Posted on March 13th, 2017
“That was a nice prayer.” When people say that to me, I know I’ve failed. Prayer is not supposed to be nice. Prayer is confident desperation, shouted in the dark, or whispered while trembling.
Our prayers are too nice. In fact, they are so polite, they are rude. What else do you call it when our prayer before meals is rattled off like an auctioneer? Do you say the Lord’s Prayer with the enthusiasm of a funeral director reading the phone book? Are your private prayers basically a Hail Mary pass – it probably won’t work but you might as well try it?
Enough with polite, respectful, “nice” prayers! They betray an uncertainty that God is listening or will answer our prayer.
This Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel – she is not nice. She is not polite. And she is not quiet. She shouts. She cries out. And when her prayer is not answered, she is undeterred. She cries out all the more. The disciples are shocked that Jesus seems to lack all compassion for her. Not only does He not reply, He doesn’t even stop. He keeps walking. Hope is disappearing, and God appears not only unresponsive, but utterly indifferent.
Have you ever felt this way? I cry out in the daytime; I cry to God at night, but He is far from me, indifferent to the voice of my groaning.
This Canaanite woman is ignored. Nevertheless, she persisted. “Jesus, send her away with what she wants!” the disciples say. “Look, she is crying out from behind us!” This woman, rebuffed, is actually chasing after Jesus! The harsher He gets, the stronger is her appeal. Her prayers are not nice and polite; she expects something, not because of herself, but because she is convinced that He not only is able to help but that He is willing to help.
I believe that this exercise is a lesson for the disciples. Jesus uses this woman to teach them—and us—about prayer, and also that they are to join their prayers to hers. Jesus wants the disciples to appeal on her behalf. From this we learn that the prayers of the disciples, that is, the prayers of the church, are important and effective. This woman does not make her appeal to the disciples, just as we do not pray to the saints, but she does make her appeal in the church, just as you, when you have some need, bring it to me to present before the Lord in the company of the whole church.
Why does she keep praying? Isn’t it clear that Jesus doesn’t want to answer her? Not to this woman. Her prayer is the expression of her faith, her confidence, her trust in Jesus. Our prayers are the expression of our faith. And what does that say about our faith, when we are reluctant to pray, or cannot find the time, or pray for selfish things?
Jesus hid Himself from the woman to exercise her faith. “Ask, seek, knock,” the Lord says. This woman knocked on the door, and it was not answered. She knocked again, and was told, “Go away!” And the truth is, when we are praying, and the prayer is not answered, or we seem to hear God saying to us, “Go away, you little dog!” then we scurry off with our tail between our legs. We give up. It doesn’t work. What’s the use? But see what this woman does. She refuses to quit. The more her knocking is ignored, the louder she pounds. She will not leave, because she remains confident that the Lord will answer and give her mercy. She has no confidence in herself, but she has every confidence in the mercy, grace, kindness, and love of Jesus. Like Jacob, she has grabbed ahold of the heavenly Man, and will not let Him go until she receives His blessing.
“Faith … is exemplified by our willingness to beg” (Hauerwas), and this woman is not ashamed to beg. She teaches us how to speak to Jesus. She addresses Him both as “Son of David” (a reference to His human nature) and “Lord” (a reference to His divine nature). Her prayers are simple: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David!”; “Lord, help me!”; and finally, agreeing with His assessment of her lack of worth, yet nevertheless counting on His compassion and mercy, she worships Him as God and says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”
Note how she does not bargain with Jesus. She doesn’t promise Him something. She doesn’t tell Him what she has done or will do that He should answer her prayer. She makes no claim, no statement of what she deserves; she asks only for mercy. (Anselm) And that is what makes our prayers good. Dr. Luther put it this way: “We ask just because we are not worthy to ask; we become worthy to ask and to be heard just because we believe that we are unworthy.”
Now there are two kinds of things for which we pray: spiritual blessings and earthly concerns. When it comes to spiritual things, we know what the Word of God is and we should ask confidently, even demanding them from God. “Forgive my sins, help me resist temptation, lead me by Your Spirit, deliver me from the devil, bring me to the resurrection of the body.” These things are promised by God, and so we know that He wants to give them to us. But there are other things that are not clearly spelled out – finding a spouse, taking a job, healing our sicknesses, etc. In all these cases, are prayers must be prayed with an “if”: “If it is Your will, O Lord.” And in praying thus, we are asking also that our will would be conformed and submissive to God’s own will.
That submission culminates in the Sacrament of our Lord’s Table, where on our knees we beg for the bread we don’t deserve but nevertheless know Jesus wants to give us. So an old prayer before communion uses the image of this woman begging for crumbs from the table of Jesus:
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen. (Prayer of Humble Access, Book of Common Prayer 1662)
Come then, unworthy little dogs, and let us receive more than crumbs, for our Lord has chosen to give you the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation.