The Syrophoenician woman’s remarkable persistence in asking the Lord Jesus to help her poor little daughter is the evidence and confession of her faith. Her prayer is the voice of faith in this Man who has come to the pagan territory of Tyre and Sidon, whose Word has gone before Him declaring His divine mercy and authority. She continues to pray and to plead for His help, even when He seems to deny her, because she believes the testimony that she has heard about Him.
St. Matthew has given us more of the details, describing the buildup to the denouement we have heard from St. Mark this morning. At first when the woman came to Him, Jesus answered not a word. Nothing but stony silence, just as your prayers sometimes seem to meet with stony silence.
And when His disciples grew weary of listening to her beg and plead for His help, and they urged Him to do something, to give her what she asked so that she would leave them alone, He replied, “I have come only for the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” So it would seem He is not for her. Which is what you also hear from the Law, as it accuses and condemns you, exposing your sins and declaring that you are not worthy or deserving of anything but punishment from God.
But the woman persists because she is driven by her sense of need, and she clings to the Gospel, to the Word of Jesus she has heard, and to the fact that He has come. Undaunted and undeterred, she asks Him simply to help her. And that is when the cruelest blow of all is answered in return. “It is not right to give the children’s bread to the dogs.” So now there is insult added to injury.
To which she says “Amen.” “Yes, Lord. Guilty as charged. But even the puppies get to eat the crumbs that fall from their Master’s Table.” She owns the insult, and still she clings to His mercy.
At which point Jesus does what He has intended from the start. He casts out the demon from her little daughter. He gives what His Word has promised to the faith that has clung to that Word and confessed it so boldly. He has known her faith, to be sure, even before her persistence in prayer, but He has dealt with her in mercy and steadfast love, although it did not seem that way. He has delayed His response in order to strengthen her faith, and so that, by her suffering, the faith of His disciples should be strengthened and their prayers invigorated by this woman’s faithful example.
Are you not encouraged in your faith by the answer He finally gives, by the tender mercy that He grants, by the healing of her daughter and the casting out of the demon? By His praise of her faith?
So, then, take heart. The Lord is not deaf to your cry, and His heart is not hardened against you.
The fact is that you pray as you believe. The way that you pray is the evidence and expression of how and what you think about God, and whether you fear, love, and trust in Him, or not.
So, how is it with you? How do you pray?
Are you patient and persistent, like that Syrophoenician woman? Do you persevere in the face of stony silence? Do you trust the Lord your God, His Word and promises, even when you hear only a “No” from His Law? Do you say “Amen” to the apparent insult of the Lord when He puts down any claim of merit, self-righteousness, or worthiness on your part? And do you keep on praying, anyway, in the confidence of His mercy and His grace? To pray in that way is to speak rightly.
But if you do not fully expect (by the way of trust) that God will help you, as He has promised — if you do not fully expect to receive good things from Him, from your Father in heaven who loves you, who has promised to hear you, and who has answered your every prayer in Christ Jesus — if you do not trust that, and rely on that, and fully expect His help — which is what faith does — then you do not know or think about Him rightly. And so it is that you do not pray as you ought.
You imagine God in your own image, and you suppose that He will deal with you in the ways that you deal with your neighbor. You do not expect Him to hear and answer your prayer, because you are too often deaf to your neighbor’s pleas for mercy and for help. You show partiality, and you exercise personal favoritism. You do good according to your own agenda, assisting those who are most likely to return the favor with interest. So you assume that is how God will deal with you.
Such attitudes and prejudices are sinful. Your lack of faith toward God and love for your neighbor is sinful. It is therefore the case that you do not deserve to have your prayer heard and answered.
But in contrast to you and your life, the Lord Jesus Christ has perfectly fulfilled the Royal Law. He has kept it, and He still does. He loves His neighbor well, even at His own expense, at the cost of His own body and life. In love for His God and Father, He loves you, and He helps you, and He does good things for you. He comes to set you free and to save you from sin, death, and hell.
You could not believe in Him or come to Him. You could not call upon His Name or pray to Him rightly. Indeed, you could not find Him or understand Him, and you did not know how to pray.
But He has come to you in the flesh, and He teaches you by His Word and Holy Spirit to fear, love, and trust in Him, to pray, praise, and give thanks to Him, and to rest yourself upon His promises.
The little girl could not come to Jesus herself, and she did not. Her mother came and interceded. And the deaf man who could not speak, He did not ask anything for himself, either. He was utterly silent. His friends brought him, and they petitioned Jesus for him. And all of this was possible because Jesus had drawn near. The woman in Tyre and those men in Sidon came to Jesus, because Jesus had first come to them. And the same is true for you, as well. Jesus has drawn near to you.
The Word of God has come down from heaven in the Person of the incarnate Son. He has become your Brother in the flesh. He is close at hand, and His ears are open to your cries for mercy.
And you are here where He is because others have brought you here. You are here in the Lord’s House, a child of God, a sheep of the Good Shepherd, anointed by His Spirit in body and soul, because others have prayed and interceded for you, and have brought you to Jesus in His Church.
