Let us begin our message with a question. How many of you struggle with prayer? It can be difficult, not least because it does not seem to work for us. I mean, we have a need or a desire, we bring it before God in prayer, and there is…silence. How are we supposed to make sense of this experience? There will be myriad questions racing through our minds.
In our gospel lesson, there is a woman. She is a Gentile, which is to say: she is not a Jew. And this detail is important for understanding her exchange with Jesus, as we will note later. To be more precise, she is a Syrophoenician woman, probably Greek in culture and language. It’s her good fortune that Jesus has withdrawn to the region of Tyre and Sidon, which is in the woman’s neighborhood.
Let us be clear that Jesus has not gone into this region to embark on a healing ministry. He went there on retreat. Mark’s Gospel highlights how the crowds swamped Jesus and his disciples, so that he had hardly a moment to rest and recharge. In this region Jesus sought rest for himself and his disciples. For this he needed privacy; he did not want anyone to know that he was there.
Mark tells us earlier that Jesus’ fame spread beyond Galilee. This no doubt explains how the woman even heard of him. How much she knows about him Mark leaves unspecified. But when we turn to Matthew’s account of the same episode, we find that she addresses him as “Son of David.” This implies that she knows and accepts him as the Messiah.
Let us imagine then that she comes to speak with Jesus with reasonable self-assurance. She knows of his kindness and compassion. No doubt she has heard of how many people he has helped. She has heard of his miracles and believed in them and in him. How could she have not come to him?
She even adopts the posture of a suppliant; she bows down before his feet, as a subject would before a king. In this respect, she approaches Jesus in a way that she has heard other people have done. She’s done everything right! How can she not obtain her request from Jesus?
What is it that she wants? Her daughter is harassed by a demon. She wants Jesus to cast it out. When we again turn to Matthew’s account of this episode, we read that Jesus answered her not a word. That is, there is…silence.
Perhaps the pause is long enough before Jesus’ responds that a seed of doubt begins to implant itself in the woman’s mind. It appears as if he is not going to help me after all.
We began our meditation by asking whether we have ever known silence in response to our prayers. After a very long period of unanswered prayer, it begins to dawn on us, in the words of author Thomas Keating, that no matter how hard we try, or how loud we cry, there’s just not going to be any response from God. He either isn’t listening or, what is worse, he is listening and apparently doesn’t care enough about us to do anything.
Keating continues by pointing out that we tend to make judgments according to the way we feel. We tend to judge God as we would anybody else who seems bent on ignoring us. And so the judgment forms in our hearts: “God, if he even exists, must not love me.” After all, if you keep trying to talk to somebody, and they turn and walk away, you will sooner or later come to the conclusion: “Well, there isn’t much point in keeping this up any longer. It’s a little too one-sided. God pays no attention to me. Therefore, he must not love me.”
I want you to realize how widespread this experience is, if you don’t realize it already! Just recently a woman came to me to share her story. She was married, and, together with her husband, raised a son. He was a boisterous, outgoing, fun-loving boy. He loved his parents, and was a joy to them. But his parents began to have difficulties in their marriage. The boy began to pray to God to save the marriage, an activity that his mom encouraged. But there was only…silence. His parents separated and then divorced. In his disappointment, the boy concluded: “God did not answer my prayer. Therefore, he must not love me.” To this day, he rejects his mother’s faith.
The woman in our gospel lesson has good reason to come to the same conclusion. Jesus dismisses her request out of hand with a sharp insult. “First, let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”
We’ve been making the point that we interpret the silence of God as his rejection of us. We may at first think the blame lies with God, as we have already mentioned. Like the Syrophoenician woman, we may have done everything right. Maybe we’ve served God energetically, even to the point of making costly sacrifices for him. Maybe we’ve been faithful in going to church almost every Sunday. Maybe we’ve maintained a consistent schedule of daily devotional reading and prayer. Don’t we then deserve to have our requests heard and answered?
But then we begin to wonder whether the blame lies with us. Have we done something wrong? Are we going to the wrong church? Does what we believe about God offend him? Does God for that reason refuse us a place among his chosen ones, whose prayers he hears and answers even before they call out to him?
The woman learns from Jesus that indeed she been going to the wrong church, but through no fault of her own. That is to say, she was born a Gentile. At this time in salvation history, the Gentiles had no right to the privileges of the children of Israel. Jesus came to Israel as Israel’s Messiah, in fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to Israel.
