Persistence as Reverence: A Reflection on Matthew 15:21-28 by Fran Salone-Pelletier

A Canaanite woman calls out to Jesus, “Have pity on me.” It sounds like a self-absorbed prayer. And it is—in a way. Her next words demonstrate the angst she feels: “My daughter is tormented by a demon.” It’s a cry of unabated anguish, for herself and her daughter. They are, in a sense, conjoined twins who share pain in common and without relief.

Any parent would recognize the conflicted feelings. We want our children to be safe, hale, and hearty. We also absorb the pain of any disability they may have. At the same time, we are equally tormented by the demons of fatigue, inability to fix things, fear of what the neighbors are thinking, and myriad more forms of negativity. So, yes, we want God’s pity and thus divine healing, if not cure.

It is interesting to note that Jesus does not respond to her request. “He did not say a word in answer to her.” This is strange. Why wouldn’t he say something, even if he opted to do nothing? The disciples can’t figure it out, either. They simply want him to send the pesky woman away.

Isn’t that what we frequently do? Send the problem away, especially if it keeps calling out to get our attention?

At first, it seems that Jesus is in total agreement with his disciples. He repeats his mission. His description of it seems quite limited. He narrows it down to his being “one sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Only specific lost sheep would be his concern.

But the woman won’t let her request go unattended. She does him homage by repeating her request. This is an eye-opening moment: Scripture seems to indicate that begging can be reverence!

Yet Jesus determinedly pushes back, telling her that it isn’t right to take the food of children and throw it to the dogs. That statement smarts. (Or is it a smart statement?) Is it a way to engage playfully with another in order to bring a hidden truth to the surface, or to discern an honest need?

The woman’s response is both direct and guileless: “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” In turn, Jesus acclaims and applauds her tenacity as an indication of true faith. In fact, he says, it is great faith! It is great enough for her wish to be granted, her prayer to be heard, the healing of her daughter to be complete and immediate.

Personally, this leaves me in a quandary. On one hand, I smile with amusement that we have a God who enjoys our persisting arguments. We have a God who engages in our constancy, even when silence seems to be the first response. I say that I believe in divine presence even when silence continues. But do I really? My amusement tends to fade with the heaviness of doubt.

On the other hand, like the begging woman, I want to be heard, understood, and have my request fulfilled immediately. I don’t want to play games with God, and I don’t want God to play games with me. It’s a bridge too far. It demands my taking a chance that I’ll upset the divine equilibrium. Worse yet, I might find myself outside the camp of the righteous ones. After all, it seems rather obvious that the disciples want the woman to go away. What might today’s followers proclaim about me and my persistence, if I am found “pestering” their God?

It’s really up to each of us to determine how honest we want to be with God—even though we know in our heart of hearts that God already knows it all.

Will I take the chance to state what I want, even if it seems self-absorbed? Will I admit my need to have the demons removed from the afflicted child I bear within me—the child I want to have cured even if it means calling out my pleas against all odds?

Will I be the Canaanite woman who persists until her plea is heard? Am I willing to seek what I need and speak my desire at all costs, or will I fall prey to the heavy burden to be borne when “all odds are against me”?

Am I waiting for someone else to come along and speak for me? Will I be able to live with the heaviness of uncertainty? Will I maintain a stalwart attitude while I hope against hope?

The litanies of questions deny answers. They also beg response. I can only hope that mine will be short, simple, and surprising. I’m certainly going to try!

Fran Salone-Pelletier holds a master’s degree in theology. She is the author of a trilogy of scriptural meditations, Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives, as well as a religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer, and grandmother of four. She can be reached at hope5@atmc.net.

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