And the Lord responds to the prayers and petitions of His people by continuing to do what He has done from the start. He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies His Church, on earth as it is in heaven, by the preaching of His Word and the gift of His Spirit. By the Ministry of the Gospel He lays His hand on you in mercy. He daily and richly forgives you all your sins for His own sake, as He has also washed you with water and His Word in your Holy Baptism. He receives you to Himself, He pours out His Spirit generously upon you, and He brings you to His Father in peace.
He opens your ears to hear His Word, and He opens your mind to comprehend it, even though it is mysterious, and it seems foolish to the world. He opens your heart to believe and trust in Him, and to cling to His Word and promises in the face of all that would deny them.
It is by His Word of the Gospel that He opens what was closed, and He looses what was bound. He opens your lips to show forth His praise, to call upon His Name and pray according to His Word, and to confess His Holy Name, come hell or high water and God’s own Law against you.
Cling to His Name, and bind yourself to it. Cling to His sure and certain mercy; it will not fail you. Cling to His Cross and Resurrection, because all things have already been accomplished there and then in Christ Jesus. Crucified and risen from the dead, He is God’s Answer to your prayer. He is God’s “Amen.” Not a schwaffling “maybe-yes / maybe-no,” and not a kinda-sorta-iffy-maybe, but in Christ Jesus God’s answer is always “Yes” and “Amen.” It shall be so. Believe that.
And so pray without ceasing. Let your whole life be one of prayer, and let prayer be your way of life. Pray at all times, and do not give up heart. That is what Jesus teaches His disciples to do. Keep on praying, even when it seems as though God has turned a deaf ear and a hard heart to your prayer. Keep on praying, even when it seems as though He will simply go on refusing you forever.
Your Father in heaven hears and answers your prayer for the sake of Christ Jesus. You shall be saved; for everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord shall be saved. You shall not die but live.
And you shall not only survive, but you shall lack no good thing. For the Lord feeds you with far more than mere crumbs from His Table. The Father gives to you His own dear Son in the flesh, who feeds you with His Body and pours out His Blood for you to drink, for the forgiveness of sins.
Here, then, is how the Lord Jesus deals with you. He helps you in your every need. In fact, in His love for you He is helping before you have even called on Him; while you are yet speaking, He is already acting in mercy. He does all of these things, not because you have prayed, but because of who He is. And it is for that same reason that you are to pray. Not to coerce or manipulate Him, but because of who He is, according to His Word and promise and His steadfast loving-kindness.
The Lord Jesus helps you in your every need. He heals you of all your diseases. He casts out your demons, and He forgives your every sin. He listens to you in mercy, and He answers you in love. He clothes your nakedness, and He feeds your deepest hunger. Indeed, He feeds you with Himself.
And all of this He does for you for the sake of His fair Name, with which He has named you a child of His own God and Father, a beloved and well-pleasing son or daughter. His heart is more open to you than even the most devoted parent on earth. For none of us can achieve, and certainly never exceed, the Love of God, our Father in heaven, which is yours in Christ Jesus, His beloved Son.
As He has opened His great heart of love to you, so love your neighbors in Christ Jesus. Do it for His sake. When you look at your neighbors, behold the Lord Jesus in them. Look at them as God the Father looks at them in Christ — as God the Father looks at you in Christ. That is, do not see their faults and failings, but see the mercies of God and the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ, by which He has reconciled the world to Himself, not counting the sins of men against them.
The Lord your God shows no partiality. He is near to all, and He is merciful to all who call upon Him by faith in His Word. Since you, then, are a child of that God and Father, show no partiality. Do not play favorites. Do not pick and choose whom you will love, and do not distinguish whom you will and will not pray for. Love and serve your neighbors as the Lord Jesus Christ loves you.
Listen to your neighbor in mercy, and speak to your neighbor in love. Clothe your neighbor’s nakedness and shame with kindness, gentleness, protection, and peace. And feed your neighbor’s hunger with bread for his body and the Word of Christ for His heart, mind, body, and soul. Do not hold grudges or condemn, but forgive your neighbor — on the sole contingency of Christ Jesus.
So also pray for your neighbor. Pray for your brothers and sisters in Christ. Pray for those who sit alongside of you within this congregation. If you have not thought about them, think of them, and pray for them. And pray for those who are not here, that God would call them and bring them to Himself — or restore them to Himself — in love, in repentance and faith in His forgiveness. Pray for those who are missing, the way a mother prays for her child; the way the Syrophoenician woman prayed for her little daughter; the way that St. Monica prayed for her son, Augustine.
Why would you not pray? Do you not care? Or do you suppose the Lord will not answer?
Pray as He has taught you. And along with your prayer, speak the Word of the Gospel that God has spoken to you in peace. And as the Lord so enables and gives you opportunity, bring your neighbors to Jesus by bringing them to His Church on earth. Bring them here to the House of God, as others have brought you; so that your neighbors may also come to eat the Bread from the Lord’s Table and drink from His Chalice of Salvation; and that your neighbors also may be satisfied in body and soul, as you are satisfied, in the Body and Blood of Christ Jesus, now and forever.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.