“Jesus said to the woman, ‘I was sent only to help God’s lost sheep—the people of Israel.’ But she came and worshiped him, pleading again, ‘Lord, help me!’” Matthew 15:24-25
As I write this, the world is in turmoil because of coronavirus, or COVID-19. In response to this pandemic, prayers all over the world are ascending to God’s throne, and many pastors, like myself, are searching for ways to comfort and guide our people. Is God judging the world? Is He trying to remind us there is only one race on earth, the human race, and we need to work together as companions instead of apart as competitors?
I’ll let better minds than my own try to figure out what God is doing on a global scale, for I’ve got my hands full praying for and touching (not literally!) the lives I come in contact with (not literally!) every day. What I do know is God is not the silent type, and even when He is, He is leading us into a life of faith and hope.
All of this has me thinking about the very persistent mother in Matthew 15:21-28. The story finds Jesus leaving Galilee and going north into Tyre and Sidon, which was Gentile territory. A Canaanite (enemies of the Jews) woman who lived there came to Him and pleaded for Jesus to heal her daughter, who was being tormented by a demon. As a response to this request, Jesus remained silent.
Today, silence is a most hated concept. With smartphones, the internet, radio and television blaring everywhere we go, we’ve learned to distrust the sound of silence. Silence is wrong. Silence means something is broke. Silence from our political leaders means they are not working on our behalf. Silence from our religious leaders means they don’t have the comforting answers we seek. Silence makes us nervous. Silence makes us wonder if we’re still alive if all we hear is the sound of our own breathing.
Add to that silence of Jesus the complete lack of compassion from the Disciples. Sure, they want Jesus to heal her, but only because “she is bothering us with all her begging” (15:23). In other words, if healing her daughter will get her to shut up, then DO IT! So, couple the silence of Jesus with the fact the people hanging out with Jesus urge Him to send her away, in most instances you’d have an emotional breakdown in the making. This woman is facing rejection on all sides and she knows it, but she still doesn’t go away. She just stands there and waits for the Son of David to answer her request, and when Jesus does speak, it is not as the meek and mild Jesus we sing about in church.
“I was sent only to help God’s lost sheep—the people of Israel,” He replies. Great. Not only is Jesus treating her with silence, now He says he wasn’t sent for her. Apparently, there are people whose needs are greater or better or more deserving than a mother whose child is possessed by a demon.
At this point in the story, I’d be ready to tell the Son of David what He can do with His Messiah complex. I mean, if God is going to be so callused as to tell me that others are more deserving of His mercy and grace, then it’s time to find another god.
But, what this woman does next just astounds me. Verse 25 says, “she came and worshiped him.” Is that what I would do? Would I worship God after He has been silent? Would I worship God after His church board has suggested He heal me just so I wouldn’t upset their precious fellowship? Would I worship this God after He tells me He’s not here for me? Honestly, I’d be more tempted to whine about how life is all against me than to worship a God who intends to ignore me.
However, this persistent mom challenges me again, for in her humility she acknowledges that everything Jesus said was true. She was not an Israelite, Jesus was not here for her first, and she shouldn’t get the meat from the table. All true. It’s only the proud people like me who think Jesus’ arrival on earth was all about meeting my personal needs according to my personal comfort and timing. When will I learn that even the scraps from God’s table are richer fare than any five-star meal the world has to offer? Isn’t it better to be a dog in God’s kingdom than a king in the realm of Satan? This woman has seen how demons treat people like her daughter, and she knows there is more compassion in the crumbs of God than in the lies of the loftiest fallen angel.
Now, let’s look at this passage from another angle. Yes, Jesus was silent, but He was there. He was in her presence and He didn’t leave. In fact, He came to her Gentile town; she didn’t travel to find Him in Israel. There is always hope when God is present, and God is always present. While most of the world lacks the awareness of His presence, this racially, geographically and theologically distanced enemy of Jesus was more aware of His mercy and compassion than were His Disciples.
Next, we see that silence isn’t a refusal. He was silent but He didn’t say no. He was silent but He didn’t leave. In silence there also is hope. Don’t let the silence of God or the quick answers of the critics send you away from what you need most.
When Jesus replied He was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel (and I can’t help but think He said that with a twinkle in His eye, just to test her faith), He was indicating there is still hope. If there wasn’t hope, what was Jesus doing in Gentile territory? Sometimes we think God is only going to help the good people who are worthy. But this scene reminds us that God came to save the world, because the entire world is as unworthy as this Gentile woman. God is increasing her faith, and we could all use a bit more faith.
Therefore, the next time God is silent regarding our requests, we need to remember His silence doesn’t mean “No.” We need to remember that Jesus came to us before we came to Jesus, for that reminds us how important we are to Him. We, I, need to remember that the critics who want me to disappear have forgotten that Jesus chose to be with me, and I’ll stand in His presence as long as He’ll have me.
Finally, when God tells me the truth about who I am, I need to remember that even a mutt like me has a place at the banquet table of God. Sure, life may not always go as I’d like it, but Jesus has entered the room and where He is, there is hope.
So, during this time of quarantine, shut-ins, social distancing, job loss and financial uncertainty, we all have a choice—we can worship or we can whine. Granted, my first response has not always been as persistent as the mommy in the story. However, I’m learning wherever I am and in whatever circumstances I find myself, there is always room for more worship, for more conversation with God and for more faith, for “through His great mercy we have been reborn into a living hope” (1 Peter 1:3).