Text: Matthew 15:21-28
What’s puzzling in the story of the Canaanite woman in our Gospel reading today is that Jesus seems to be mean to her. He ignores her. Then, in her hearing, He tells the disciples that He wasn’t sent to help her. Finally, before relenting, when she worships Him, He rebukes her and calls her a dog.
It’s a tough reading; an odd reading. It’s the type of reading that demands a bit of an explanation as to what exactly is going on.
Some say that Jesus is dismissive of her because she was simply seeking a Jewish miracle worker – much in the way that some Jews had sought to make Jesus king after the feeding of the five thousand. But if that’s the case then the Lord could not yield to her petition because to do so would have misled her. He sought to deliver both the mother and the daughter from demons.
Others say that Jesus’ silence and His rebukes were meant to wring out of her not the “lesser” title “Son of David” which she first uses but instead the “greatest” title: “Lord.” When she finally accepted that He was to be her Master, that she was to eat from His hand; When she finally calls Him Lord, then, at last, He relents, grants her petition, and praises her faith.
I don’t think this holds up. Two weeks ago we heard blind Bartimaeus say the exact same thing: Jesus didn’t rebuke him or test his faith. He just asked him “What do you want me to do for you?”
So both explanations seem to just end up making her superstitious and not faithful: just use the right words and Jesus will do what you want. This is the sort of Prayer of Jabez/The Secret garbage that you should throw away and put out of your mind. There’s no secret prayer or just-right way to pray that guarantees that you’ll get results. This is a lie and a temptation to despair of God’s hearing your prayers. This has as much to do with the true teaching of this bible story as the budget of the State of Illinois.
What I can’t get past is that when she calls Jesus the Son of David, she also asks Him for for mercy and for help. I think she had a pretty good idea as to what this Jesus, the Messiah and the Son of David, was all about.
And that is the point: The Lord is drawing her faith out, exercising it, through discipline He is strengthening her faith. He’s using his repeated answer of “no” to increase her faith.
This is what it looks like when God lays crosses and suffering upon us. And even though this was probably just 15 minutes for her, sometimes our Lord drags it out over our entire lives. This 15 minutes for many can be 15 years, or even 50. This story teaches us that the Lord tests our faith because He loves us and wants us to trust in Him all the more.
From our perspective, without the end in sight, it’s tempting to think that God is being mean to us. He doesn’t give us what we want. He lets us suffer. He lets our loved ones die. But the Lord is not mean. Rather He is teaching us to live by faith and to confess.
Let’s see how this woman is faithful, and shows forth fruits of that faith. Every time Jesus says “no”, she says “yes.” He ignores her: “no”. She keeps on asking – “yes” – so much that the disciples get annoyed. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” “No.” She comes and gets down on her knees – we need to understand that as she gets down, face planted, to the ground – and worships him: “Yes.” “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” “No.” “Yes, Lord…” There is faith. No matter what the Lord says to us, faith is us always, always, always saying “Yes, Lord.”
And faith bears fruit: patience, perseverance, prayer, humility.
This woman is patient in that she endures the seeming reproaches of the Lord. She accepts the crosses that He sends. She doesn’t quit when she’s not first successful.
At the same time, even though she accepts the silence and insult of the Lord, she doesn’t cease in asking for what she knows is good until she obtains it. She perseveres patiently in her prayers that her daughter be relieved of demons.
This patience and persistence are both related to her humility. She’s willing to be a dog, to eat the crumbs that fall from the Master’s table. She will beg and plead. She knows it’s worth it because she believes that the Master, the Son of David, is good and will be good to her.
If she wasn’t humble she would not be patient. If she wasn’t patient she would not persevere. And if she didn’t have faith, if she didn’t trust in both the love and the power of Christ, there would be no reason to pray. And that’s what Jesus is truly praising here: He praises her faith. Faith: the trust and expectation that God is good and will do good things for her according to His promise.
As we have faith, as we believe, it is done for us. We have the benefit of Christ’s sacrifice, of His death and resurrection for us. And faith has been given to us! By the grace of God, we believe! We say “yes” to all that the Lord tells us.
So how patient, persistent, and humble are we? It’s hard to say. I think we’re often far less patient, persistent, and humble than we think we are; but at the same time, often far more. Regardless of more or less, we can confidently say that by God’s grace we have faith.
Is our faith as perfect or great as the Canaanite woman’s? I don’t know. Probably not. Or maybe. I truly don’t know. Only God can measure faith. Our task is not to figure out if we have enough faith. Our task is to repent and fall down in worship, to pray for mercy and to beg for crumbs.
And if it seems that the Lord is ignoring us or even rebuffing us–saying “no”; and it does often seem he’s saying “no”–we persevere. We persevere because Jesus made a promise: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench.” We hold Him to His Word.
If He afflicts us with evil, with a tyrannical government, or cancer, or demons, we endure in prayer. We don’t cease to ask for relief, for mercy, for help. We accept the crosses that He bestows. Yet we don’t stop praying that they be removed.
And they will be. He will answer our prayers for relief in His own perfect time. Even if that means our blesséd death. What is death anyway? It has no sting; it’s destroyed. Through the portal of death, our Lord brings us into everlasting life.
We are beggars. So we keep on begging, imploring the Lord for mercy. We ask Him to be Himself, our Messiah, our Son of David, who has come to free us from the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh. Lord, have mercy. Lord, help us.