We’ve all prayed prayers that don’t seem to get answered.
Matthew 15:21-28 is one of those passages most Christians would rather not talk about. Or, if they do, they’d rather stay on the story’s surface. They fear digging too deeply casts Jesus into a negative, which may lead to “confusion.”
But the passage IS in the Bible… on purpose. That fact makes it imperative that we dig into it.
The Silent Elephant in The Room
Look, Jesus just seems rude here. For real. And that’s saying it lightly. Not only does he completely ignore this Canaanite woman when she asks him for help, but he justifies his actions to the disciples before calling her a dog… right to her face.
It’s clear. This woman had exasperated the disciples. We can tell by their request to just give her what she wanted so she would go away. Their exasperation is a key piece here. It tells us that Jesus had not simply ignored this woman on one or two of her requests. She’d been pestering for quite some time, repeatedly feeling unheard and unrecognized. “She keeps crying out after us,” is what the disciples said. She’d become a nuisance and the disciples didn’t want to help her, they just wanted her gone. “Jesus, just do this thing and get her outta here. She’s working on our nerves!”
Jesus’ behavior in this passage makes Christians uncomfortable. Understandably. Some say Jesus was testing this woman, which certainly makes us feel better about the scene. Surely Jesus knew how this thing would end, so he just wanted to make a point about persistence, right?
I suppose. I find it difficult to settle with that view given how the passage hints at how long she’d been asking Jesus for help. That, and the fact that he tells the disciples, “he was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel.” — a statement the woman probably didn’t hear. A statement that doesn’t sound very tongue in cheek. I’m not so sure Jesus is posturing here.
Whether it is comforting or not, the Bible substantiates Jesus’ behavior. Or it at least shows some consistency in the way God views prayers.
- In Isaiah 59:2 it’s written, “But your sins have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.“
- In James 5:16 it’s written, “…The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”
Too, this is not the first place Jesus refers to some category of people as dogs. In fact, in that famous Sermon on the Mount…
- Around Matthew 7:6, Jesus says “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.
No doubt, even in our own lives and experiences, it often feels as though we are crying to God, pleading him to intervene in some capacity, only to feel as though our requests have fallen on deaf ears. We have all been there. We’ve all suffered through some unfortunate set of events we prayed God would rid us from. And all we received was silence.
However we interpret the actions of Jesus, we must not ignore the reality of the text. Jesus did, for whatever reason, ignore several pleading cries from this Canaanite women, much like God did with the Israelites who cried for centuries in Egypt, and in the time of the Judges. Why he did so may not make sense? But that he did so is not only undeniable, but consistent.
The story turns after Jesus and this woman exchange words. One of the most common takeaways from this passage is that “persistence pays off.” It certainly seems to play a part in the story. But persistence alone is not a “moral.” We need to add something to it.
First, persistence does not always pay off, as we have described somewhat already. Many of us have, in fact, been persistent in our sincere requests to God.
And second, who wants to be a nuisance? I don’t want God to give answer my prayers because he’s tired of hearing me ask for it. I don’t what a “shoo” blessing from God. Besides, I don’t think He operates that way anyway. Jesus didn’t say, “Woman you have great persistence. Your request is granted.” He said, “Woman, you have great faith.”
And the faith she had was simple. She knew Jesus could heal her daughter, and she knew she was in no way entitled to receive the blessing she was asking for. The moral here is not mere persistence, it is humility. Jesus was moved by her acceptance of herself as a dog unworthy of the food on his table, not because Jesus was a Jew, but because she was a sinner, far from God. And she was not after what was “fair” or what was “rightfully hers.” She didn’t go into how discriminatory the system was, or how she was being overlooked, or how unfair it was that God has ‘favorites’ in the Israelites. Instead, she simply wanted Jesus’ grace, his unmerited favor.
We have much to learn from this woman. We are all dogs. Our “righteousness” is as filthy rags. God does not owe us anything. He’s already done enough. And perhaps we should ask ourselves, when we pray, are we asking from some sense of entitlement, or are we humble in our asking, leaving the results to him to know what is best?
2 Chronicles 7:14 says: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, THEN I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.
Humility is better than persistence. Pray with humility and faith, and joy is yours no matter the outcome.
Does this passage make you uncomfortable? How so?
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