Reminiscere (Second Sunday in Lent)

Text: Matthew 15:21-28

Last Sunday, we heard Jesus teach us about His victory over the Devil on our behalf, and how we draw comfort in our own temptations and weakness as the Devil assaults us.  Today, He teaches us about prayer.  When it comes to the great examples of prayer in the Bible, you might name Abraham who interceded for Sodom, or David who penned a bulk of the Psalms the faithful still prays, or Solomon with his grand dedication of the Temple in 1 Kings 8.  But for this lesson, our Lord takes us completely out of Israel, to the land of Tyre and Sidon—a place previously cursed by the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel (Isa. 23; Jer. 25:15-26; Ezek. 28:1-10).  There, the Lord is approached by a woman of that land.

But what we find in this woman is not what the prophets cursed.  Far from the pride of the King of Tyre, this woman is worthy in the way the Lord sees worthiness. She doesn’t presume to come to Jerusalem. But that doesn’t mean she didn’t have need.  She is earnest about saving her daughter from demon possession.

The evangelist Matthew speaks against the woman, so that he would highlight her marvelous act, and celebrate her praise all the more. It’s intentional that she is called a Canaanite woman.  This should bring to mind those wicked nations which the Lord drove out before Israel, who from their foundations violated the laws of nature. They are the ones who burned their sons in the fire to gain prosperity from Molech, who went into cult prostitutes of Ashtoreth to attain a blessing on the harvest, and who shed their own blood to get the attention of their Baal.  And being reminded of these, consider the power of Christ’s coming. For God’s people of old, the Canaanites were cast out, so that they wouldn’t spread their perversions to God’s people.  But what about those people of the land who spiritually “went out” from their father’s house?  The likes of Rahab, Ruth, and Naaman.  These foreigners appeared so much better disposed than the Israelites, who had actually been witnesses to the Red Sea crossing.

Having come to Christ, this woman from Canaan said nothing but “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon,” and by her cries she made quite a spectacle. It must have been a pitiful sight to see a woman crying aloud in so great affliction, and that woman a mother entreating for her daughter, and even for a child in such evil condition.  She didn’t dare to bring her daughter in person to the Lord, but she brought herself to entreat the Lord for mercy.

And she tells her affliction only and leaves it to His compassion.  She doesn’t venture to demand the way He should grant her relief, saying, “Come and lay your hand upon her,” and, “Come down before my child dies.” [Matt. 9:18; John 4:49]

But after describing her daughter’s calamity and how intense the condition is, she appeals to the Lord’s mercy and cries aloud.  She also doesn’t even say, “Have mercy on my daughter,” but, “Have mercy on me.” You can see in her how she takes her daughter’s torture to heart!  She bears in her prayer the sleepless nights and agony that love engenders.

“But he did not answer her a word.”  This is certainly not the response we expect to hear in a lesson about prayer.  He had permitted many to come to Him and be healed—even the Gentile centurion of whom He commended his faith.  But to this woman—running to Him and entreating Him, to her who had been educated neither in the Law, nor in the Prophets, and was exhibiting so great reverence—to her He doesn’t give her so much as an answer.

Who wouldn’t have been offended by this? The reports had gone out about Jesus, that He went about the villages healing.  Now this woman, when she had come to Him, He utterly repels. And, unless our hearts are covered in unfeeling fat, who would not have been moved by her affliction, and by the plea she made for her daughter?  She had approached Him with such humility, not demanding, but she begging that she might find mercy, giving a heartfelt account of her own affliction; yet she is met with silence.

Perhaps many of the hearers were offended, but she was not put off. Even Jesus’ own disciples had heard enough.  They may have sympathized with this woman, but they followed what they supposed was the Lord’s lead: “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.”  They assumed that the silence meant the Lord had rejected her.

But Christ’s response was not rejection.  Instead, He says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  What did the woman do, after she heard this? Did this silence her, and did she desist? Or did she relax her earnestness? No, she was the more insistent! But often, that’s not how we respond.  When we fail to obtain, we just give up.  Instead, when by appearances it seems God has brushed off the needs of His children, this ought to make us the more urgent.

And yet, who wouldn’t be perplexed by the Lord’s response to her? His silence could have been enough to drive her to despair, but His answer was not meant to crush her, but press her for a fuller confession of faith.  This woman was not perplexed, but she was driven by a conviction that the Lord has mercy on the humble and contrite.  So, she is not afraid to make herself shameless with a good kind of shamelessness.  Call it godly self-abasement.  Before this, if you look carefully, she had not been so bold to come right in front of Jesus.  She went from crying out after the group to kneeling right in front of the Lord, humbly yet insistently.  She worships, “she came and knelt before him,” and prays, “Lord, help me.”

