Matthew tells us, "Jesus did not say a word in answer to her." Why was she praying in the first place?
“But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her.” (Matthew 15:23)
An unanswered text message.
A voicemail resting as yet unplayed.
An email that needs to be acknowledged.
Of all the many ways that failing to receive a response haunts us, perhaps the worst is an unanswered prayer.
This Sunday’s Gospel may at first seem as though Jesus is toying with the woman who beseeches him. After she first approaches the Lord, Matthew records Jesus’ reaction, saying, “But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her.”
But if we jump right to that line, we’ve missed half of the action of this encounter. To begin a consideration with the Lord’s first (not final, but first) response would be to pass over the beginnings of the mystery of prayer. We must first marvel at the woman’s desire to pray. Where does it come from? How is it that she can beseech the Lord?
The woman’s prayer is utterly sincere. The American monk Thomas Merton writes in No Man Is an Island,
But the man who is not afraid to admit everything that he sees to be wrong with himself, and yet recognizes that he may be the object of God’s love precisely because of his shortcomings, can begin to be sincere. His sincerity is based on confidence, not in his own illusions about himself, but in the endless, unfailing mercy of God.
Too often as we try to nourish our spiritual lives we take on a technique or begin a study that isn’t really us. We mask ourselves before the Lord, hoping that he will not see who we really are.
To be sincere we must not be afraid of our faults. We must know them. And we must invite the Lord into them. We cannot, as it were, order our own lives and then subsequently turn to the Lord and begin a comfortable life of prayer having already solved our own problems.
I don’t know how you’ve spent your quarantine, but I spent a few weeks cleaning out a rectory. This project reminded me of the bedroom cleanings that were a prescriptive part of my childhood. One of my sisters frequently completed this chore by cramming as much stuff as humanly possible underneath her bed and in her closet. After her frenzy of stowing clothes, stuffed animals, and more, in every hiding place she could find, she would declare, “I’m done.”
But she was not.
The temptation to move words around and hide emotions in the spiritual life, rather than acknowledging in sincerity the things that lurk in the depths of our hearts, is very great.
The woman in Matthew 15 continues on, undaunted. She does not content herself by making a one-off request. She prays with confidence. But what is her confidence grounded in? The woman’s confidence comes from her trust in God.
C.S. Lewis writes,
The more we believe that God hurts only to heal, the less we can believe that there is any use in begging for tenderness. A cruel man might be bribed … But suppose that what you are up against is a surgeon whose intentions are wholly good? The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably he will go on cutting. If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless. (Mere Christianity)
Faithful prayer then, in addition to being sincere, must be confident. Do we believe that God is good? Do we believe that God orders and governs the universe by His Providence? These are the questions that are at the heart of prayer. This is why prayer is always an act of faith.
The disciples who witness the woman’s prayer initially respond callously rather than sympathetically. They tell Jesus, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” Not only might their response strike us as uncharitable, but the Lord will outright embarrass them. The encounter closes with Jesus admiring the faith of the woman, saying, “O woman, great is your faith!” Not only does Jesus teach the disciples sympathy in face of their antipathy, but he offers them an unexpected model of faith: a Gentile woman.
Jesus allowed the woman to continue to persist because she would teach the disciples such persistence. They would need it. They would suffer torment and trial and persecution and sword for Jesus. If we think some prayers are unanswered in our lives, perhaps it is because the Lord is inviting us to help him teach. Who should be invited to join our prayer? Who will be inspired by our confidence in approaching the throne of heaven?
In the end it’s no game. Prayer is not like a phone call or text message or email where two parties are communicating. Prayer is more like being led. The woman wouldn’t have persisted if it were not for the grace first given. Prayer is always an invitation from Christ which must be responded to in sincerity and with confidence. When our prayer is marked by sincere self-knowledge and trust in the Lord, he will use our prayer to accomplish great things.