And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and cried, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.” But He did not answer her a word. And His disciples came and begged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before Him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Matthew 15:21-28 (Gospel from the Sunday of the Canaanite Woman)
We’ve all had the experience of a prayer going unanswered. We’ve even offered prayers that we thought were worthy prayers for worthy causes and had them go unanswered. It begs the question: Does God test us by not answering our prayers?
Many people think of prayer as some kind of vending machine. We insert request, and Christ gives us an answer. Prayer is when we speak to God, and said even more simply, it is being with God. In prayer, we enter into intimate conversation with God, conversation that is joyful, vulnerable and humble. God always hears our prayers, but answers them in His way and in His time.
Let’s give a contemporary example. My son asks me to buy him French fries for the fourth time in a week. I say no. He begs and implores me. I don’t give into his request out of control or meanness. In this case, I do it out of love. I love my son and want him to grow up to live a long and healthy life. Four servings of French fries in a week is not good for him. In this case, I have to say no.
But what about this Canaanite woman, who was asking for healing for her daughter, certainly a worthy request? Certainly Christ knew He was going to heal the woman’s daughter, but first there was a teaching moment both for the woman and for the crowd that was there. First of all, the woman was a Canaanite woman, a Gentile. She was not a Jew, one of God’s chosen people. Jews didn’t go out of their way to help Gentiles.
When the woman’s initial prayer was not heard, she kept crying out after Jesus. Even the disciples were annoyed and wanted Him to send her away. Jesus told her “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house is Israel.” (Mathew 15:24) Obviously, Jesus had come for everyone, but He wanted to see what she would do, and He wanted her to serve as a witness for the Jews who were nearby.
Jesus told her “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” (15:26) And she replied “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” (15:27) In saying this, she was showing humility, comparing herself with a dog, and acknowledging Jesus as her master.
Jesus indeed healed the woman’s daughter and at the same time gave us two lessons. First, a lesson in faith. Faith is when we don’t know the outcome but we continue to show up and believe. If every prayer was answered instantly, if prayer was like a vending machine, it wouldn’t take any faith at all to pray. It takes faith to offer a prayer, knowing that Christ will answer all requests, but in His way.
The second lesson in the miraculous encounter was that Jesus was going to be the Savior of not just the Jews, but of the Gentiles as well. And that the faith of the Gentiles was going to be greater than the faith of the Jews. Remember that it was the Jews that were going to reject Jesus as the Messiah.
There is one troubling thing that lingers from this story for which there is no answer. In my ministry, I’ve had the experience of burying many children and young adults, children of faithful parents who prayed and all they prayed for was their children to be healed and to extend their life. They acknowledged Jesus as Lord. They were persistent like the Canaanite woman. I’m proud to say that just about all of them still go to church every Sunday and are very involved in the life of the Church and live a life a faith. So why did these prayers not get answered? And the simple answer is, I don’t know. There are certain things that happen in life that make no sense. I still believe in God, even in the face of senseless tragedy. When I meet the Lord, I will certainly have some questions, or maybe I won’t, maybe at that moment, it will all make sense. It’s just that some things don’t make sense in my very human mind.
If you are struggling to make sense of things, don’t despair. I’m sure that the Canaanite woman struggled also to make sense of things. What she did that serves as an example for all of us, is that she didn’t go away the first time her prayer wasn’t heard, or the second or the third. She stayed with Christ, and eventually her prayer was answered, in His way, in His time. The ultimate thing we pray for is salvation. This is a prayer that God will answer in His way, in His time. The route for each person will be different in length and in challenges along the way. The important thing is that we continue to walk the path He has chosen for us in faith and to not be discouraged even when life doesn’t go as we wish, even when we feel like dogs begging for crumbs. It was in her great humility that her prayer was answered. A life lived with humility, as we will learn shortly in the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, will lead to great exultation. So stay humble and stay focused, no matter how difficult the path gets.
O Lord, Your angel messenger, when he proclaimed Your resurrection, caused the guardians to be afraid but the women’s fear allayed, and addressed them, “Wherefore seek you among the dead the One who lives? He rose, for He is God, and the gift of life He has given to the universe.” (Fourth Resurrectional Praise, Plagal 4th Tone, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Spend time in prayer with the Lord today!