The great people of prayer – Moses, Jeremiah, Paul, and a nameless Gentile mother from the region of Tyre and Sidon – insist that prayer is a dialogue with a personal God, even at times a struggle and a wrestling. In fact, it was this anonymous mom whom Jesus singled out as an exemplar of prayer after she had wrestled with him over her request.
This had to chagrin his disciples. They’d tried to send her away because she was an annoyance, a pain in the neck. “Pain in the neck” is a good expression for someone who, like a stiff, sore neck, will irritate you no matter which way you turn. She wouldn’t take no for an answer. She pestered and probed and cajoled until she got what she wanted. And Jesus, the Master of prayer, lauded this pain in the neck as a great example of how to pray. That’s the way it so often is with God: his ways are not our ways, and what makes us want to stop our ears, opens his. God, it would seem, likes to be pestered.
Part of what so moved Jesus about this woman’s prayer had to have been the fact that she was a mother. Matthew’s Gospel says that she approached him when Jesus went north to the region of Tyre and Sidon. “A Gentile woman who lived there came to him, pleading, ‘Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David!'”
I think that Jesus loved it that this Gentile woman wasn’t turned back by his silence. When at first she prayed to the Lord, “Jesus gave her no reply, not even a word,” neither a yes nor a no. The silence of God is the greatest test of our faith. Sometimes it’s in places with names like Dachau, Buchenwald, or Pol Pot’s Cambodia; or as we look into the terrified eyes of an abused child or the gaunt stare of an AIDS baby. God’s silence can be seen in the rows of amputees in a veteran’s hospital or the mentally tortured in a psychiatric ward. God’s silence is felt in the weight of crushing grief, too.
The disciples weren’t silent. They wanted to be done with her: “‘Tell her to go away,’ they said. ‘She is bothering us with all her begging.'”
But nevertheless the woman clung to the silent Jesus because she sensed that the silence of God was to be measured by other standards than human silence. She groped and probed behind the silence, because the silence of Jesus isn’t the silence of indifference; it is the silence of higher thoughts. It’s the silence of Jesus deep asleep in the boat as a storm raged around his disciples and threatened to sink the boat. Even nature spoke, but he didn’t. And the Cross, God’s greatest silence, was the silence of his greatest and deepest thoughts. So the woman persisted in spite of the silence.
And when Jesus finally spoke, what she heard was worse than what she hadn’t heard.
“Then Jesus said to the woman, ‘I was sent only to help God’s lost sheep – the people of Israel'”. In other words, he said to her, “You’re not on my agenda. I have higher priorities than you.” Those words would have crushed me. I would have walked away shaking my head, wondering, “What kind of God is this?” But instead of walking away, she pressed her case. He might have said awful things she couldn’t understand, but she was convinced that he could help her and that was all that mattered.
Undeterred, “she came and worshiped him, pleading again, ‘Lord, help me!'” And when she did, things got even worse! “Jesus responded, ‘It isn’t right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs.'”
It doesn’t take an expert in biblical interpretation to see that Jesus added insult to injury. Not only is she excluded from his circle of concern; she is includeed in his circle of contempt. Or so it seems. Once again, he said awful things she couldn’t understand, worse things! But she remained convinced that Jesus could help her, so she pressed in, “That’s true, Lord, but even dogs are allowed to eat the scraps that fall beneath their masters’ table.”
Far from taking personal offense at this deliberate rebuff, the woman gracefully turned the last shred of her pride into a burnt offering for her suffering daughter. And Jesus answered her, “Dear woman… your faith is great. Your request is granted.”
There is so much we can’t understand about God, but this woman was absolutely clear about one thing: God was her only hope, and she wasn’t going to let go of her only hope until she got what she needed. Her faith was the raw, relentless trust that Jesus could help her, and the dogged determination to keep going to him until he did.