You need help and you need it now. You pray and pray, but nothing happens. Is God listening? If He’s really a God of grace, why isn’t He answering?
Two thousand years ago, a desperate mother came to Jesus, begging Him to heal her child. He kept silent then, too, and then spoke words that sound harsh and negative to our ears. What was really going on?
[Jesus on retreat]
Like anyone depleted by the pressures of relationships and work, Jesus needed a break. He headed for a friend’s house in the heart of Gentile country (Matt. 15:21). Tyre and Sidon were far away from Jerusalem. Only a few Jews lived scattered around there.
Why was He so in need of time away from Jewish territory? For one thing, He was still grieving. His cousin John the Baptist had been executed (Matt. 14:10). His work was frustrating. The people in Jesus’ own hometown had no faith in Him, so He couldn’t do miracles there (Matt. 13:15). The only bright spot was a trip He made to the border of gentile country. Foreigners there had responded with faith (Matt. 14:34-35).
To make matters worse, religious leaders were quibbling over rules like washing hands. Jesus was so frustrated that He called them hypocrites (Matt. 15:2). The disciples were worried that He was offending people, and Jesus had to ask, "Are you still so dull?" (Matt. 15:16)
[A Gentile declared his identity]
Jesus wanted to keep His presence secret (Mark 7:24). It didn’t work. A foreign woman from Greece came to the house and cried: "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession" (Matt. 15:22).
Surprisingly, Jesus did not answer at first (Matt. 15:23). Something silenced Him. What was it? This woman identified Him as "Lord," as the "Son of David," using a Jewish term reserved only for the Messiah. Jesus’ silence foreshadowed the silence He would keep during His trial, when His accusers also raised the question of identity. In both cases, Jesus knew that it wasn’t the right time to reveal His true self.
[His own people lacked faith]
Before His "retreat," Jesus grieved for the cities that did not repent when He performed miracles. "Woe to you Korazin! Woe to you Bethsaida!" He lamented. "If the miracles that were performed in you had beeen performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes" (Matt. 11:21).
Now He was actually in Tyre and Sidon, and a woman declared her belief in Him. Gentile country was fertile soil, waiting for the seed of truth. Jesus longed to sow His grace generously.
[His disciples lacked compassion]
The situation intensified when the disciples urged, "Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us" (Matt. 15:23). They used no term of respect. In fact, it sounds as if they were commanding Him to follow their orders. And they certainly didn’t offer grace to this anguished mother.
Jesus knew He wouldn’t reach the ends of the earth during His lifetime. Who would God use as His messengers to the gentiles? These all-too-human men who were ordering Jesus to send a hurting, desperate woman away.
Frustrated with His own people, disappointed in His disciples, stirred by the faith He saw in this woman, Jesus had to underline the specifics of his own call. "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel," He said (Matt. 15:24). To whom was He talking? The woman asked Him to heal her daughter; the disciples asked Him to send her away. He didn’t seem to be answering either of them. The Greek does not say, "He said to her" or "He said to them." It’s almost as if He was reminding Himself of God’s strategy. In His humanity, He was vulnerable enough to need a reminder of God’s call, just like the rest of us.
[The woman drew nearer] The woman took heart. He didn’t listen to His disciples. He didn’t send her away. Something about His expression or tone of voice encouraged her to come closer and kneel. "Lord," she cried out again. "Help me!" (Matt. 15:25).
The passionate plea, the bold declaration of His lordship, the posture of worship – they all moved Jesus deeply. We can imagine Him lifting His hand to do the miracle and then lowering it, slowly, reluctantly. "It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs," He said again, as if to himself (15:26).
What a perfect metaphor to use with a mom. Picky eaters come to the table reluctantly, disappointed because mealtimes interrupt their fun. The dog, on the other hand, follows Mom’s every move as she cooks, wagging his tail with hope. But it wouldn’t be right if Mom tossed the kids’ food into the dog’s dish before the kids had a chance to eat, would it?
Gripped by an intense desire to "feed" His gentile children, Jesus had to restate God’s strategy. The Messiah was to be revealed first to a few Jews. After His resurrection, the Spirit would spread the good news through the Church to the ends of the earth. "Go, make disciples of all the nations," He would tell his disciples after He conquered death. These words would be among the first from His mouth.
But not now. Not yet. What would have happened if He had released His power in response to faith like this woman’s? A whole nation of gentiles might have thronged around Him. They might have hindered the path He had to travel to the cross.
[Jesus left refreshed]
The woman noticed Jesus’ use of "pet" instead of "street-dog," which was a Jewish way of describing non-Jews. She then said something that revealed how well she listened to Jesus: "Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table" (Matt. 15:27).
She brought up the only way a dog can eat the family’s meal at the same time as the children. If a crumb falls to the ground while the kids are eating, a dog is welcome to eat it. "Yes, Jesus," she meant. "You have to go to the Jews first. But you can find a way to heal my daughter without revealing yourself to the whole gentile region. I’m waiting under the table, Lord, hoping for just one crumb while the children are being served. You can do it, Lord."
Imagine how encouraging this response was to Jesus. This woman understood His dilemma. After all the opposition, the gossip and rumors, and the confusion of the disciples, He finally found someone who affirmed the narrow path He had to walk. Matthew wrote that this time He responded and said to her, "Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted" (Matt. 15:28).
This miracle in gentile country was granted quietly. The woman went home and found her daughter sleeping peacefully in bed (Mark 7:30). Jesus left the region, refreshed by His time away (Matt. 15:29). He would continue to reveal Himself to the few, chosen sheep of Israel. Through His encounter with this woman, He gathered the strength and courage to head back into the fray.
[Faith that thrills God]
Before they parted, Jesus honored the woman by affirming her before the disciples: "Woman, your faith is great!" (Matt. 15:28). She had great faith because she insisted that Jesus could find a way to offer her grace. When others would have left during His silence, hearing an unspoken "no," she heard an unspoken "not yet."
We can refuse to be discouraged when He’s silent. By staying on our knees, we declare our belief that Jesus wants to help! That’s why I’ll keep praying those impossible prayers. Like the woman who stayed on her knees, I’m insisting that our God of grace will find a way.
[Visit Mitali Perkins’ website, The Fire Escape: Books For and About Young Immigrants.]