Revised and abridged from 2009
All of us know a thing or two about persistent cries. Take a hungry child to the grocery store and watch what happens in the cereal aisle or the checkout aisle. The child cries out for a certain brand of cereal. The child cries out for a candy bar or a pack of chewing gum. We ignore their cries of asking and begging. We pretend we are deaf and look the other way. Still, the child cries out so long and so loud that eventually we will give in and buy the box of cereal or the piece of candy or gum. It’s better to give the child what he or she wants than chance a public temper tantrum.
Jesus pretends to be deaf, or at least pretends to have selective hearing. He hears the Canaanite woman begging for mercy on behalf of her demon-possessed daughter. But [Jesus] answered her not a word. And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.”
We’ve been in the Canaanite woman’s shoes. We pray to our heavenly Father repeatedly, asking for earthly blessings of good health for us and for our loved ones. What does He bring us? He brings good health for us and for our loved ones when and where He wills. It seems the good things we pray for happen when we expect it. So we tend not to ask for much when things go well. The times when God seems to let us down is when we need His help. We know exactly Whom to ask when in the hour of deepest need. But all is quiet. Not a sound. We expect the angels to whisper to our heavenly Father: “Send him or her away, for he or she cries out after you.”
Soon our prayers turn to short exclamations like the Canaanite woman’s exclamation of Lord, help me! When the heavenly silence continues, our prayers turn to silence too. We don’t ask God for anything anymore. He isn’t listening. He doesn’t care. He has more important people to hear and more pressing matters to attend.
Perhaps that is how most of us think the Canaanite woman’s account should end. She is not a Jew. Jesus has no need to give her the time of day, let alone heal her daughter. Jesus even gives her the ultimate shove-off when He tells her it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. There seems to be no help for her and her daughter. There is no place for her among the children of the heavenly Father.
Our persistence in prayer is met sometimes with the sound of silence. Heavenly silence is enough to make even the staunchest Christian wave the white flag of surrender. We perhaps wonder if there’s a place for us with the children of the heavenly Father. What did we do that made God so mad at us that He won’t hear our prayer?
How about sin for starters? Sin brings separation from the Almighty God Who demands nothing short of holiness and perfection from His children. The Jews are not the poster children of holiness and perfection, but they are the ones whom God chose to build a great nation. His promise of eternal life and salvation rests first with them. What we sometimes forget, and many Jews also forget, is that God’s promise of eternal life and salvation rest with the spiritual Israel; all those who believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, whether or not they are a Jew or a Gentile. That is what the Canaanite woman believes in spite of her bloodline.
Of all the people that could have approached Jesus with a problem, the Canaanite woman showed persistence in prayer and spoke volumes about the kingdom of heaven with one sentence. Where we see a door closed and locked tight, the Canaanite woman saw an opening to confess her faith. It is as if Jesus was the comedic straight man setting up the punch line: yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.
Everything the Canaanite woman says to Jesus flows from the solid rock of faith in Jesus Christ, the Savior of both Jew and Gentile. She calls Jesus son of David. That should have been a clue to the disciples that Jesus is not dealing with an ordinary Canaanite. She later calls Him Lord. Again, that word should be enough to tip them off that Jesus might be teaching them something life changing. Yet they want Jesus to shoo her away. Jesus throws her a hanging curve ball, and she hits a tape measure grand slam.
Jesus allows Himself to be caught in a word trap to teach us that persistence in prayer pays off. He also teaches us that though we are Gentile sinners and not the promised children of the inheritance, we have a stake in the kingdom of heaven with the Jews because of God’s gift of faith in His only-begotten Son.
Sometimes we feel like Jacob in Genesis chapter 32; wrestling God to a time limit draw. Our knees get sore in prayer. There are not many words left to speak to God in prayer that we haven’t spoken before. Still we wrestle. Still we persevere. We say with Jacob, [Lord], I will not let you go unless You bless me. We know not to let go of the Lord because He promises never to let us go. He may test our faith to see where we will look in time of need, but He promises never to let go of us. God loves to answer prayer. When we pray for spiritual blessings, God has to give us what we ask. When we pray for earthly blessings, we always pray “Your will be done”, believing that His good and gracious will is always done among us. It may not be our will, but His answer is best.
The Canaanite woman does her best impression of Jacob. She digs, claws, and hangs on to Jesus until He relents and answers her prayer. Though it looks like child’s play to our eyes, Jesus loves it when we persist and dig in our heels. That is why we return to the Master’s Table week after week to receive the crumbs that fall from pulpit, font, and altar, into our ears and mouths. These crumbs of forgiveness and life matter more to us than the fanciest dinner feast. Rather than filling our empty stomachs, they fill our empty lives with peace and joy from a loving and merciful God.
Though we may blush at a child’s persistent cry for something from the grocery store, Jesus Christ is never embarrassed when we wrap our body and soul around Him. He knows we will not let go until He blesses us as He did Jacob and the Canaanite woman. Believe it for Jesus’ sake.