Ezechiel 18:1-9 / Matthew 15:21-28
Who answered her not a word.
In the face of divine silence, there seem to be three options. We might conclude that God does not care, does not see our plight, and turn away from him as we fear he has turned from us. Then again, we might conclude that, in his silence, God is directing us away from our requests as from something bad or unworthy, and return his silence with some of our own. Or, we might, in our anxiety, fill the silence with other noise, the noise of explanations or protestations, anything but enduring the absence of a reply.
However, we see something else in the reaction of the Canaanite woman. Her plea to Jesus is deep and real, and her motives surely honorable. Her daughter is grievously troubled by a devil, and perhaps the fame of Jesus already having made its way out of Israel to Tyre and Sidon, she seeks help where rumor has it help can be had, from the incomparable Jewish exorcist, Jesus of Nazareth. When she makes her request, Jesus answered her not a word.
Yet, before she can do anything, before his silence can have its effect on her, the disciples interrupt. They fill his silence and silence her pleading: Send her away, for she crieth after us. See how poorly they know and understand. It is not they whom she seeks, after whom she cries, but Jesus. As if to solidify their confusion, Jesus gives a cryptic reply — I was not sent but to the sheep that are lost of the house of Israel. Here, note again the strangeness. Jesus does not yet speak to the woman, but to his disciples. Even so, while the words of his reply might be judged a confirmation of their attitude, it turns out to be nothing of the sort. Jesus allows the woman to cry out, and he does not send her away.
Only when the disciples get out of the way, does the woman have a chance to be heard again. See how she does not give up on her daughter, does not make of the silence a refusal, and thus fall back into silence herself. Instead, she speaks from the depths of her need: Lord, help me. Jesus now answers, and if his words sound hard — It is not good to take the bread of the children and to cast it to the dogs. — we see that they have quite a different effect. Into the silence, the woman could do but one of two things: echo the silence with silence of her own, or continue to throw her voice into the void.
Now, however, she has a response, and with the response an opportunity, the opportunity to acknowledge more fully who Jesus is, and what it means to turn to him for help. Yea, Lord; for the whelps also eat of the crumbs that fall from the table of their masters. She had come to him a pagan, unknowing and unbelieving, knowing only his fame as a healer and exorcist. In Jesus' silence, and even more in the excluding words of his reply, the Canaanite woman now can grow in faith. She can assert to Jesus, and all the more to herself, that he is no generic holy man or healer, no worker of spells like the heathen priests. Rather, to turn to Jesus means to turn to the God of Israel, who had promised to restore his people through his promised Christ, and through his Christ to draw all nations to himself. Forced by his silence and his rejection to turn away from false belief, the woman of Tyre and Sidon can embrace a wider love, can desire from him not merely the temporary liberation of her daughter from the grip of unclean spirits, but the more lasting freedom for her daughter and herself of trusting in the God of Israel, and in Jesus the Christ, the eternal Son of the Father.
As we continue our Lenten preparations for Easter, we are asked to turn more and more to prayer, and we may, indeed most likely will, encounter in our life of prayer, the silence of God. We might in the silence shake our fist in anger or frustration. We might in quiet resignation cease from our prayer, figuring God knows better than we how we ought to pray. We might even try to fill our own silence, or the silence of others, with our unhelpful chatter. Or, we might follow the path of the Canaanite woman, and, keeping firm in our purpose and our prayer, receive the silence of God, or even the hard words issuing from that silence, not as a command to be silent ourselves, but to grow into a deeper and more profound faith in Jesus Christ. We might, as did she, turn more definitively away from the false beliefs we hold, and in our humility and emptiness, hear with her those sweet words of our Savior: O woman, great is thy faith: be it done to thee as thou wilt.
Grant, we beseech Thee, O Lord, to all Christian people, that they may understand what they profess, and love the heavenly Gift which they frequent.