Last week, I began by acknowledging that the Gospel reading of the day was, if we paused to think about it, pretty challenging. The same is true this week, and even more so. If this story were about anyone other than Jesus, I suspect we would all agree that he treats the Canaanite woman badly. He ignores her, then he insults her, and all because she is a foreigner. That is not great. What do we do with that?
I got some help this week from a resource I have mentioned before, the Ancient Christian Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. The Commentary gathers together what different Church fathers—pastors and theologians from the first few Christian centuries—say about particular passages.
I was surprised to learn that virtually all of the Fathers seem to have interpreted Jesus’ exchange with his disciples in this passage differently than I have done.
Start with what Matthew tells us. This woman comes up to Jesus shouting about him healing her daughter. When Jesus doesn’t respond, the disciples urge him to “send her away.”
I have always assumed that the disciples were irritated by the woman’s persistence, that they just wanted her to be gone, that they were asking Jesus to get rid of her. If that were right, then we can read everything that follows as Jesus’ effort to teach his disciples to be more accepting. That’s what I have said about this passage in past sermons. And I still think that’s a reasonable way to read this story.
But the Church Fathers open up a whole new set of possibilities. The Church Fathers all seem to think that the disciples want Jesus to grant the woman’s prayer. The disciples are not trying to get rid of her. The disciples are trying to help her.
It makes a difference. In that case, this is no longer a story about the human Jesus responding impatiently to an irritating foreigner, and teaching his disciples a lesson along the way. This becomes a story about our divine Lord visiting a Gentile in need and responding to her prayer and the prayer of his disciples, if in his own time, and in his own way. It goes from being a potentially embarrassing story to being good news.
The good news starts right at the beginning. Jesus leaves Galilee, Jewish territory, and heads to Tyre and Sidon, Gentile territory, non-Jewish territory. To this point, Jesus’ ministry has been almost exclusively with Jews. As best we can tell, Jesus has had virtually no interactions with Gentiles before meeting this woman.
But now Jesus is doing for the Gentiles of Tyre and Sidon what Jesus had been doing for the Jews, what Jesus still does for us. Jesus comes into their lives. Jesus makes himself available to them. Jesus gives them the opportunity to make their prayers to him. That is an act of grace on our Lord’s part.
The Canaanite woman in our story takes advantage of this unprecedented opportunity for Gentiles. She prays, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
At first, Jesus doesn’t seem to respond. So the disciples add their prayers to hers. The disciples pray that Jesus will grant her request.
Still Jesus seems to resist. The woman repeats her prayer. “Help me.”
Still Jesus resists. Finally, when she kneels before him, when she confesses her need, when she admits that she has no claim on him beyond his own mercy and goodness, then at last Jesus grants her prayer. Her daughter is healed.
Surely Jesus knew all along how this story would end. Jesus knew from the beginning that he would eventually heal this woman’s daughter. Indeed, as best we can tell, the whole reason Jesus went to Tyre and Sidon in the first place was to meet this woman, to heal her daughter. Jesus doesn’t do anything else while he was there. Immediately after this story, Jesus returns to his home turf in Galilee and resumes his ministry among the Jews.
So why wait to heal this woman’s daughter? I think Jesus waits in order to teach us about prayer.
This is, after all, what we often experience in our own prayers. We ask God for help. And, at least for a time, we get nothing.
But if we follow the example of the Canaanite woman in our story, we keep praying. Even when we think God is ignoring our prayers, even when we worry that God has refused our prayers, we keep praying. As best we can, we pray with humility, and patience, and faith. We ask others to pray with and for us. And we trust that, in the end, God always does the loving thing, that God answers our prayers as may be best for us, even if God’s answer is not always exactly what we wanted in the first place.
I heard a very helpful prayer story on just this point a couple of weeks ago. Or, rather, I heard the latest chapter, because the story is ongoing.
A friend of mine, a Third Order Franciscan from the southwest, has been having back problems. He himself is a man of prayer. I promised to pray for him, too.
Early this year, my friend scheduled a procedure which he hoped would offer him some relief. Then the pandemic hit, and his procedure was cancelled.
The cancellation was frustrating, of course. My friend was in pain. But what could he do? He kept praying. So did I. And he rescheduled the procedure. It was supposed to be about a month ago.
But his procedure got cancelled again. My friend was told he couldn’t reschedule until sometime next year. That meant a full year in pain for my friend. He kept praying. So did I.
I contacted him a couple of weeks ago to see how he was doing. My friend had more bad news. He’d had a heart attack. He had to go to the hospital to receive an emergency stent.
If you stop the story there, it seems a lot like God was not answering our prayers. Either God wasn’t answering us at all. Or, if God were answering, it was only to say that God was not interested in helping my friend.
And yet God’s refusal to answer our prayers for a successful back operation proved to be an act of mercy and love. It turns out that my friend’s heart was not strong enough for the back procedure he needed. If he had had the back procedure before the stent, he would almost certainly have died on the table. Now, the doctors assure him, his heart is strong enough for the back procedure.
I don’t know what will happen next year. I hope he will have the back procedure. That remains my prayer for him.
But his story reminds me of two things, both of which are visible in our Gospel reading.
First, we need to pray. Like the woman, we need to pray for our own needs. Like the disciples, we need to pray for the needs of others.
And, second, we need to pray in humility, recognizing that we don’t know all there is to know, that God always responds to our prayers in love, that what seems like bad news might turn out to be good news, even if we can’t see how that could possibly be true.
And so we pray. And we keep praying. And, at least in theory, we always end our prayers by saying, “Not my will but yours, O Lord, be done.”
We say that to our Lord Jesus Christ, who always hears our prayers. And we say that in Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan