Matthew 15:21-31 – Sense the Urgency

Woman of Canaan by Sadao Watanabe, 1965

Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”

Jesus did not answer a word. So, his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

Jesus left there and went along the Sea of Galilee. Then he went up on a mountainside and sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them. The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel. (New International Version)

Not much happens until something becomes urgent.

A doctor, a financial planner, or a preacher can tell us something until they are blue in the face, but it usually doesn’t mean much without a sense of urgency that a change must occur – that the way things are isn’t going to cut it any longer. 

We can say eating healthy is of value, yet unless there is a sense of urgency to it, it is difficult to do. Someone can proclaim that retirement savings is important, yet unless there is a sense of desperate action, it likely won’t happen. 

Christians say prayer is important, lost people matter to God, and ministry to youth is the hope of the world. Yet without a sense of urgency, there is procrastination and talking, resulting in zero change.

It’s the difference between law and gospel, or between duty and grace. The law and duty are important elements of the Christian life. The law shows us our sin and gives us direction how to live. However, law and duty can only take us so far – it cannot effect real and lasting change. Only the gospel of grace can do that. 

Law and duty alone won’t do it. And when we figure out it doesn’t work, we try and hide our struggle by keeping up the appearance of being a good Christian. Then, we boil down the rules of the Christian life to merely being nice and attending church (law). Our deep hurts and damaged emotions are handled by burying them in layers of law in order to protect ourselves from any more disappointment.

Nothing could be further from today’s Gospel lesson. We have a Gentile Canaanite woman, who is as far from God as one can get in the ancient world. She is neither concerned about appearances nor hiding to mask her pain. The woman cares about her daughter’s terrible suffering from demonization. She recognizes Jesus as the Promised One and seeks him out.

Only grace, not law-keeping, will save, deliver, or heal anyone.

Grace is bestowed to the humble who recognize the great urgency of needing Jesus – in God’s good timing, not ours. Faith is exemplified by a willingness to beg. It’s demonstrated with dogged persistence in the face of the slimmest of odds.

The Canaanite woman screams for help.

Her daughter is suffering. The region of Tyre and Sidon is demon territory – the home region of the Old Testament character, Jezebel – a place far from the covenant people of Israel’s ways. 

The woman has no leverage, no ground of appeal, and no spiritual pedigree. There is no way to approach Jesus by any other means than crying out to him with her deeply felt need. In her sense of urgency, noise and humility is all she has.

Jesus is silent.

Have you ever felt like God is silent, as though your prayers were doing nothing but bouncing off the ceiling? 

God is often silent. Yet, let’s not misinterpret this lack of response as thinking God didn’t hear, or doesn’t care, or something is wrong with me. Silence from God is just that – agonizing divine silence….

A superficial reading of the story may lead us to believe Jesus is aloof, or elitist, that maybe he isn’t interested in certain people. It seems to me, a better way of interpreting the silence is through the lens of our patience and perseverance, a sort of faith testing.

There is some mystery to this story we may never fully grasp. However, the story lets us know Jesus is not a coin machine where we can slip in a dollar and get immediate change. Jesus is a person, not a mechanism to figure out, to get what we want from him. This is not the way of grace.

The disciples want Jesus speaking to get rid of the screaming obnoxious woman.

“Holy cow, Jesus, just give her what she wants so she’ll go away!”  They wanted a healing, but it wasn’t out of a sense of compassion or grace. “After all, we’ve got important Jesus-work to do here, and we don’t need this woman upsetting the peace, rocking the boat, challenging the status quo, making waves, and ruining our sanctified party.” 

The disciples labeled the woman as loud and undeserving. Frankly, they may have been right. But they were operating out of law, not grace.

Jesus and the Canaanite woman, from Saint Germain-l’Auxerrois church in Paris, France

Sometimes the most compassionate thing we can do is not give everybody what they want, right away. 

Jesus did not come to this earth to ensure everybody gets their way and stays happy so that no one is upset. In fact, Christ did quite the opposite. Jesus sought to do his father’s will by establishing the kingdom of God on this earth – teaching values that weren’t part of the religious culture, telling the most “godly” people of the time they were a brood of vipers, and generally offending a lot of people who claimed to know God.

Jesus cared enough about the woman to not immediately give her what she wanted. She had to go hard after Jesus, to keep going after him, to exercise her faith muscle. 

Jesus doesn’t give the disciples what they want, either.

Two different petitions were given to Jesus, and his response doesn’t really address either one of those asking’s.  He just says he was sent to the lost sheep of Israel. Yet the woman responds as if she doesn’t even hear what Jesus just said.

The chosen nation of Israel was meant by God to be a missionary people. All nations on earth are blessed through Abraham, through the Jewish people. It has always been God’s design to have the Gentiles come to faith, and the way that was to happen was through Israel being a great missionary people proclaiming God and being a light to the nations. 

I tell you that Christ became a servant of the Jews to show that God has done what he promised their great ancestors. Christ also did this so that the non-Jewish people could praise God for the mercy he gives to them. The Scriptures say,

“So, I will give thanks to you among the people of other nations;
    I will sing praise to your name.” (Romans 15:8-9, ERV)

And that is exactly what happened. I am a Gentile Christian today because a small group of Jewish persons took the gospel of grace given them by Jesus and fulfilled their role as a missionary people.

The woman worships and tries Jesus again.

Jesus never said “no” to the woman. This was the basis for her asking again. She reasons much like an infatuated teenager who asks the girl of his affections, “so, what kind of chance do I have going out with you?”  The girl responds to the teenage boy, “a million to one.”  And the boy responds to her, “so, what you’re saying to me is that there’s a chance!”

Slim as the woman’s chances seem, she saw an opening where others might not. This is precisely the nature of true faith – it sees possibilities where none seem to exist.

This is raw, real, and persistent faith. If we don’t resonate with this kind of faith and persistence, there is not a sufficient level of urgency in our lives. The bald fact is: If we don’t pray, it’s because there is no desperation. We are still more fixed on law than gospel. Duty only goes so far.

Jesus still doesn’t answer the woman’s request, but gives her a metaphor about dogs, instead.

Jesus is restating what he said about the Jews: Salvation is through the Jews, not around them. We cannot ignore or get rid of the Old Testament because the gospel comes through it.

The woman still doesn’t give up but works with the metaphor.

She doesn’t argue with Jesus about being a dog; doesn’t insist she ought to be an exception; doesn’t say she has a right to be like the Jews; and doesn’t claim Jesus is being unfair or uncaring.

The woman simply accepts Christ’s words. Then, replies that even as a dog she would be allowed to receive a few crumbs from the table of the children. She might be a dog, but she’s still in the house, even if it’s under the highchair. The woman is looking for mercy as expectantly as my own dog looks at me with those sad brown eyes while I’m eating.

Jesus honors her faith.

Why? Because she humbly looked for grace. We need not write an essay to God about why our requests should be answered, as if Jesus needs convincing. We just need to seek the mercy of God.

Faith, coupled with urgency, doggedly persists. It believes Jesus will deliver. Great faith overcomes discouragement, despite the odds. It doesn’t listen to naysayers who want us to shut up and quit bothering them.  Urgent prayers are an unabashed begging before Jesus because only he can help. Begging isn’t sexy. It isn’t comfortable. But it’s needed.

So, pray. Pray like it’s the only thing that will make a difference. Pray with a sense of urgency. 

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