Have you ever prayed and felt that God was silent? Felt that he was preoccupied with other people and that you have been left behind? Felt that he was unhappy with you? How do you keep praying when you feel that way?
Let’s get some context.
Healing. And wherever he came, in villages, cities, or countryside, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and implored him that they might touch even the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well.
Teaching. Evil doesn’t come from the outside in, but flows out from our own hearts.
From there to region of Tyre and Sidon. Northwest of Galilee. Today Lebanon and Syria.
Three interesting things I can tell you about Tyre:
- It was the home of Jezebel who was a bitter enemy of God’s true prophets in the northern kingdom of Israel.
- During a war known as the Maccabean Revolt, Tyre and Sidon joined the Seleucid dynasty and fought against the Jewish struggle for independence.
- Joesphus referred to the people of Tyre as “notoriously our bitterest enemies”
A Phoenician by race who resides in Syria.
“V. 26 reads like a crescendo of demerit: she is a woman, a Greek Gentile, from infamous pagans of Syrian Phoenicia. Even Levi the tax collector must have raised his eyebrows at this woman who has the pluck to beg “Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.” -Edwards
This is a topic we don’t know what to do with. People don’t talk much about until they’ve had a few drinks late at night. Everyone has a story. Just this weekend we had a wonderful time praying for each of our children Friday night. One of the Dads told me he had a rough night because his toddler had woken up in the middle of the night screaming mad and inconsolable. Not acting like himself. Later that morning a Mom shared with the group that her child had woken up in the middle of the night . . .
The Bible has answers for that. One of these days we are going to have to spend some time with that. For now what you need to know is that this woman’s child had a problem that was deeply unsettling, defied understanding and was beyond human help.
Is that what you expected Jesus to say? So far, the process is pretty straightforward in Mark. People come to Jesus with need, he helps them. Done. Simple. As far as we know, this is different. Jesus is mixing things up here. A woman with a very serious problem and deep agony of soul has come to Jesus with real faith for help. He responds by referring to her as a dog.
What do we make of that?
Referring to someone as a dog is pretty much a negative statement.
“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.
Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh.
Rabbis referred to Gentiles as dogs, seeing them as ignorant idolaters. That was probably not breaking news to this woman. She is ready to accept that.
If you look at the Greek, there’s something important.
Kynon and Kynarion.
Even the doggos
This woman remarkably accepts Jesus word picture. And she rolls with it to continue to make her request.
Another interesting note: the words translated children used in 27 and 28 are different in the Greek.
Teknon – offspring.
Paidion – little kids.
She expands the picture. It’s a big household Jesus and even the doggos get some of the crumbs.
“She accepts as true everything Jesus says , but presumes to add one further touch to the homely picture Jesus had painted of the children being fed. The little dogs get the crumbs! It does not have to be one or the other. Nor need he be deflected from his main mission to the Jews in order to do something for her daughter. She will accept the humiliating position assigned to her in his response. Will he accept her gloss on his interpretation? His response will indicate what ultimately will be the scope of his earthly ministry.” -Donald English
Jesus replies, for this statement, you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter. She went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone. She lay in bed at peace that night with a very interesting memory to replay in her head.
Martin Luther: “She took Christ as his own words. He then treated her not as a dog but as a child of Israel”
Here’s the question? Why? Why didn’t Jesus just say, no problem she’s healed? Why did he call her a dog?
We are going to read Matthew’s version. Turn to Matthew 15.
You may have noted that Matthew says Canaanite woman. Some have said, look there is another example of the fact that the Bible can’t get its facts straight. This is a contradiction. Is it?
Canaanite was a common word in the Jewish vocabulary for the descendants of Ham, the cursed son of Noah. It refers to a race of people and to a geographical area. Within the broad general category of Canaanite were a large number of more specific distinctions. It’s like someone describing a person as a Midwesterner and someone else referring to them as a Kansan.
Matthew’s account adds some details to Mark’s.
In verse 22 – she begins the conversation crying out to Jesus, the Son of David.
In verse 23 Matthew adds that Jesus did not say a word in response.
