And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and cried, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.” But He did not answer her a word. And His disciples came and begged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before Him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
The Sacrament of Holy Unction takes us through the whole spectrum of the Christian life. There are Scripture passages and prayers that speak about forgiveness, restoration, joy, Godly virtues, healing, the power of God, encouragement, and many other positive aspects of what it means to be a Christian. The Sixth Gospel reading touches on a very difficult subject, but one that will become very real at times in the life of every Christian: when God seems like He isn’t listening.
This story of healing has a happy ending, but the build-up to the miracle has always been very troublesome to me. We know that Jesus was Jewish. Everyone knew that. We know that the people of Cana were Gentiles and that Jews and Gentiles were enemies. In this passage, we read about an encounter between Jesus and a Canaanite woman (a Gentile, who would have been an enemy of Jesus), who came to Jesus begging for mercy. Her daughter was possessed by a demon. It is interesting that she didn’t ask for healing, only for mercy. Jesus didn’t answer her. Why? Was He testing her? Did she not make the request the right way? Was she so sinful that she was not worthy of His time or His help?
Many times we find ourselves in the place of the Canaanite woman. We make a reasonable request in prayer. Perhaps we don’t ask for something specific, but something more open-ended, like mercy, or help, or compassion, from God. We surely don’t think God will answer a request to win the lottery or do well on a test we didn’t study for. We make a modest request, just asking for the mercy of God. And there is no answer. This is where the questions come: Why is there no answer from God? Is He testing me? Did I make an unreasonable request? Am I so sinful that I am unworthy of God’s time or His help?
Which then leads down the rabbit hole of either doubt—there is no God—or self-loathing—I am not worthy of God. Many of us are stuck in this hole, at least at some points in life. We wonder why God seems silent and absent.
Even the disciples ganged up on the woman. It wasn’t bad enough that Jesus didn’t answer her. They begged Him to send her away. It seems that Jesus will dismiss her and He speaks with even more negativity, or so it would seem. He tells her “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 15:24) In other words, He was not going to help her.
Dropping any specific request, she came again to the Lord in desperation, saying, “Lord, help me.” (15:25) And Jesus responded by saying “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” (15:26) Not only is this woman a Gentile, Jesus is now seemingly calling her a dog, even less than a human being, even less than a child of God.
The woman pleaded “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” (15:27) Even though she seemed to be getting nowhere, in fact, things seemed to be getting worse, she still saw Jesus as Lord and Master.
Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (15:28)
There are some lessons to be learned from this story. Perhaps Jesus really was testing the faith of this woman. Maybe He wanted to see how she would react if He didn’t respond quickly to her initial request. Perhaps Jesus wanted to point out to the Jews, His chosen people who were already lining up against Him, that the faith of this Gentile woman was greater than theirs. Perhaps Jesus wanted to teach us about patience and perseverance in times of struggle.
I can say personally that there are many times in life that I feel like the Canaanite woman. I make what I feel is a reasonable request, not for material gain, but for the things money can’t buy, like wisdom, or patience, mercy, and help, in whatever way He wants to offer them. And yet God seems silent, like He isn’t listening, or is testing me, or on a bad day, like He isn’t there.
This story, in some ways, is encouraging. It tells us that persistence pays off. It tells us that God can help anyone, even the one that seems to be at odds with God (in this case a Gentile woman). This story also reminds me of a verse in Acts 1, where the disciples ask Jesus if He would restore the Kingdom to Israel? (Acts 1:6) In their minds, having followed Jesus for three years, having witnessed His horrific crucifixion and then His glorious Resurrection, in their minds, the next logistical step would have been political restoration and freedom from the Roman invaders. His answer must have been like a kick in the gut to them: “It is not for you to know the times or seasons which the Father has fixed by His own authority.” (1:7) In other words, this request was not going to be granted as the disciples thought it should but in the way that God thought it should be.
There are three things that I cling to when God seems silent. The first thing is that there is a God. I will always believe that, even when I have cause to be disappointed in God. The second thing is that Jesus said “He who endures to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:22; Matthew 24:13; Mark 13:13) Thus, if I endure, even disappointment from God, then hopefully I will be saved.
The truth is, I don’t have an answer for why God seems silent at times. I know that God isn’t going to impose peace on the world. We lack peace in the world because we, the human beings, choose to be at war with one another. We pray that God speaks into our hearts about peace. This is why the prayer for peace in the world hasn’t been answered. But how about a prayer for healing for a little baby who is sick? Is it too much to ask for a child with cancer to be healed? Which brings me to the third point, which is something we’ve already discussed, that the ultimate prayer is for salvation, and thus in the times when God seems absent and the crises around me are severe, I surrender (or at least try to) and ask God that if my prayer can’t be answered as I wish for it to be answered, that whatever situation I am in will lead to my salvation. I suppose that this passage is included in Holy Unction because it involves healing, but it also reminds us that healing isn’t always immediate, that sometimes our faith will be tested, perhaps even by God, and that we should remain steadfast and faithful, even in the times when our prayers aren’t answered immediately.
O Lord, supremely Good, Who through Your ineffable love, accepted anointing with precious ointment at the hands of the sinful woman, have compassion on Your servants. (5th Ode)
Stay with it, even when it feels like God isn’t listening!