You do not have because you do not ask. At least that is how Jesus frames it when we complain that God does not seem to hear our prayers. His point here is not to repeat words over and over again. It is not the quantity of words that commend you before the Lord but persistent words spoken in faith. Yet that is the problem. We either ask and give up like Abraham and Sarah who believed God was not going to give them a son and so they took matters into their own hands with Hagar, Sarah’s maid. Or we ask without confidence in Him who hears that He will respond with mercy. And on both of these counts, we heard Jesus commend just such faith in a Canaanite woman who cried to Him for mercy on behalf of her daughter.
Of course it is not right to give the children’s food to the dogs. Everyone knows that. Would you give dog food to their children and the rich food of the table to their pets? No parents in this church would. Jesus was sent not to Canaanite women but to the lost sheep of the House of Israel. He came to fulfill the Law and the prophets and do what God has first promised to Adam and Eve in the aftermath of that first sin. Jesus was Messiah, not miracle worker or motivational guru. This is all true.
The woman we know is bold because she bypassed the cultural divide between Jews and Canaanite and approached Jesus in the first place. She could see the disdain on the faces of the disciples. She knew she was in enemy territory. But she was undeterred. When the disciples loudly protested and insisted that Jesus send her away and Jesus called her a dog unworthy of the bread of heaven, what did she do? Did she walk home sulking in her defeat? No, she kept on asking. When it seemed she was unwelcome or her request ignored, she continued to ask believing Jesus would help.
This woman took seriously what the scribes, Pharisees, and all the others in the House of Israel did not take seriously. She had listened to the promises of God. She had heard and taken to heart the Word of the Lord. She refuses to shut up or to leave because she knows she is asking the right Messiah to give her what God has long ago promised to give. From the most unlikely source comes a faith Jesus had not seen in all of Israel. This was the same Jesus who spoke and those who should have received Him with faith were plotting His execution. This was the same Jesus who faced opposition from those who should have welcomed Him with joy. A Canaanite woman received Him the way the whole of Israel should have received Him.
It was not simply her persistence that impressed Jesus or her faith but her faith and her persistence. Her confidence in God’s Word and promises is what stood her apart.
So Jesus held her up as an example to His disciples and as a sign to all of Israel. The Lord has come to call forth faith from those who have grown weary of trusting, who have allowed their disappointment to embitter their hearts, and who have stopped hoping – finding it easier to expect nothing than to hope for anything. That was the judgement against Israel of old that contrasted with this Canaanite woman. What about you or me?
Does our worship attendance wane and our prayer life falter because we are too busy and we have too many choices? Or have we been made hard by disappointment so we trust no one – not even God. Hoping is harder than living with disappointment. This is especially true in the wake of the last six months. We prefer to live with our fears and will settle for trusting none rather than trust God. I fear that the more common affliction to Christianity is not that we expect too much of God but we expect too little. We do not persist before the Lord and we are less than confident before His throne of grace. We take redemption with a grain of salt and we shrug our shoulders at the promise of eternal life because we would rather have our good life now.
In Africa, among other places where Christianity is exploding, you find a people like this Canaanite woman. They have no heritage or history but when they hear, they believe. Could it be that places outside of Europe and America have become our Canaanite woman – the examples to show us what happens when we read, believe, and trust in the promise of God? Could it be that Christ crucified and risen may not be earth shattering in our culture of plenty but it is radical to those who live with daily need, with daily want, and with the a strong reality of demons and devils in their lives? Could it be that we have become deaf to the sound of the Gospel and callous to the feel of Christ’s touch of cleansing baptismal water and the taste of eternal life in His flesh and blood upon our lips?
This Canaanite woman was prepared to be the Lord’s dog, His pet, to eat the crumbs that fall from His table, to be satisfied by Him scratching her ears, and showing her any attention at all. But we do not want to be the Lord’s dogs. We want to put God on a leash, to train Him to jump when we call, to use Him as a pet when we think we need a little unconditional love. We want a tame God who will be there when we want Him and won’t bother us when we don’t want Him. But this Canaanite woman saw that Jesus was not tame at all. She saw Him as wild and powerful, but bound to the promises made through the ages by the prophets in the Word of the Lord. And this was her faith.
We are shamed by this woman just like the disciples of old and the whole host of Israel. We want people like her to go away and leave us alone but God used her and uses people like her to raise up great faith to a people whose faith has grow cold.
This woman prayers better than the professional prayers in the temple. It is not that her words are more eloquent or she prays with more words. She prays the Word of the Lord. She prays what she hears. She prays it over and over and over again. She prays it as a woman who believes that Word. She stakes more than her own life on that Word of the Lord. She stakes the life and welfare of her most beloved possession – her daughter!
Isn’t that what we do here in worship? We say back to God what God has said to us but we are not simply repeating words but speaking forth our faith, confident that God will hear and honor His promises with the grace and mercy that He has pledged us in Christ. When we pray, when we add our “Amen” to prayers, and when we pray the faith in liturgy and creed, we are, like this Canaanite woman, persisting in the faith before God.
St. James says the prayer of the righteous is powerful and accomplishes much. That word “righteous” here does not mean someone with moral goodness or perfection but is a reference to faith. Think St. Paul here who says “righteousness is given through faith” so that the righteous are the faithful. These are old words and old concepts in our modern world where morality lives only in a moment and faith is considered weakness. Yet where people hear and trust the Word of the Lord and pray that Word and the promises of God back to Him, God works as He promised. This story is a call to faith and a call to trust the Lord and a call to be persistent in the way we trust in God and express this trust in prayer. Nobody needs to hear this more than we do right now.
People ask pastors to pray for them all the time. They ask their friends to pray for them. They hope that pastors have a special in before God or the help of their friends will overwhelm God to accede to their request. But the avenue of prayer and the means of pray which is faith are open to all of us. No one has a special line to God but we all have the same access and the same promise. Ask and you shall receive. Seek and you shall find. Knock and it shall be opened to you. What ever you ask believing, you shall receive. Trust in the Lord. Lord, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table. Lord, teach us so to pray. Amen