February 28, 2010
River of Life Lutheran Church—Channahon, IL
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Canaanite woman from today’s Gospel had no ordinary problem. “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 was crying, ‘Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon’” (vv 21-22).
The trouble that this woman faced was a spiritual one. The malady afflicting this woman’s family was not something that could be fixed by a visit to her primary care physician, nor by a letter to her local elected officials. Hers was a spiritual battle.
So she turned to prayer. Prayer is a spiritual battle, because it’s the primary target of—and weapon against—Satan and his evil host. Apart from God’s Word and His precious Sacraments, there is nothing that Satan attacks so vehemently as the prayers of God’s people. From the simple prayers of children as they lay themselves down to sleep, praying for the Lord their souls to keep, to the most fervent litanies prayed in great discipline and fasting during Lent, the adversary wants nothing more than for such praying to cease, for he knows what harm it brings to him.
In our spiritual battle of prayer, we are often met with struggles and trials that will cause our weak flesh to cease praying.
This Canaanite woman serves as our example of the struggles that come with prayer. Three times she approached Jesus begging Him for relief and mercy, and three times she is met with unfavorable responses.
First, she is met with silence. “But he did not answer her a word” (v 23a). Though the text does not tell us explicitly, we can identify with the feelings this woman undoubtedly was experiencing. “He doesn’t care. He probably isn’t even able to help me. Who does this man think He is?” These are the subtle, subconscious suggestions of the spiritual enemy.
The disciples now weigh in and this time Jesus answers, but He is cold and unfriendly. “And his disciples came and begged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she is crying out after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’” (vv 23b-24).
Now Jesus suggests that she, being Canaanite and not of the same blood as Jesus and the rest of the Israelites, is not entitled to help from this Jewish Messiah. “The promise isn’t for you. You’re an outsider. Why don’t you ask your own gods? Go away!” More temptations from the devil.
Again she comes to Jesus, this time throwing herself at His feet. “But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ And he answered, ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs’” (vv 25-26).
Now Jesus adds insult to injury. Not only does He refuse to give her what she wants, but He also adds an ethnic slur, for the unclean Gentiles were like dogs to the Jews. “I deserve to have my daughter healed—look at the lengths I’ve gone to! How dare this man ignore me, then call me a dog! I shouldn’t have even come. This is certainly not the Son of God I expected to find.”
Often times Jesus seems like a hard man, even cruel. His handling of the Canaanite woman is not exactly what we would expect from our Lord. He puts her off again and again. He doesn’t answer favorably. He even speaks a bit rudely to her.
Have you ever met this Jesus in your prayers? Have your prayers seemed like they are falling on deaf ears? Have you felt as though Christ were sending you away, as if He didn’t have time? Have you even felt that God is insulting you by heaping more trials upon the already crushing load for which you’re praying for relief?
These are the battles that are fought in spiritual warfare. The Lord’s responses are often less than what we expect from Him—or demand from Him—and our weak flesh is always too ready to give up and seek its own solutions, or, even worse, to raise the white flag of surrender and join the camp of the enemy.
Part of the nature with which we are all born is to expect God to answer and act on our terms. In our prayers, we lay out what we expect from God, and if He doesn’t follow to the letter, we’re not satisfied. We pray for healing from cancer, but God offers two years of struggle that end in death. He obviously didn’t listen to our prayers, or refused to answer them. We pray that we might find a job in this poor economy after three months of unemployment, and God answers with another three months with no salary, and you have to cut your summer vacation plans and stay home. So God doesn’t care about my livelihood.
If we give up prayer because the Lord’s response does not suit our expectations, or when we face struggles and trials, Satan has won the victory. And his spoils may very well be your eternal soul.
Yet, when viewed through the lens of faith, one sees that it is precisely in those struggles that the Lord is revealing just how comforting His Word is, for it is the only thing that can gain victory over Satan and his lies.
Faith Clings to the Word of God No Matter How Difficult the Struggle
While Jesus’ three responses to the Canaanite woman outwardly appeared cruel, they were meant to bring her to a great faith in Christ by holding fast to His Word.
First, His silence. His silence is to show the woman that He is not answering her prayer simply to get rid of her, like the disciples suggested. He earnestly wants to do what she asks, but He also wants her to know that He does so by grace, not because of the quality of her prayer.
When He says that He was not sent but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, He was not saying that she was excluded from the promise. But He wanted to show her that there was no worthiness in her to receive an answer, but that He gladly invites her into His household of grace to be an heir of the promise.
And what appears to be an insult is really no insult at all, but a word of promise that she—although a Canaanite and outside the household of Israel—still has a place in the Lord’s house and is entitled to the benefits of being at the Lord’s feet. “She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table’” (v 27).
All along, Jesus is providing His Word to the woman and leading her to a great faith. Martin Luther says regarding this woman, “She catches Christ, the Lord, in his own words and with that wins not only the right of a dog, but also that of the children. Now then where will he go, our dear Jesus? He let himself be made captive, and must comply. Be sure of this: that’s what he most deeply desires.”
There is a mighty lesson of prayer taught here. It is not the power of prayer that accomplishes anything, but the Word and promise of God, to which faith holds fast. With the woman’s initial petition, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David;” Jesus sees the faith in this woman, but He wants her to struggle with His Word so that she learns to not let go of it.
Our Lord desires our prayer, then, not for His benefit, but for ours, that we might realize that all good things come from Him without any merit or worthiness in me. There is no right—no entitlement—in the Church apart from what His Word promises and offers. Our prayers are a confession of faith that the Lord is the source of all our benefits.
Luther taught that prayer makes a theologian, but that it must also be accompanied by meditation on God’s Word, and what he called tentatio, or Anfechtung. Prayer and meditation on the Word of God are met with struggles and trials.
We see all three exhibited in the Canaanite woman. Her prayers were answered with Christ’s promise, though it was hidden under what appeared to be cruelty. But by her struggle she is commended and her desire accomplished. “Then Jesus answered her, ‘O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.’ And her daughter was healed instantly” (v 29).
Learn to love these three things; prayer, meditation on God’s Word, and struggling with trials, and you will also see the comfort that is found in the Word of Christ. And then you will hear for yourself, “O Christian, great is your faith!”
In + Jesus’ name. Amen.
Jacob W Ehrhard