Gospel: Matthew 15:21-28 (Pentecost 11: Series A)
This week’s miracle invites you to engage in an honest consideration of something pressing for every believer at some time in their lives: God’s silence.
t first, Jesus gave her no answer. She had come to Him for help. She was crying out for mercy. Not for herself, she came on behalf of her daughter, her demon-possessed daughter. Even though she was a Gentile, she addressed Him rightly. “Lord,” she called Him. “Son of David,” she pleaded. “Have mercy on me.” It was a heartfelt prayer to the only one who could help. But how did Jesus respond? “He did not answer her a word” (verse 23). The disciples did not help much, either. Rather than appealing to Jesus’ sense of compassion, which had motivated His miraculous feeding in the previous chapter (14:14), the disciples tried to get rid of her. “Send her away,” they said.
This is a miracle text. I have suggested in the last few reflections that you spend some time thinking about and preaching on these miracles from Matthew 14-15. Whether or not you have followed the suggestion, this week’s miracle offers an opportunity which should not be missed. It invites you to engage in an honest consideration of something pressing for every believer at some time in their lives: God’s silence.
[If the last two weeks provided an opportunity to reflect on the “evidential” and “typological” functions of miracles, this week’s text invites reflection on the “didactic” function of miracles. Recall the distinctions here. This sermon could help hearers learn more about the nature of faith, and also experience what it means to live by faith.]
Before we get to the miracle in this text, we must take seriously that Jesus, “…did not answer her a word.” Not only because it is in the text, but also because it is the experience of so many of your hearers. Frederick Buechner, in his profound little book Telling the Truth, insists preachers recognize the tragedy that is God’s disinclination to respond to us as we would hope and expect. “Before the Gospel is a word,” Buechner says, “it is silence. It is the silence of their own lives and of His life” (Buechner, 23). By silence, Buechner has in mind God’s lack of apparent response to our struggles and prayers. We could call it many things—silence, inaction, absence. For many, this silence is audible. If you want your hearers to take seriously the miracle in this text, then you should begin by taking seriously their experience of disappointment and despair. “Any preacher who, whatever else he speaks, does not speak to that hopelessness might as well save his breath” (Buechner, 55).
Any preacher who, whatever else he speaks, does not speak to that hopelessness might as well save his breath.-Fredrick Buechner
One way to do this would be to preach a narrative sermon in which you retell this miracle account with several interruptions along the way. See David Schmitt’s structural options here, particularly the Biblical Story Interrupted. It would be natural to pause the story at verse 23. This might be uncomfortable for your hearers because Jesus does not seem like Himself at this point in the text, which suggests our conception of who Jesus actually is might need some attention.
Slowing the story down in this way would create space to honor the fact that God’s silence is hard to take. It must have been excruciating for the woman in out text. You know the situations in your congregation where it is equally difficult. But it is necessary, because it is only out of the silence that faith arises. As the writer of Hebrews puts it, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). The woman hoped for healing for her daughter. But even before that, she hoped for a response from Jesus. Your hearers have hoped for many things, too. Some of their prayers are known to you. Others they have kept hidden. You might even consider your own prayers that have only been met by silence.
Jesus’ silence plays an important part in this text. But eventually the silence is broken. As it is, we see an example of faith in action. The unnamed woman’s faith was not uninformed. She recognized her lack of standing. She did not think of herself more highly than she ought. She identified herself as a beggar—worse, a dog. She also recognized who she was talking to. Jesus was the master and He had bread (even if was just crumbs) to spare. Our faith is not uniformed, either. The Scriptures make it clear how we also are beggars and we have no standing before God. Furthermore, they tell us Jesus is still Lord, and He has even more to spare. So, we come to Him, like the woman came to Jesus, and continually cry out for mercy: “Lord, help me.”
So, we come to Him, like the woman came to Jesus, and continually cry out for mercy: “Lord, help me.”
The promise in this sermon is not that Jesus will respond here and now by doing our will. He does on occasion, and at such times we sing a Te Deum. But in many cases, and in an ultimate sense, we are stuck with the silence. Our shared experience with the woman in the text comes to an end… for now, at least.
You see, our story is not yet finished. Verse 28b has not yet taken place for us. But it will. At the return of Jesus, when God’s silence is broken by the trumpets and His absence is replaced with His glorious presence, we will know the fullness of His mercy. Like He did for the unnamed woman and her daughter, God will bring full and eternal healing. In the meantime, we live in faith and prayer, appealing to and trusting in the mercy of God in Christ. Such is how it goes for those who live by faith alone.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Peter Nafzger (Ph.D. Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO) is Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. He is the author of “These Are Written: Toward a Cruciform Theology of Scripture.”