While Jesus was sitting there the disciples got annoyed and tried to intervene – who is this Canaanite harassing us? Tell her to go Jesus?
Verse 24 adds more details, “I was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel”
Verse 25 adds more, including a physical detail, she comes nearer to Jesus and drops to her knees and prays again, “Lord, help me.”
The exchange in Mark is included here.
In verse 28, there is more detail in Jesus’ last word, “O Woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire!” Her daughter was healed instantly.
Jesus has come for the people of Israel. Spoiler report, that is just the beginning.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.
Jesus is on a timeline with first priority dedicated to the people of Israel. When he sent the twelve out he told them to avoid gentile towns and only visit the people of Israel. There is a work that must first be done in Israel. Yet. Yet what we see over and over again is the surprising fact that gentiles continue to pop up in the story as the ones most ready to see Jesus as he is, receive him as Lord and trust him in faith. And just as surprising Jesus is shown again and again to be ready to take moves that appear to go off-script in order to meet these gentiles, despite the fact that it was not their time.
(It is impossible to put Jesus in a box.)
Here’s the big lesson we see in this encounters:
There’s bread enough for everyone at Jesus’ table, even the doggos.
Even the unlikely ones. Even the Canaanite women. Even in Tyre there is bread to be had.
This woman is an unlikely candidate.
She receives unlikely praise. (There are two accounts of Jesus praising a person’s faith. Both are gentiles.)
She enjoys an unlikely privilege: cowriting a living parable with the Son of David.
Jesus gave us two parables, fictional as far as we know, one about a woman who pleaded with a judge for justice and the other about a man begging his neighbor to borrow some bread for an unexpected guest. Both are designed to teach us about the need for repeated effort and persistence in prayer.
In this case, Jesus is crafting a lesson, not with fictional characters, but with historical figures. In doing so he allows a woman seen as a dog by the people of Israel to offer edits on the story, to partner with him and become in a sense a cowriter of the eternal Scriptures together.
It’s extraordinary, the disciples have no idea of the magnitude of what is happening.
We still haven’t quite got an answer – why the silence, why the delay, why the reference to dogs?
There’s a clue in verse 29 in Mark and especially verse 28 of Mark 15.
I think what we are seeing here is a living example of what Peter who told this story to Mark wrote in his letter.
I think Peter watched this in real time.
1 Peter 1:6-7
He watched as Jesus created a lab test for this woman’s faith. He watched as Jesus gave praise and honor in response to something that he absolutely loved.
“The Lord Jesus was charmed with the fair jewel of this woman’s faith and watching it and delighting in it, He resolved to turn it round and set it in other lights, that the various facets of this priceless diamond might, each one, flash its brilliance and delight His soul!
Therefore He tried her faith by His silence and by His discouraging replies, that He might see its strength. But He was, all the while, delighting in it and secretly sustaining it. And when He had sufficiently tried it, He brought it forth as gold, and set His own royal mark upon it in these memorable words, “O woman, great is your faith; be it unto you even as you will.” I am hopeful, this morning, that perhaps some poor soul in this place under very discouraging circumstances may, nevertheless, be led to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ with a strong and persevering faith.” – Charles Spurgeon
“We cannot doubt that His sympathetic heart yearned over this poor woman, and His seemingly rough speech was meant partly to honour the law which ruled His mission even in the act of making an exception to it, and partly to test, and so to increase, her faith.” -Alexander Maclaren
What can we learn from this?
First we can learn this big lesson: there’s bread enough for everyone at Jesus table, even the doggos.
But sometimes we have to work for it.
Let’s look at what this woman’s experience in the time she was with Jesus:
A silent Jesus (did not answer a word)
A preoccupied Jesus (I was sent only…)
A scorning Jesus (throw it to the dogs)
A smiling Jesus (great is your faith!)
A strong and willing Jesus (her daughter was healed)
Now if you spread these out over a lifetime, you get a sense of what we may experience in our walk with Jesus.
At times he may seem silent.
At times it may feel as if his delivery truck has parked in front of your house and you watch as he walks to your neighbors door before driving away.
