A mother urged her daughter to say her prayers. The daughter was resistant. “But I don’t want to say my prayers!” she said. Incredulous, the mother asked: “Why don’t you want to say your prayers?” “Because God never answers my prayers,” the daughter replied. “God always answers prayers,” her mother assured her, “sometimes the answer is “yes” other times the answer is “no” and still other times the answer is “wait.”
There is a woman with a daughter in our Gospel lesson for today. Only it is not her daughter who is making the request. It’s the daughter’s mother, who faces the same perplexity as the daughter in our example, as we will see momentarily.
She is from the region of Tyre and Sidon. This in itself is significant. She’s an outsider. She doesn’t live in the land of the promise. She doesn’t enjoy the rights of citizenship in Israel. She is a gentile.
This, however, does not deter her, when she learns that Jesus is in her neighborhood.
She doesn’t know why Jesus has left his own land, the land of the promise. Could it be that he needed rest? Or that he was driven away by the hatred of the Pharisees, with whom he was embroiled in heated controversy?
She doesn’t know. What she does know is that his presence there, in her neighborhood, is fraught with possibility for her and her daughter. Motivated by a mother’s love, she goes to him and makes her petition: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon!” (Matt. 15:22).
The phrasing of the request is worth noting. Evidently, she knows Jesus, or at the very least knows about his power and authority to grant her request. She addresses him as Lord, the Son of David. That is to say, she addresses him as the messiah promised to Israel, the one in whom God’s long-anticipated salvation is present. This one is here, before her very eyes! She is confident that he can do what she asks of him: “Lord, heal my daughter!”
But Jesus does not respond. He appears to be unmoved and without compassion, which is uncharacteristic of him, as we have already seen. Nor does she receive any encouragement from the disciples, who urge Jesus to send her away, just as they did with the 5000 at the great feast we considered a few weeks ago.
The great Reformer Martin Luther imagines what must have been going through the mind of the woman: “Are the reports I heard about this man really true? He is ungracious to me and will not receive me. Now he’s as silent as a stone.”
Can we relate to her? Have we ever experienced the silence of God? We interpret the silence of God as his rejection of our request. And God may very well withhold the object of our request. God does not owe us. Nor can we compel him to give us what we ask of him, as if we have authority over him. “Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases” (Ps. 115:3).
But it may also be that God is not denying to us what we are asking of him. It may be that God is delaying his answer to our request.
We don’t know why God delays. It may seem to us that the time for God to act is now. To us the situation is urgent. It needs God’s immediate attention. But apparently God does not see it that way.
The classic example of this non-coincidence between our timing and God’s timing is the case of Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha (John 11:1-45). You will remember the story. News came to Jesus that his beloved friend Lazarus was gravely ill.
The sisters expected, of course, that Jesus, once he understood how serious the situation really was, would go immediately to Bethany to heal their brother. But that is not what he did. Instead, he stayed where he was two more days. In the meanwhile, Lazarus had died. Finally, Jesus left. When Lazarus’ sisters saw him, they said: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
The sisters were asking: “Jesus, why did you delay? Don’t you care about our brother Lazarus, whom you loved too?”
But in this case the Canaanite woman has no reason to interpret Jesus’ silence as a delay. After a few moments have passed, Jesus tells her plainly: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Jesus’ words here are consistent with his commissioning of the Twelve earlier. “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel” (Matt. 10:5-6).
Jesus’ mission was to go to the people of Israel, in accord with the gracious promise of God to restore them and establish their kingdom under the authority of Messiah, the Son of David, that is, if they were willing to accept it. This is what Jesus has in view when he says: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24).
Luther’s remarks are poignant here: “Are these words not a thunderbolt that dashes both heart and faith into a thousand pieces? Indeed, they are, when we feel that God’s word, in which we trust, was not spoken to us, but applies only to others. God is evidently ungracious to me, and my need remains. Could the Canaanite woman reach any other conclusion than this one?”
Israel? What could this really mean? She must have wondered. It recalls for us the River Jabbok, about which we read two Sundays ago (Gen. 32:22-33). There Jacob wrestled with a man until daybreak. But it was no mere man. Jacob found out before it was all over that he was face to face with God.
The man Jacob wrestled then is the same one the Canaanite woman wrestles today. Jacob cried out: “I will not let you go, unless you bless me!” (Gen. 32:26). Jacob emerged from the struggle victorious. The blessing is granted. And then these words from the mysterious figure: “what is your name?” “Jacob” was his answer. “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with man, and have prevailed”
Can not the same be said about this woman? For here she is engaged in a contest as hard as that of Jacob at the Jabbok river, when the name was given. She will not let Jesus go, unless he blesses her.
The woman comes to the same realization about Jesus as did Jacob about the man at the Jabbok. She sees God face to face, and comes and kneels before him.
“Knelt” can also be translated as “worshipped.” Matthew uses this combination of “came and knelt” to describe what the synagogue leader (Jairus) did as he petitioned Jesus to save his dying daughter in Matthew 9:18. It is what the leper does in Matthew 8:2. And last week, the disciples in the boat worshipped (the same word as “knelt”) Jesus as the winds stopped and Jesus joined them in the boat (Matt. 14:33).
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, to wait for another word from Jesus, ready to continue the dialogue.
Prayer is dialogue. When we struggle with delays in answer to our request, the last thing we want to do is to cut off the dialogue.
So God has not answered our request yet? 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 substance of relationships. And God has chosen to enter into relationship with us through his Son Jesus. Since 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 next to the woman. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Matt. 15:26).
One Bible student suggests that they reflect the “worst kind of chauvinism”—a “violent rebuff” that reveals “incredible insolence.”
But such a strong response is hardly necessary. It is a proverbial statement that reinforces Jesus’ point that his mission is to his own people. “Dog” was a common Jewish term for Gentiles, based on their making no distinction between clean and unclean foods. It is not to be heard as a slur.
Moreover, Bible students have pointed out that in the original language the word “dogs” is in the diminutive, so that it may be translated as “house dogs” or even “little puppies.” Hardly what we’d expect if the tone in which Jesus is speaking with the women is harsh.
Could there not have been instead 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 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.”
Augustine too sees in her experience an example of how God exercises our faith. “She is ignored, not that she may be denied, but that her desire may be enkindled, and that her humility be praised.”
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.
“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (Matt. 15:27).
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 (Matt. 14:13-18). 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 (Matt. 15:29-39). 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 (Phil. 4:19).
Jesus is delighted by her response. By her faith, which showed itself in her persistence, she obtained what she asked. When she returned home, she found her daughter lying peacefully on her bed.
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.
Let us conclude this morning by returning to Luther to hear what he makes of this interaction between Jesus and the Canaanite woman. Luther reminds us that this interaction is written for our comfort, that we may know that God sometimes is silent, and that for that reason we should not estimate him according to our feelings, but according to his word. We must turn from our feelings and seek to lay hold of the “yes” that lies beneath the “no” with a persistence that is born of a firm faith in his word. In the end, the Canaanite woman hears a gracious word.
Let us too trust that as we persist in our struggle with delays in answer to our prayers, in the end we too will hear a gracious word. The Lord will hear us when we pray to him, even when there is a delay. 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 for which we are still waiting. Amen.