There used to be a popular catch phrase in response to people who didn’t seem to get what they prayed for….
“God always answers prayer; but sometimes the answer is ‘No’.”
In my experience though, and reading the lives and writings of numerous mystics and saints, I would offer that this is actually false. The response should be more, “God always answers prayer; often though, not the way we want or expect. God answers prayer in God’s own way and time.”
Today’s gospel passage is a real challenge, and is sometimes a difficult one to come to terms with, especially in a country and culture that promotes tolerance and inclusiveness. It’s the story of a Canaanite woman apparently being ignored by Jesus in the midst of her need. The portrayal of Jesus and his disciples as cold and uncaring is not very flattering in this particular excerpt from St. Matthew’s gospel. Yet it is that very portrayal that scholars point to as proof of the accuracy of this event. If a person was writing a book to encourage others to join a movement, they certainly would never portray the ‘hero’ in an unflattering light, or in a manner which appears contrary or opposite to the message of his movement. Her we have Jesus, the Lord of love, portrayed at the very least as stingy with his miracles, or at the very worst, a racist- giving a cold reply to someone not of his race.
On a surface reading, Jesus may come across as callous, uncaring; the woman is begging him to help her child, and Jesus initially doesn’t answer her at all; the disciples come off looking just as bad if not worse – they demand Jesus ‘send her away’ so she will stop bothering them.
Imagine being in the position of this woman; her child is possessed, and her own medical people have been unable to heal her, and she is coming to this healer and preacher from a people who forced her own people from their homeland centuries before – in fact, Jesus is in the region of Tyre and Sidon in southern Lebanon – he’s out of his own territory. He is in a heavily pagan region.
When I reflect on passages like this, I try to identify with them in my own experience or imagination. My child is seriously afflicted. I’ve tried everything and I’m desperate; I am on a mission of love for my child, and I need help – I go to this stranger whom I have heard a bit about, particularly as a healer, and I am begging him for help. His followers tell him to ‘send me away’ because I’m becoming a nuisance – I’m bothering them. I’m not ‘one of them.”
And Jesus’ initial response sounds pretty cold too; “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ – to which she answers, pleading “Lord, help me”…Jesus’ subsequent response sounds even more harsh; “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
And she doesn’t give up and go away; she sticks to her request, and answers, ‘even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table”
The story of course has a happy ending with Jesus healing the woman’s daughter, because, as Jesus tells the woman who persists in her pleading, ‘great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish.” This woman persisted for love of her daughter; and because she obviously believed – really believed – that Jesus could provide the healing that no one else could. She didn’t say if you heal my daughter I will believe you or follow you or love you.
This passage requires a very careful reading to see the truths Jesus teaches all of us; with the woman’s initial requests, ‘Have mercy on me Lord” Jesus doesn’t immediately answer her – but he doesn’t say ‘no’. When the disciples are annoyed with her shouting and pleading, again he doesn’t immediately respond to her cries, but he doesn’t say ‘no’. Even when she gets into the exchange with him about the ‘dogs’ and the ‘master’s table’, Jesus still is not saying ‘no’. He draws out her faith, almost as if he is challenging her to reach further, to persist, to stand firm in her belief that she can approach Him and ask for His healing and grace. He answers her in his own time, in his own way.
This is also an opportunity for Jesus to illustrate to his disciples that the kingdom of God is open to all.
In his gospel account, St. Matthew is chiefly writing for a Jewish audience, trying throughout to show Jesus’ words and actions against the backdrop of the Prophets and Jewish tradition, and how this fits together to show that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. Most of his healings and miracles are of Jewish people, in synagogues, near the Temple, and the like. There are very few instances where Jesus heals a Gentile – a non-Jew or pagan – several chapters earlier, he heals the Roman centurion’s servant; so it is clear that these healings of Gentiles are exceptions in Matthew’s Gospel.
Exceptions, but they are there. These exceptions are a reminder that the gift of salvation, given by God freely, and offered through the person of Jesus, is open to all people. This offer; this understanding is a theme that runs through all of our readings today: our first reading from Isaiah, “and the foreigners (meaning the Gentiles) who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to Him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, … these I will bring to my holy mountain….”
“My house will be a house of prayer for all peoples.”
And in our second reading, from St. Paul to the Romans; he addresses the Gentiles saying that salvation is likewise open to them (not just the Jews) through Christ: “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all”
Jesus uses the persistence of this woman, a Gentile, to show his followers, that it is not by birthright or by belonging to a specific group that people automatically receive the grace of God, the gift of His love. Prayer is not simply a matter of just ‘saying’ a few words of request without the motivation of love or trust. Prayer is not muttering a specific phrase without meaning as if the words themselves are some kind of magic formula. Prayer is also not making a demand and attaching conditions to God’s reply. And if it seems at first that because we don’t get an immediate answer or get the answer we demand or expect, it does not mean that God is not listening.
It is by being persistent in faith; in trusting, that God provides answers to our prayers; it is in refusing to let setbacks or apparent lack of success prevent us from persevering in our prayer; and it is in being motivated by love that we approach God in prayer in the first place. But in all of it, it is about hearing and accepting whatever response God gives us; conforming our will to God’s will…because God always answers true prayer- in God’s own time and in God’s own way.
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!