At times it may feel as if he hurts you.
Jesus’ way with this woman teaches us that behind a frowning providence he hides a smiling face. Why? He moves in mysterious ways that may not make sense until we see him face to face. He is testing and refining and demonstrating things to us that are far beyond what we can ask or imagine.
Through this woman, Jesus teaches us that if you will not give up and keep praying . . .
Eventually you will feel the warmth of his smiling approval, feel faith swell in your heart and find a reward for your prayer.
In this woman I see an example of how to pray:
Desperate, not refined. (Have mercy on me, O Lord)
Persistent, not wavering (Lord, help me)
Humble, not entitled (Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs) She brought nothing with her to deserve an audience.
To generalize: she prayed with thick skin.
We are perhaps sometimes too sensitive in our faith.
Sometimes too soft in our prayer.
Years ago a dear friend of mine was on the verge of walking away from Jesus, I prayed for her with all of the passion and faith I could muster. I called friends together to fast and pray. I never prayed for someone with such intensity. I didn’t want to lose her.
Despite all of the hours and the faith, she walked away from Jesus at a great cost to her soul. It hurt.
God hurt my feelings. I didn’t want to pray after that. What’s the point, God? Why should I pray, why should I put in the effort when this is what happens?
And you see what I did there. This is what happens.
We generalize – one person, one prayer that isn’t answered in the timeframe I want and it becomes, “this is what happens when I pray.” We go on and say, consciously or subconsciously, well I tried prayer and it didn’t work.
Any 6 year old watching us approach our heavenly father like that would shake their head and teach us a lesson. No, no, no. Let me show you. They would pull out of their bag a whole variety of tricks of their trade. Children are masters of asking. A child would say, you asked once and now you quit? Amateur. I’m not making light of pain. I know the pain of unanswered prayer. I’m making light of our self-importance and our hypersensitivity. I’m appealing to the simplicity of childlike faith. I’m not saying that God is like us and needs to be manipulated and tricked. I’m saying God wants us to be more like children in their simple trust.
It’s one prayer.
Is it possible in my life that if pray ten times, one won’t line up with what’s best in God’s estimation?
Or two or three. What percentage is required for me to continue to pray?
I have seen many instances of answered prayer. Far more than I ever deserved.
Time is too short. The opportunities are too many to quit praying because my feelings are hurt.
How many people are there in the world around us like this woman? How many people are there in desperate situations, waiting to hear of a man who can deliver them from their troubles?
“If we will take the place which He gives us, and hold fast our trust in Him even when He seems silent to us, and will so far penetrate His designs as to find the hidden purpose of good in apparent repulses, the honey secreted deep in the flower, we shall share in this woman’s blessing in the measure in which we share in her faith.
Jesus obviously delighted in being at liberty to stretch His commission so as to include her in its scope. Joyful recognition of the ingenuity of her pleading, and of her faith’s bringing her within the circle of the ‘children,’ are apparent in His word, ‘For this saying go thy way.’ He ever looks for the disposition in us which will let Him, in accordance with His great purpose, pour on us His full-flowing tide of blessing, and nothing gladdens Him more than that, by humble acceptance of our assigned place, and persistent pleading, and trust that will not be shaken, we should make it possible for Him to see in us recipients of His mercy and healing grace.” -Alexander Maclaren
As a child when my father’s family gathered together one of the more interesting moments was greeting my uncle Rusty. Rusty was a grizzled cowboy from the country who always wore a hat and a thick moustache covering his mouth. Rusty would stare blankly at you and reach out with his calloused hands and squeeze the life out of your hand. On the surface it was terrifying. But I knew that under the surface was the soft and affectionate heart of an uncle who loved his nephews and enjoyed having a good time.
How did I know that? History.
Sometimes the pain feels unbearable.
Sometimes the silence drives us to despair.
Sometimes the delay feels impossible.
What allows us to trust in Jesus when he seems silent, preoccupied or even scornful?
History. It’s the cross.
Tom Brown is the planting pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Wichita. Tom and his wife, Mandy, have worked together in ministry for 18 years and have four children. More about Pastor Tom Brown