In this, the Canaanite woman shows a greater confidence than the apostles. She displays faith in a hand which grasps onto the Lord, like Jacob, and will not let go [Gen. 32:22-32].  She acknowledges that He was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but true as that is, she confesses Jesus to be Lord, and the Lord who reveals Himself in the Psalms, “For the needy shall not always be forgotten, and the hope of the poor shall not perish forever.” (Psalm 9:18)  “Help me,” therefore, “Lord.”

In our impatience, we think this must be enough of a test of her faith.  She has endured silence, being told that God didn’t send His Christ for Canaanites.  But then He presses her with one more apparent rejection. Not even with all this was He satisfied, but He makes her perplexity yet more intense again, saying, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

With these words, He strikes her more sharply than He did by His silence. No more does He refer the cause to another, nor say, “I am not sent,” but the more urgent she makes her plea, so much the more does He seem to solidify His denial. And He calls them no longer “sheep,” but “children,” and her “a dog.”

Here we see her faith in the Lord shine, even over against adversity and what in the moment appears as rejection.  What does she say next? Out of His own words she frames her plea. “Why, though I be a dog,” said she, “I am not an alien.”  For, “Yes, that food is necessary for the children,” she reasons, “yet neither am I forbidden, being a dog.  But if, they ought to be partakers, neither am I forbidden, though I be a dog.”  Whoever has tried to feed children at a table can understand what she’s talking about.  And how much did Israel act like the age of children who reject their food and throw it on the floor!

It was for this that Christ had put her off, for He knew she would say this; for this did He deny the grant, that He might exhibit the conviction of her faith.

For if He had not meant to give, neither would He have given afterwards. But this is similar to the account of the centurion, where He says, “I will come and heal him,” that we might learn the godly fear of that man, and—for our benefit—hear him say, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word.” [Matt. 8:8]  Also, as He did for the woman who had an discharge of blood, saying, “Someone touched me, for I perceive that power has gone out from me,” [Luke 8:46] that He might make her faith manifest, “she came trembling, and falling down before him declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed,” and His praise of her is also a lesson to us: “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” [Luke 8:47-48]

The Lord did not want so great virtue in this Canaanite woman to remain hidden. He did not speak to her in insult, but calling her forth, and revealing the treasure laid up in her.  “O woman, great is your faith!” This is why He put her off, that He might proclaim aloud this saying, that He might crown the woman, before the Jews and before us as well.

“Be it done for you as you desire.” If we marveled before at who the Lord answered in prayer, now He shows how powerful a thing prayer is.  In effect, He is saying: “Your faith indeed is able to effect even greater things than these; nevertheless, Let it be done for you as you desire.”  This was akin to that voice that said, “Let there be…and it was.” [Genesis 1]  For when we pray to the Lord, this is who we are asking, and we all too often forget His almighty power and His willingness to answer our faith in Him.

“And her daughter was healed from that hour.”[1]  Do you see how this woman too contributed to the healing of her daughter? Asking in faith, she received.  To this end, Christ didn’t just say, “Let your daughter be healed,” only but, “Great is your faith, be it done for you as you desire,” to teach us that the words were not used at random, nor were they flattering words, but great was the power of her faith.

The certainty of this faithful prayer and its answer, He left to the issue of events: Her daughter was healed that very hour.

But notice how, when the apostles had failed, and had not succeeded, this woman had success. This is the great outcome of persistence in prayer. To think He would even be asked by us, guilty as we are, on behalf of those who belong to us. May this rid us of the thought that God regards the prayers of so-called holy people more than He does the pleas of poor sinners like you and me!

Who was Jacob in this life but a younger brother and a scoundrel?  What claims did this Canaanite woman hold before the Lord?  Yet the Lord displays His grace, His gift of faith, and the wonderful outcome of His answering prayer.  He is not to be pictured as a vending machine for whatever we want when we want it.  Prayer to Him is not to be understood as a magic formula ending with, “in Jesus’ Name.”  Prayer is of faith—knowing the character of God who shows mercy and fulfills His promises, holding Him to it, waiting on Him—and that faith results in His answer: 7 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.” (Matt. 7:7-8)  Amen.

The bulk of this sermon was adapted from Homily 52 by St. John Chrysostom(Schaff, Philip, ed. 1888. Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew. Vol. 10. New York: Christian Literature Company.)

[1] Based on the ESV footnote which translates the Greek more precisely