St Timothy’s, Salem, OR—Matthew 15:21-28
You know how the story goes. It’s the scenario for any number of jokes that have made us giggle and snicker. A genie is trapped in a bottle for hundreds of years. Some ordinary person comes along and, usually without realizing what they’re doing, lets the genie out of the bottle. The genie is grateful, and so offers his rescuer the courtesy of granting three wishes. (Incidentally, I’ve always wondered why nobody thinks to say, “My first wish is that all my future wishes be granted.” That somehow seems like cheating, I guess.) Now, I suppose there are a few genuine jerks out there who would get all bossy and just start barking orders to the genie. But I suspect that most people would at least try to be polite. After all, the genie could have said “Thanks a bunch” and moved on. He’s granting our three wishes out of the goodness of his heart. So we might think to ourselves, Is this a test? What if I ask for something the genie thinks is a bad idea? What if I sound selfish or conceited in what I ask for? Hey, this business of coming up with three wishes is a little more complicated than it might seem.
It’s a bit of a stretch, of course, to compare a genie to God, but in terms of human behavior, there are some interesting parallels. When it comes to letting God know what we want, when it comes to voicing our desires, many of us are understandably inclined to do so only in very general ways, and with a rather restrained demeanor. We realize that God, like the genie, is under no obligation to grant any of our requests, and when he does so, it is purely out of the goodness of his heart. We wouldn’t want to ask for anything that would displease God, anything that might strike God as unduly selfish or foolish or inconsiderate of others, something that might damage God’s reputation with others. And if we would be inclined to at least be polite in dealing with a genie, with God, we want to be more than polite; we want to be reverent. Plus, we’re told by the theologians that God is both omniscient—that is, he knows everything—and omnipotent—that is to say, he can do anything; he’s capable of granting that which it pleases him to grant. So what good does it do to pester or beg? What good does it do to get down on our knees and weep and wail? God knows what we want. God knows what we need. We can’t tell God anything that’s going to qualify as “news.” Moreover, God knows his own mind and God knows his own will, and if he’s going to give us what we want, then we’ll get it, and if he’s not, then we won’t. So we’d best just pray politely—one time is all that’s necessary, really, unless it makes us feel better to mention it twice—and then let it go. Whatever will be will be.
There’s a certain cold logic to this attitude that I will not attempt to argue against. I will only observe that such a way of thinking has the effect of forming us in a faith that seems ill-matched to the reality of the life we live. It seems both toothless and gutless, and it lacks credibility. The depth of human sorrow, the breadth of human suffering, the complexity of human experience—all seem to overwhelm that sort of faith like a tsunami flooding low-lying land. It simply falls short of the task of interpreting and giving meaning to all that goes on in our lives and the lives of those around us. The Ebola virus is slowly but steadily spreading across west Africa, leaving devastation in its wake; the geopolitical balance of power looks more dangerously unstable than it has in a hundred years, when we were just getting going on a world war; a Christian community that has been in Iraq for more than 1800 years has been driven out; thousands of Americans get laid off every month, children get abused every day, and the list could go on. So, shall we add a petition or two to the Prayers of the People and consider everything duly prayed-for? Like I said, there’s a certain logic to that suggestion, but it doesn’t quite seem adequate. It doesn’t bear the freight of our heavy hearts.
This is where Matthew’s account of our Lord’s conversation with a resident of some Gentile territory that he and his disciples were passing through comes to our rescue. Matthew refers to her specifically as a Canaanite, but the point is, she wasn’t a Jew. And, moreover, she wasn’t a male, so Jesus had two very good reasons, in his own cultural and religious context, to ignore her completely, which is precisely what his disciples wanted him to do; they begged Jesus to get rid of her. But she had a request. She had a need. She had a desire. And she was not at all shy or timid about voicing her request: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.” We don’t know what that means, exactly. It could mean literal demon-possession, or it could refer to the symptoms of some neurological disorder like epilepsy. In any case, the girl was really in a bad way and her mother was really worried—worried enough to risk making a fool of herself in public, and in the presence of the one who was most able to help her.
His first response is not very encouraging. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” His mission, at this point, was only to the Jews, to his own nation, and not to the world at large. That would come in due course, but not yet. Of course, we know that, because we’ve got the benefit of the big picture. But even if the Canaanite woman could have understood such distinctions, she wouldn’t have been very sympathetic. Her daughter, after all, was severely possessed by a demon and she was terribly worried. So she persists in her pleading, and even gets on her knees: “Lord, help me.” I don’t have three wishes. I don’t even have two wishes. I just have one wish, and that is that my daughter be well.”
Again, Jesus tries to flick her away. “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” In other words, there’s a decent and proper order to this business of salvation. You’ll have to wait your turn. The Jews get first crack at it. Then everybody else. So please move along and let me be about my work. But even still, the Canaanite woman doesn’t give in. She presses her case with an imaginative ploy: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” I just want a crumb. I don’t want the whole biscuit, just a crumb. Please help my daughter. At this, Jesus finally relents and gives her what she asks: “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter is healed instantly.
What can we distill from this unlikely exchange between Jesus and the Canaanite woman? Among other things, perhaps, we learn that God responds to persistent faith. Simple persistent faith. Simple, but not by any means simplistic. The sort of faith that is commended here is not pollyannish. It’s not just “God is so wonderful and I just know he’ll make everything all right so I’m just going to live as if he’s granting my request.” No, the sort of faith that we have modeled for us here is faith that is willing to struggle with God, to wrestle with God, to be completely transparent, emotionally and spiritually. It’s not restrained, it’s not held back, and it may not even be polite, or necessarily reverent. It means saying to God, “I know you know what I need and want, but I’m telling you anyway. I know you’re all-powerful and can do whatever you want, and this is one of those times I would like you to exercise that power on my behalf.” God may or may not grant my wish, but the value for me is in the asking, and in the asking again, and again; the value for me is in the willingness to struggle, to be an open book to God, to let God read me just as I am, and to be aware that he’s doing so.
God responds to persistent faith with compassionate care. The shape of that compassion may not be what we first imagined. In the end, we will know it to be much better than anything we could possibly imagine. If we’re fortunate enough to let a genie out of a bottle, and we ask for three wishes to be granted, the genie is going to take us literally and give us no less and no more than we ask for, even if we ask foolishly or without the benefit of knowing all the facts. God may not always, or even often, grant our specific requests. But what he does grant us satisfies the deep need that lies behind those requests.
And this process of struggling transparently and persistently with God has the effect of forming us in a faith that is robust and resilient. It can weather all sorts of storms and endure all sorts of trials and meet all sorts of challenges. It has an undeniable effectiveness. It’s on the same scale as our actual life, and therefore has credibility both for us and for those who see us and know us. Praise God! Amen