But note that Jesus uses the word “first.” That offers her a ray of hope. Even though the reply of Jesus sounds harsh, it is not a “no.” Often we interpret the silence of God in response to our prayer as a “no!” It may not be a “no!” It may rather be: “Wait! It’s not your turn yet.”
Recently, I waited to see the pharmacist at Walgreen. There were several people ahead of me in line. And the number of cars at the drive up was enough to justify my decision to wait in the store. I waited and waited and grew impatient. I was indignant that I had to waste my valuable time waiting for the pharmacist. Finally, I turned around and stormed out. If I had only waited a few more minutes, I would have seen the pharmacist and had my prescription filled. How many people have walked away from God, from the Christian life, from the church, because they were not patient enough to wait? What would have happened if they had waited? Someone will say: “But God never answered the boy’s prayer about his parents’ marriage. And God has not answered my prayer. Why should we not turn away?”
Are we wiser than God? Are our judgments sounder than his? God’s creativity is infinite. God’s resources are inexhaustible. With God all things are possible. If we had stuck it out, he might have answered our prayers in ways we could never have imagined. God can do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine (Eph. 3:20).
For her part, the woman has not left Jesus. She’s not given up. His response, which could easily have discouraged her, has not deterred her. She hangs in there, continuing the dialogue.
Prayer is dialogue. When we struggle in prayer, the last thing we want to do is to cut off the dialogue. So God has not answered your prayer? Bring his “non-answer” to him in prayer. Keep the dialogue going. It may be hard to imagine, especially during those times when we know God only by his silence, that God delights in communicating with his children. Communication is the stuff of relationships. And God has chosen to enter into relationship with his creatures. If that is the case, then how can he not hear our prayers? The truth is that God is more ready to keep open the lines of communication than we are. God does speak to us as we spend time with him in prayer.
Many have been troubled by the words that Jesus speaks to the woman. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Appeal to the special privilege of a chosen race to exclude a person from God’s blessing in virtue of her race is especially offensive to a culture convulsed by demands for racial justice, as ours is today. But I wonder if we are reading the exchange correctly. Could there not have been something in the tone of Jesus’ voice that invited the woman to playfully expand on the metaphor to make her case, as she has done here?
That is how the reformer John Calvin understood it: She senses “that the door is shut against her, not for the purpose of excluding her altogether, but that, by a more strenuous effort of faith, she may force her way, as it were, through the chinks.”
At any rate, she did not take what Jesus tells her as a clear rejection; otherwise, she would have been disobeying him by refusing to leave. In other words, if he had said “no,” she would not have been acting rightly.
“Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” The woman’s response reveals that she understands more about the bread that Jesus offers than even his disciples do. They have seen the feeding of the five thousand. After all ate and were satisfied, there were still twelve basketfuls left over. And later they will witness the feeding of the four thousand. And after all ate and were satisfied then, the disciples went out and picked up basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The woman, who was not there at either feeding, knows that there is enough bread left over after the invited guests have eaten, and, in her humility, asks only for that.
The famous nineteenth century English preacher Charles Spurgeon said in a sermon that to ask God if his supply is enough for your need is like an ant going to the owner of a granary to ask if there is enough for his need. The Apostle Paul assured the Philippian believers that God would supply all their needs according to his riches in Christ Jesus.
Jesus is delighted by her response. By her faith, which showed itself in her persistence, she obtained what she asked. This is important. It is hard to keep our faith up when our prayers only meet with silence. But let us be encouraged by the outcome of the woman’s persistence. Jesus grants her request. When she returned home, she found her daughter lying peacefully on her bed.
Today we have the privilege of approaching the Lord’s table, where he offers himself to us as the living bread that came down from heaven. Let us approach the table with the Syrophoenician woman’s understanding of this bread. This is bread that we can eat to our heart’s content. This is bread that will satisfy our deepest hunger. We have this privilege because through him and what he has done for us in his life, death and resurrection from the dead, he has given us a special place at the table with all God’s children, whether Jew or Gentile.
Let us then approach the table in gratitude for this privilege. And let us hold on to our confidence that the Lord will hear us when we pray to him, even when we don’t get answers right away. Let us not interpret God’s silence as God’s rejection of us. But rather, let us keep the dialogue open, in humble expectation of those answers from God. Amen.