She Found Her Voice

Well then, what shall I do? I will pray in the spirit, and I will also pray in words I understand. I will sing in the spirit, and I will also sing in words I understand. [1]
—1 Cor. 14:15
Introduction: Uniformity in Prayer
As long as there have been human beings, there have been different ways of communicating with the divine. The notion that there’s no divine to communicate with is a relatively recent one; but just because people share a religion doesn’t mean that they agree on how best to communicate with God.

This country’s early Congregationalists, for example—who called themselves Pilgrims and Puritans when they first arrived on these shores—disagreed with the established church back in England about how prayer should be conducted during worship. The Church of England had a prayer book which was required reading in church. But they felt that neither church nor king could compel anyone to say a particular prayer on a particular day. Though to 21st century Americans it may seem odd, the established church took this rule very seriously. Straying from the Book of Common Prayer the first time meant that a pastor would lose his job and be placed in prison for six months. A second offense meant another year in jail. And a third offense meant life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. [2] Rather than being forced to use the Book of Common Prayer, our ancestors in the faith crossed an ocean to make a new home for themselves where they could pray in freedom.

Though none of us can imagine being penalized for not praying from a certain book when we pray in public, that doesn’t mean we all agree on the language of prayer. A good example would... [read the rest of the sermon]
be our attitude toward repetition. Our brothers and sisters in the Roman Catholic Church, for example, often find meaning in praying the rosary. To pray the rosary is to pray the same prayer dozens of times, all the while meditating on one of the mysteries of the Christian faith. Few Congregationalists can relate to this kind of spirituality, though I admit to using one of its principles in my own daily life. In my devotional calendar, [3] I have assigned a psalm (or a portion of a psalm) to each day, and I choose a verse from my daily psalm and memorize it as a kind of mantra that runs in the background of my day. I doubt that this has made me a better Christian, but it gives shape to my prayer life, and that can’t be all bad.
I. Jesus the Pharisee?
So let’s use this idea of what constitutes proper prayer to help us understand the Canaanite woman that we read about in Matthew 15. [4] I think most of us find this story disturbing because it doesn’t reflect the kind and loving Jesus that (I hope) lives in most of our minds. Here we have Jesus taking a break from the oppressive and doctrinaire leaders of his own religion by entering Gentile territory. But the sweet savor of [God’s] promises had reached the neighboring nations, [5] and he’s immediately confronted by a Canaanite woman who calls him “Lord” [6] and “Son of David” and asks him to heal her daughter.

I’m sure we remember that, when children came to Jesus and his disciples told him to send them away, Jesus’ response was to rebuke the disciples and to bless the little children. But here when the disciples complain that this Gentile woman is making a nuisance of herself, Jesus does what—to our minds, at least—seems unthinkable: He first ignores the woman, and then rebukes her, using the same kind of language we might expect from the most closed-minded of the Pharisees: “I was sent only to help God’s lost sheep—the people of Israel.”

It gets worse. When the woman persists, crying more pitifully, “Lord, help me,” Jesus tells her that “it isn’t right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs.”

Throw it to the dogs? Is this the same Jesus who in one place blessed the little children and who in another said, “I am humble and gentle at heart”? [7] Jesus’ response to this woman—first to ignore her, then to speak of his own ethnic group as children before comparing hers to dogs was exactly what we might have expected from the very people Jesus had just been in a confrontation with. In those days, the Pharisees would often pray, “Lord, I thank you that I wasn’t born a woman, a Gentile, or a dog,” and what better opportunity might he have had to show that he wasn’t like them than to interact with this poor woman, whom he instead reminds that she is both a Gentile and a dog.
II. A Fourth Way
But Jesus does nothing without a purpose, and I see a definite purpose behind this scathing exchange between him and the Canaanite woman—though apparently I see something that my commentaries don’t agree with me on. So let’s sum up the scholarship [8] before we move on with my own thoughts:
  • First, there are those who say that this exchange never actually happened; that it was an oral tradition started by conservative Jewish Christians who were opposed to the inclusion of Gentiles in the church, and then later recorded by Mark and Matthew. But this opinion seems silly when we see what happens at the end of the story, so let’s discard it altogether.
  • Next comes the opinion that this really happened, but that we’re simply unable to hear the words as Jesus spoke them because of the differences between our time and his, English and Aramaic, 21st century culture and 1st century culture. For example, there are those who claim that Jesus didn’t use an insulting term at all, but that the word he used was more akin to doggy than dog. But this opinion, too, seems silly to me, because regardless of the linguistic, historical, or cultural context, Jesus is clearly not using a term of endearment when he calls the woman a dog.
  • And finally, there are those—the majority—who say that we need to let the story stand as it is, and simply deal with Jesus the chauvinist and racist who was convinced by the Canaanite woman that he was simply wrong.
But I’d like to propose a fourth way of looking at this story. The way I read it, the woman—a Gentile —has heard about Jesus: that he’s not just a miracle worker, but that he’s the savior of the Jewish people. And so she tries to push his buttons by appealing to him using a title that had little or no meaning to her—not just as Lord, but as the Son of David, a title reserved for the Jewish Messiah.

