When God Doesn't Hear - Homily on the Syrophoenician Woman (2024)

When God Doesn't Hear - Homily on the Syrophoenician Woman (2024) - Holy Cross Monastery

The Gospel narrative today is a peculiar account, and it has a great deal to teach us about prayer. Christ had travelled to the region of Tyre and Sidon, lands of the Gentiles. At times throughout His earthly ministry, we see Christ retreating from the public eye, in order to escape the persecution of the Jews or to teach His disciples in private. So it is here—Mark’s account tells us that he entered into an house, and would have no man know it: but he could not be hid (Mark 7:24). A Gentile woman, a Syrophoenician, comes seeking help from Him, begging Him to cast out a demon from her daughter. Christ seems to act out of character at first, and treats her with cold indifference. Matthew says that when she came crying to him, he answered her not a word (Matt. 15:23). But the woman wouldn’t back down. She was so insistent in her pleading that she exasperated the Apostles, who came and asked Christ to send her away.

They must have been confused. How many times had they seen him cast out evil spirits with a simple word? How many times had they themselves cast out demons in His name? They knew firsthand how easy it was for Jesus to do what the woman asked. They also knew how much compassion Christ had shown to the crowds of people that flocked to Him in the cities and in the deserts. Why wouldn’t He show pity to this poor woman who refused to leave them alone?

Even the Apostles’ intercession wasn’t enough to move the Lord to act. I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matt. 15:24). True, He told the Twelve not to go to the Gentiles or the Samaritans when He first commissioned them. But afterwards, He didn’t place the same constraints on the Seventy when He sent them forth. Even before this, we see Christ healing a centurion’s servant and extoling his faith. He had gone out of His way to the land of the Gergesenes, another pagan country, and healed the two demoniacs of a legion of demons. Why would He refuse this woman now?

There are some modern commentators who have a dim view of our Lord’s divinity, and read this passage as example of human capriciousness, as though Jesus was just in a bad mood that day. Maybe He didn’t get enough sleep the night before, or maybe He didn’t eat enough at breakfast and he was just feeling “hangry”, and so He couldn’t be bothered to help this poor woman. Yes, these petty things often explain our own behavior, but not the Lord’s. This is the kind of foolishness that people take seriously when they think of Jesus as just another flawed human being rather than what He was in actuality—the sinless God-man, perfect in His divinity, not subject to the passions of fallen human nature. We ought rather to interpret everything in the Gospels in a way that befits Christ’s divinity. Clearly, He had a deeper purpose in treating the woman this way, and this becomes evident in the rest of their exchange.

Finally, the woman makes her way before Him and prostrates herself, praying desperately but simply, Lord, help me (Matt. 15:25). Jesus still refuses her. It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs (Matt 15:26). This is where things become downright scandalous from a human point of view. Not only is Christ not helping someone in need, He even insults and degrades her, calling her a dog since she wasn’t a Jew. It’s the kind of hard-hearted religious chauvinism for which Jesus was constantly lambasting the Pharisees and scribes. It’s precisely the attitude He condemns in the parable of Good Samaritan. How could He possibly mean what He says here? Just think about how we would react to someone saying something so demeaning to us, someone we were looking to for comfort and help. I would get indignant and angry. “Who are you calling a dog? Who do you think you are? I’m just as worthy as any Jew! Forget this! I’m out of here!”

But no, not even this humiliation was enough to discourage the woman. Instead, she replies, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table (Matt. 15:27). With this simple phrase, the woman reveals the depths of her humility and her faith. She shows humility, because she accepts the Lord’s word and abases herself even more. Jesus calls the Jews “children”; the woman calls them “masters”. She shows faith, because she implies that the Lord’s power is so great, her request is a mere crumb falling from the table. These are the two dispositions that finally earn her what she asks for. Just as He did with the centurion in Capernaum, Jesus marvels at the woman’s faith.

The Lord’s purpose becomes clear at last. He didn’t deny her request at first because He had a bad lunch and felt grumpy. From the very beginning, He could see the quality of her heart. So He tested it in order to make it manifest to everyone, and to provide us with an everlasting example of humility, faith, and perseverance in prayer. Strange as it may seem, it was only through Christ’s disdain that her virtue was revealed.

The whole episode calls to mind the parable of the unjust judge in Luke’s Gospel. Christ told it to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint (Luke 18:1). Jesus tells of a cruel judge who helps a poor widow, not because he feels sorry for her, but simply to stop her from pestering him. How much more then will our loving, heavenly Father speedily answer our prayers when we pray to Him? Both this parable and the story in today’s Gospel present us with a paradox, though. God encourages us to have faith and be persistent in prayer, so that our prayers will be answered. But patience and persistence is only necessary precisely because our prayers are not answered—at least not immediately.

Why doesn’t God hear us all the time? Why doesn’t He always answer right away and give us what we pray for? Oftentimes, it’s the very struggle to be patient and persevere that engenders in us the faith and humility required for God to accept our prayers. That’s why He withholds our requests from us. It’s not because He is heartless and unfeeling. It’s not because what we ask for is necessarily wrong or evil. But God wants us to really feel that everything we have is from Him. If we always, immediately received what we ask from Him, we would become puffed up, entitled, and ungrateful for all of His benefits. But by withholding His good things from us for a time, He cultivates the virtues in us that are lacking, and makes manifest those that are already there. By withholding what we ask for, He forces us to be patient, to struggle, to learn how to endure suffering or misfortune or humiliation, and so He makes us stronger.

At times, we may grow weary of waiting, we may be desperate for something to change in our lives or in our hearts, we may become overwhelmed with inner suffering or despondency, and cry out to God, “Why won’t you hear me? Please, help me! Why must I go through all of this heartache and pain? I’m tired of being humiliated; I’m sick of this broken heart.” Then we hear the words of David, the humbled bones shall rejoice: a heart broken and humbled, God will not despise (Ps. 50:10, 19).

It’s only there in that place of brokenness that we encounter God. His grace can only pour in through the cracks of our broken, sinful heart. So He bears long with us sometimes, withholding our heart’s desires so that we would more readily seek Him, and so that He can more fully unite Himself with us.

No matter what situations and trials we face in life, let us never lose patience and give up hope. Rather let us seek solace in God and entrust our whole life to Him. And when we feel ourselves at our breaking-point, let us never forget that the sacrifice unto God is a broken spirit: a heart broken and humbled, God will not despise (Ps. 50:19).

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