complain about the woman bothering them — their little faith showing in every move they make, every step they take — and Jesus is watching them.

As I say, we cannot get into Jesus’ mind, or know for sure why he did what he did. I find it hard to believe he was being intentionally cruel to this poor woman — it seems very out of character. And we know he set many tests for his disciples, and perhaps this was one of them. Ultimately only God knows.

What we do know is that long ago a mother cried out for someone to save her child, and she persisted in her cry, and her cry was heard, and her child was healed. Great was her faith, and great the blessing that it brought her.

May we too show such faith, both in seeking the help of our Lord and God without resting, persistent in appeal and great in faith — but also in doing better than the disciples did — and helping all those in need, both near and far, our own people and people from afar: all of them God’s very own. For we have been given the power to live — the power to make a difference in other peoples lives and our own, rather than to spend them shuffling papers from the in-box to the out-box of our lives. Let us take courage in the knowledge that though our lives are limited, our days numbered, while we live them they are ours to use — to live or to waste. Let us then, share abundantly in the life that is not ours alone — not just the scraps and the crumbs, but the full course meal of loving fellowship: shared with all from near and far in this house of prayer for all people — the house of God, to whom we give honor and glory, now and for evermore.+