Since she’s trying to manipulate him by using the expected words, Jesus responds in kind. If she wants to pray to him using pharisaical phrases, then he’ll answer her in the same way. Just as she is treating Jesus as some sort of an apparatus that will produce the desired results when given the right input, Jesus shows her that a machine will only do what it’s programmed to do. In other words: You want a Jewish Messiah? I’ll remind you that you’re not Jewish.
III. ‘I Have a Voice’
And it’s only then that we see the shape of the woman’s own faith, as opposed to somebody else’s. For Jesus’ words do not dissuade her from asking for help. But instead of treating Jesus like some sort of pagan deity who could be manipulated by using an age-old formula, she suddenly responds with her own words. Pitiful though they may seem to us, these were actually bold words spoken by a woman with a bold faith: “That’s true, Lord, but even dogs are allowed to eat scraps that fall beneath their master’s table.”

To put this exchange in a modern context, remember the scene from the film The King’s Speech that takes place in Westminster Abbey? It’s a real turning point in the relationship between a stammering King George (played by Colin Firth) and his speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). They’re arguing during the rehearsal for the coronation, and the King feels that Logue won’t listen to him. Logue reminds His Royal Highness of all the times he’d said in the past that he didn’t want to be king, that he wasn’t a real king, and that he had nothing to say. As the exchange gets more and more heated, Logue asks him why he should even waste his time listening to him. “Because I have a right to be heard,” the King shouts, “I have a voice!”

“Yes you do,” Logue answers “…you’re the bravest man I know.” [9]

Logue knew all along that the King had a voice and that he was courageous. But if he hadn’t forced the issue, the King himself wouldn’t have realized it and wouldn’t have known the depth of his own passion.

This is what I see happening between Jesus and the Canaanite woman whose daughter needs healing. The woman tries to get Jesus’ attention using words that aren’t really her own. Jesus responds with a pointed reminder of who she is and whose words she’s using. The woman then finds her voice. Her prayer doesn’t ignore Jesus’ words to her, but shapes them to fit to her own faith. She may not currently be seated at the family dinner table. But even the scraps from a dinner hosted by Jesus are sufficient to give life to her and her daughter.

Though it’s not the same kind of controversy, the Apostle Paul dealt with understanding the words we use in prayer when he wrote his first letter to the Corinthians. At issue there was the use of tongues that others didn’t understand. Paul doesn’t condemn the spiritual practices of others, but—using the first person to show that he practices what he preaches—he asks what he should do instead. “I will pray in the spirit,” he writes, “and I will also pray in words I understand.”
IV. With Mind and Spirit
We may not be facing the same controversy that Jesus dealt with when he was approached by the Gentile woman, or the controversy that Paul dealt with in Corinth, but we can learn a great deal about prayer from these two passages of scripture.

Each of our lives has a soundtrack—clips that play over and over again in our minds that remind us of who we are, of what we’ve done in the past, or even of what other people think of us. None of us is immune to allowing that background music to dictate—at least from time to time—who we think we are, what we think we’re capable of, or what our relationship with others should be. The truth of the matter is that that soundtrack gets a lot more emphasis than it should. In the film, the king’s speech problem wasn’t just a speech problem—it was also a psychological problem that had plagued him since childhood. Though there wasn’t yet any science to back him up, Lionel Logue knew that to deal with the physical manifestation, he had to first get to its psychological roots. A few generations later, therapists’ offices are filled with people who, like King George, need to understand the psychological roots of problems that show themselves in many other ways.

But this isn’t just something we need to do to be psychologically healthy, it’s also something we need to do to be theologically healthy. You see, our relationship with God isn’t always based on the reality of who God actually is—we’re too comfortable allowing God just to be a word in a book we sometimes read, or a concept we hear other people talk about. And perhaps worse than that, it’s not even based on the reality of who we are. That’s because we allow ourselves to be defined by too many things that are just extraneous details: how much money we have and what we did to earn it, where and into what circumstances we were born, who we know or even who we’re in a relationship with, and (of course) what others think of us, to name but a few. But to have a genuine relationship with God, we cannot approach a concept somebody else worships with a college degree in our hand, or a bank book, a marriage license, or a divorce decree in our hand. Because at some point we need to know the God we’re praying to, and we’ll need to approach that God not as somebody else and not as somebody else’s definition of who we are, but as ourselves.

