Prevailing Prayer

I Thessalonians 4:1-8; St. Matthew 15:21-28

by The Rt. Rev. Daniel R. Morse

Lent 2007

The prayer of King Solomon at the dedication of the Temple highlighted the kind of prayer that would solicit a favorable response from God. In 1 Kings 8:38 Solomon said: “whatever prayer, whatever supplication is made by anyone, or by all Your people Israel, when each one knows the plague of his own heart, and spreads out his hands toward this temple: then hear in heaven Your dwelling place, and forgive, and act, and give to everyone according to all his ways, whose heart You know (for You alone know the hearts of all the sons of men), that they may fear You all the days that they live in the land which You gave to our fathers.”

It has been said that prayer moves the hand that moves the world. But the one praying must be moved first in order for his prayer to be moving to God. A young lad once found a discarded pack of cigarettes. He went to a nearby field and lit one up. Although he didn’t much like the taste, it did make him feel “cool” and “grown up,” so he puffed away. To his horror and dismay, he suddenly saw his father approaching rapidly and he quickly tried to hide the cigarette behind his back. Desperate to divert his father’s attention he pointed to a billboard advertising the circus. “Can we go, dad? Please, let’s go when it comes to town.” To this his father quietly replied, “Son, never make a petition while at the same time trying to hide a smoldering disobedience.”

Only those who know the plague of their own heart and repent of it before the One to Whom all hearts are open will prevail in prayer. The Gospel lesson for this Second Sunday in Lent is about this kind of prevailing prayer. To many, our Lord’s manner in speaking to the Syro-Phoenician woman presents a problem. It seems so unlike the gracious and kind Person we read about in the Scriptures. The clue that may help us to unravel this mystery can be found in the fact that she was a pagan. The prayers of the heathen are not founded upon a realization of who they are in the light of Whom they are addressing. For God to answer this kind of prayer would be futile as no future change was in view. The woman’s daughter would then be freed of the demonic resident only to be filled with more later as she continued to participate in their pagan rituals.

Our Lord’s statements were designed to create in this woman an awareness of her own need to turn away from the paganism that had rendered her little more than a household dog under the Divine Master’s Table and had, no doubt, brought about the demonic possession of her daughter in the first place. It would be the realization of her own unworthiness that would move the heart of the One Who moved the world.

Many commentators have pointed out that St. Matthew’s recording of the event may be divided neatly into four sections by the repetition of the words “He answered.” Firstly, her urgent appeal for the healing of her daughter was met with an answer of silence. Verse 23 says, “But he answered her not a word.” The condition of the heart of the petitioner was not yet known and thus any answer from our Lord at this point would have been premature. There are times when a silent response from God causes us to look deeper within ourselves to ascertain whether our approach or our attitude is acceptable. Self-examination in the light of unanswered prayer is often the best tool in discerning between and a true heart and a false one.

Then there is our Lord’s answer in reply to the request of the disciples to send her away. Now, I cannot help but compare their request with the kind of statements made to those whose prayers are not immediately answered. In both cases, God’s prolonged silence is interpreted as negative. Instead of allowing the inner work of God’s Holy Spirit in the life of the individual to take its course, they jump the gun and begin to look for ways to quickly fix the situation or at least make sense out of it so that they can comfortably fit it in their “God box.”

But our Lord’s reply to the insensitive disciples gives us an indication why he remained silent. “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of Israel.” In order for the woman to re-evaluate the foundation upon which she based her petition, she had to be reminded of her lost state. She was not a member of the chosen people neither is there any indication in the text that she had made any attempt to change her pagan status. St. Matthew simply called her a woman of Canaan and, as we have already seen, any reply to a non believer’s prayer would be futile as the most important issue, their lost state, had not been addressed much less reversed.

His third answer brings the test full circle. The words, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs,” immediately bring into stark relief the woman’s present position. She was not a child seated at God’s Table in God’s Kingdom. The statement is directed at the very heart of her spiritual condition and the underlying question “What are you going to do about this?” is revealed. You see, unbelievers cannot expect to partake of the Bread of believers. . . in fact, St. Paul strictly forbade it in 1 Corinthians 11 warning that those who did so brought damnation upon themselves. Did the woman understand this? That was Christ’s question. Do we understand this - especially in the light of recent events in which the non biblical thoughts and practices of post-enlightenment society have invaded the Church.

Her reply indicates that the inner work of the Spirit had driven the Lord’s Word deep into her soul and that the seed had found fertile soil. The tree of faith came bursting to the surface with the moving words, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their Master’s Table.”

“I am unworthy, Lord, I know. . . my sinful ways have erected a wall of separation between us. . . I recognize that because of this I am no more than a household pet beneath Your Divine Table. . . yet Your mercy extends even thus far. . . raise me up from the floor if You are willing.”

Our Lord’s final answer shows that faith had done its work in the woman’s life. “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be as you desire.” The foundation upon which her prayer was founded proved to be true and her petition was thus granted. She knew the plague of her own heart. . . she knew who she was in the light of who he was. . . she acknowledged that fact, confessed her unworthiness and pressed on to lay hold of his mercy given purely by grace.

Now, there are many lessons to learn from this triumphant story. For one, this woman truly loved her daughter. It was love that drove her to her knees to prevail in intercessory prayer. Brethren, do you love your brothers and sisters in Christ enough to prevail in prayer for them as she did for her daughter? Also, her faith was remarkable. She was willing to break with her own beliefs and ways and, no doubt her family and friends, to receive a favorable reply from the Lord. Are you willing to set aside your own traditions, perhaps your family and friends, your history, your desires, your dreams, your ambitions and your likes and dislikes for the sake of truth?

The most obvious lesson is, of course, her perseverance in prayer despite a very discouraging reception. Archbishop Trench once pointed out that “whereas the paralytic broke through outward obstacles (Mark 2:4) and blind Bartimaeus through opposition raised by his fellow-men (Mark 10:48), this woman of Canaan overcame apparent hindrances from Christ himself. Hers was the spirit of wrestling Jacob: 'I will not let Thee go except Thou bless me.'”

And then finally, there is her deep humility in admitting that she was in need of nothing more nor less than pure mercy and grace. The writers of the Prayer Book have rightly woven her words into our service of Holy Communion: “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Thy Table.” Coming before the Throne of an Almighty and Holy God demands a spirit of self-abasement and thus we too must remember who we are in the light of who he is when we come to solicit his intervention. Know the plague of your own heart, before you spread out your hands to heaven so that your prayers may be heard and favorably answered.