Text: Matthew 15:21-28
Date: Lent II + 3/4/07
At first you may think that today’s Gospel is about prayer and encouragement to persistence in prayer. And you’d be right. But if you take away from this story that it is your persistence that makes for successful prayer, you’d only be half-right. For, while this text has something to teach us about faith, it has much more to teach us about God and Christ, the object of faith.
You can identify with the Canaanite woman in our text, first, because she’s a Canaanite, that is, a Gentile, not among God’s chosen people. Indeed, none of us have any inherent right or worthiness in ourselves that we should expect God to hear our prayers much less answer them. Then you may identify with the woman when it seems that God is ignoring you, deaf to your prayers. Twice she begs the Lord to have mercy on her demon-possessed daughter. And even though she is quite earnest and sincere in her prayer and in her faith, three times the Lord turns his back on her. This sequence of events strikes us as rather odd. For Christ not only appears to ignore the woman, he even seems to insult her. First, Jesus just stands there not even acknowledging her presence. Next, his disciples encourage Jesus to call security and send her away. Jesus seems to agree, saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In other words, we get the impression that Jesus is saying, “I’m not for you.” Then, as if that put down wasn’t enough, when the woman barges in and kneels before him Jesus adds, "It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs." Did we hear that right? Did he just call the woman a dog? This is odd, indeed!
On the one hand this is a story encouraging persistence in faith and prayer. For this story should have a familiar ring to it in your own experience. For how many times have you prayed and then felt as if it was a waste of time? How many times have you cried out to the Lord and it seems that your cries have fallen on deaf ears? How many times have you pleaded with the Lord and he only seems to pile on more heartache, grief, insult and trouble? After all it’s bad enough that the devil is always after us, that our own minds torment us and that others seem to encourage us to just give up. But then we begin to entertain the thought that even God is somehow involved in trying our patience and pushing us to the brink. Well, we know how this story ends, don’t we? Isn’t the point that Jesus finally gives in and helps her because her persistence, her faith and sincerity, her willpower and resolve, her noise finally succeeded in breaking him?
I’m always a little leery when I hear a sermon or see a book about “the power of prayer.” Oh, the Lord certainly invites, encourages—even commands us to pray. Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” [Matthew 7:7-8 (ESV)]; “Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you” [John 16:23 (ESV)]; “whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith" [Matthew 21:22 (ESV)]. For all these encouragements, commands and promises concerning prayer, however, the emphasis and the key to the so-called “power” of prayer is not in the prayer itself or in the one praying. Many, in talking about the power of prayer, end up or get mighty close to giving the impression that prayer itself is a sacrament. I’ve heard the phrase “Prayer Warriors” promoted implying that if we overwhelm God with a multitude of earnest prayers we can somehow bend his arm to do what we want when we want. While faith and persistence are encouraged, the classic confusion between Law and Gospel makes us concentrate on ourselves, our work, our sincerity, our resolve, rather than on God’s word and will.
You could easily imagine that, if you were that woman in our text, when Jesus seemed to ignore you, you may have just given up and walked away muttering to yourself your disappointment. Or when he finally responds with the seeming insult, "It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs," you may have taken offense and walked away calling Jesus some sort of elitist, including those around him who wanted to silence you and usher you out of the meeting. I mean how many times haven’t you heard people criticize so-called “organized religion” or just blow off the church saying, “the church is full of hypocrites”?
The true break-through of faith, however, is when it gets our eyes off of ourselves and focuses them solely on Jesus Christ. Faith agrees with every word of our Lord. He was sent “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” in order to fulfill everything written about him in the prophets as Israel’s Messiah, including their complete and utter rejection of him as their Messiah. For through their rejection, our rejection of him, we were all put in the same boat, all now to be saved only by the Lord’s mercy, none having any more rights or privileges than anyone else. Thus he became everyone’s Messiah and Savior according to the original promise to Abraham, “by your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.”
Faith even agrees with the perceived insult calling the woman and us dogs. “She said, ‘Yes, Lord.’” “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Faith agrees with the catechism when we confess, “We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that [our Father in heaven] would give them all to us by grace, for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment.” In other words, “Yes, Lord, we are dogs!” But then faith gets our eyes off of ourselves, our unworthiness, and focuses on Jesus with the knowledge and conviction that God in Christ is for us and not against us. And so faith continues with the little word, “yet.” “Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” True prayer is always so humble and self-effacing, and always so full of hope.
Therefore, when it seems the Lord has turned a deaf ear or you entertain the thought that he is somehow against you, abandoned you and left you alone, don’t for a moment believe that, “for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” [Hebrews 13:5 (ESV)]; “behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” [Matthew 28:20 (ESV)]. He may test you, but only to strengthen your faith. He may try you, but only so that your confidence in him is made all the more sure. As St. Peter wrote, you are being guarded by God’s power “through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, as was necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” [1 Peter 1:5-7 (ESV)].
Therefore, as both his sheep and his dogs, that is, as saints and sinners at the same time, faith continues to rely on our Master, pray to him, pin every hope on him, depend on him and come to him in every need. Jesus responds, “Great is your faith!” not because you win out against him, not because you have a strong resolve to make Jesus bend to your will, but “great is your faith” because you will not let go of Jesus, because you expect that in the end the Lord will give you the very best. So, cast “all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” [1 Peter 5:7 (ESV)].