Pete Townshend wrote a song about a time he hit rock bottom and had to figure out who he was. It’s a song that reminds me of the woman in today’s gospel passage, for it’s not only about realizing that undeserved love is part of Townshend’s identity, but it’s actually called Who Are You? The final stanza goes like this:
I know there’s a place you walked
                where love falls from the trees.
My heart is like a broken cup;
                I only feel right on my knees.

I spit out like a sewer hole,
                but still receive your kiss.

How can I measure up to anyone now
                after such a love as this?
It turns out that the woman on her knees begging Jesus really did know who he was. She did not belong to the Lord’s flock, yet, despite anything that the religious leadership of that day might’ve said, she had acquired some taste of piety. [5] The soundtrack in her head told her not to approach Jesus at all, but approach him she did—using words she had heard others say to him or about him. Jesus responded in kind, bringing that background music into the foreground, loudly reminding her of the all-too-familiar theme of her unworthiness. And so she wrestled that theme to the ground; she twisted it into her own music, her own prayer, and said that just a crumb that falls from the table of the worthy is enough to make the unworthy whole. Though she felt she could only come to Jesus using the words of others, she ended up finding her own voice: She found that she couldn’t feel accepted by Jesus until she approached him not as the person she thought she should be, but just as she actually was.
Conclusion: Just As We Are
Jesus’ response to this Canaanite woman was not just the wholeness she’d requested for her daughter. He also told her that she had provided the world to come with a new definition of what faith was. Faith is taking that first step toward God using inadequate words to express a deep longing for a wholeness we don’t yet fully understand. We may pray a prayer we memorized as a child, or mimic the prayer language we’ve heard somebody else use. Our prayer may be a groaning of our spirit or simply the silence of meditation. But whatever form it takes, the prayer of faith will result in transformation.

As in today’s story, it may seem that it is Christ who is transformed, that it’s Christ who changes his mind: He who once ignored us now answers; he who was once far away draws near. But in reality, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. [11] The change that occurs is in us, for to encounter Christ is to discover not only who he is, but also who we are.

I may not be the King of England with somebody like Lionel Logue forcing me to find my own voice; and you may not be that Canaanite woman who wrestles her own faith to the ground after Jesus tells her what the righteous think of her. But within each of us there’s a prayer that our spirit is praying before our mind is able to understand it. However unworthy we may feel to sit at the banquet of the saints, the crumbs that fall from the table are enough to raise us up and make us whole, to make us worthy, to transform us into a child of God. In Jesus Christ, the wholeness of God is at hand. When the mirror of who we are is held before our eyes, may God grant us the grace to respond in faith.
—©2014 Sam L. Greening, Jr.
  1. Though I typically use the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (NRSV), I have opted to use the New Living Translation (NLT) as my text here. Though the NRSV is closer to the Greek, the NLT’s translation fits nicely into Paul’s context. This is reflected in modern German, in which the word Verstand can be used to mean both understanding and mind (see this same verse in the Z├╝rcher Bibel, for example).
  2. The Act of Uniformity of 1549 and subsequent updates were not fully repealed until after World War 2.
  3. I actually maintain a devotional blog that reflects my spiritual practices:
  4. See verses 21-28. For consistency’s sake, I will quote from the NLT throughout this sermon.
  5. John Calvin’s commentary on Matthew 15:22. It should be noted that, when treating this passage, Calvin is mostly concerned with whether or not “faith may exist without promises,” i.e. whether or not faith leads us to God, or God leads us to faith. I agree with Calvin that only the latter is possible.
  6. It should be noted here that, though she may not have understood the term, in Matthew, only believers call Jesus Lord. See footnote 340 M. Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol VIII (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), p. 336.
  7. See Matthew 11:29-30 and 19:13-15
  8. A good summary can be found in Douglas R.A. Hare, Matthew from the Interpretation series (Louisville: John Knox, 1993), pp. 176-177.
  9. The King’s Speech, directed by Tom Hooper, UK Film Council/See-Saw Films/Bedlam Productions, 2010
  10. Pete Townshend, Who Are You? from The Who’s album of the same title (MCA, 1978)
  11. Hebrews 13:8