Monday, February 27, 2012

Browning, Caleb, the Canaanite Woman and Jesus

God answers sharp and sudden on some prayers,
And thrusts the thing we have prayed for in our face,
A gauntlet with a gift in't. Every wish
Is like a prayer . . . With God.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, Book II

Perhaps it's not what Miss Browning quite had in mind, but I think this sums up nicely what our Lord does with the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15.

She cries out and He throws down the gauntlet. Whether it be in his silence or his rebuke, the challenge, the test, the obstacle is set. But with the gauntlet comes the gift also. Luther puts it this way:

"Thus she catches Christ with his own words, and he is happy to be caught. . . . he let himself be made captive, and must comply. Be sure of this: that's what he most deeply desires . . ." (Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, vol. 5, 325).

That the Lord would give his gifts in this way strikes us at first as odd. But is it really? Are we so different? Do we not do these things with our own family: our spouses, our children? We say we love our children unconditionally and we do. But we also test their love for us. We throw down our own gauntlets, our own obstacle courses, and when they pass, there is a gift in't--our own response of love. We do it out of our weakness; He out of His strength. We do it in order to receive love; He in order to give it.

Luther made much of the blessing of not being heard immediately, that it is good to wait because our Lord delays in giving us what we pray for for our own good. And this account speaks much to those whose prayers seemingly go unanswered. But Luther says something else that got me thinking:

"We see here why the Lord presented himself so unyielding and refused to hear her, not because he wanted to present an unfriendly image as not wanting to help her, but rather that her faith might be so evident, that the Jews who were the children and heirs of the kingdom might learn from the Gentile, who was not among the children and had no inheritance, how they were to believe in Christ and place all confidence in him" (Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, vol. 5, 325).

Those who must endure the suffering that comes from unanswered prayer is not the only people this account addresses. It addresses those who presume upon God's grace thinking it their right and not His gift, those who rest secure in having once, at one time received God's gifts but do not receive God's gifts, those who think that birth or bloodline or membership rolls are sufficient. What does this account say to the one who thinks he's safe? Had the Jews forgotten how our Lord dealt with Joshua and Caleb?

I bring this up because perhaps this account should have been the OT reading for this Sunday. Joshua (the savior) and Caleb (the dog, for that is what his name means in Hebrew) were the only two of the Twelve spies who believed the Lord's promise and wanted to move forward to take and inhabit the Promised Land (Numbers 13-14). Joshua the Jew and Caleb the Gentile dog from Edom, only they trusted the promise. And the Lord promised a a portion of the Promised Land to Caleb the dog man, who represented the tribe of Judah. And when it came time to give out the allotment, Caleb chose Hebron, the hill country. And the dog kept the Lord's people safe from invasion by driving out the Anakites (Joshua 14:6-15, 15:13-19). The dogs already received the inheritance because of their trust in the the promise and the blood of the one who promises not because of their own blood.

Perhaps the Canaanite woman knew of this, but perhaps not. Regardless, the Jews did, but then again, perhaps they didn't because our Lord said "you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God" (Matt 22:29). They should have known that it was not blood but trust, it was not for their name's sake that they'd be saved, but His. That the Canaanite woman is given not just crumbs but a seat at the table, as Luther says, that Caleb gets his own portion of the land, is a rebuke for the faithlessness of those who were considered children.


  1. You are collecting these into a volume, yes? It is sure to be printed as homiletical helps for the 1yr. Brilliant.

  2. This is awesome, and right on. Thanks a lot!


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