Silence. What do we do when we pray and nothing happens?
The woman begs Jesus, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.”
The Gospel of Matthew tells us Jesus did not respond at all; he seems to ignore her completely. To walk on in silence.
This narrative really hits home with me, having a brother suffering from a brain tumor. How difficult it is to know his need of deep healing and comfort, and my prayers – like those of the Canaanite woman – seem to fall off into silence (so it seems).
In faith, we must believe, it isn’t that the Lord doesn’t hear the woman. And it isn’t that the Lord doesn’t hear my prayers for my brother. He is asking something more, something deeper from me, and from the Canaanite woman. In fact, this Gospel shows how God works at many levels, not just for the one praying.
Let us imagine for a moment that the day of the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman is over. It is evening and Jesus is sitting with his disciples. Perhaps, while stirring the coals of the fire he simply questioned them, “Remember the woman on the road today? The one calling out repeatedly?” And I can imagine the disciples answering him, “Yes, Lord. And why did you ignore her?”
This is a teaching moment. Jesus knows that there will times in the future when, after his Ascension into heaven, the disciples are going to pray to the Lord and, seemingly, not be heard. Jesus knows that the disciples are going to have the responsibility to give answer to the people’s questions, “how is it that we call out to the Lord, and we don’t see him. We don’t find healing that we are seeking. Doesn’t he hear us?”
The disciples are going to recall this story of the Canaanite woman. They are going to remember very clearly just how well Jesus heard the her plea, and they will be able to answer with conviction that yes, God hears our cries just as much. Jesus is helping the disciples understand, there is a persistence in our prayer that we are called to, especially when we don’t hear an answer, but only silence. Can we do that? Can we be people of such fervent prayer? Even when all that comes back to us is silence?
The Canaanite woman understood this. She demonstrates her comprehension when at last Jesus speaks to her; she knows she is in the presence of something greater than herself. For this reason, she can say:
“Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”
A translation might read (loosely), “Yes, it’s true I don’t deserve to be in your presence, Lord, yet I believe, that even the ‘scraps’ that I get will be enough for me.”
Looking at the woman’s faith gives us room to ponder and to pray, and to ask the Lord to give us a faith like hers. But in our asking, we must be prepared for silence, and perhaps to be rebuked from time to time. Not because Jesus looks at our unworthiness (even though we are), but He sees each of us beyond the measure that we see our self. And, like the Canaanite woman, we too are called to have courage in prayer, and thus be men and women of deep, lasting faith.
Gospel: Matthew 15:21-28