"A Mother's Persistence Pays Off"
May 14, 2006 Mother's Day Mt.15:21-28
Three ladies were bragging about their grown sons. The first said, "You should have seen what my boy did for me on my birthday! He threw a big party at a fancy restaurant-he even hired a big band to come and play." The second lady said, "That's nice, but listen to what my son did. Last winter he gave me an all-expense-paid cruise to the Greek islands-all first class." The third lady said, "That's nothing! For the last three years my son has been paying a psychiatrist $150 an hour two times a week-and the whole time he talks about nothing but me!"
Our parents leave us legacies. I don't mean monetary inheritances, but real lasting impact on our lives - hopefully more positive than such effects that require counselling. But our mothers do matter, they can have a profound effect on us. Stasi Eldredge quotes Dinah in The Red Tent, "If you want to understand any woman you must first ask about her mother and then listen carefully."
A London editor submitted to Winston Churchill for his approval a list of all those who had been Churchill's teachers. Churchill returned the list with this comment: "You have omitted the greatest of my teachers - my mother."
Today we can all be taught by the faithful, persistent example of a mother whom Jesus met when travelling far from home. Despite difficult circumstances and testing, her faith and feistiness prevailed. The Lord has allowed her story to be captured in Holy Scripture so we can learn from her persistence and marvel at God's mercy in responding to her need.
Matthew tells us Jesus had left Galilee and gone north to the area around two cities on the coast of the Mediterranean, Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from thereabouts came and cried out to Him, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession." (22) NLT renders the last sentence, "For my daughter has a demon in her, and it is severely tormenting her." We're not told the exact manifestations, so we can only guess. Perhaps there were seizures, nightmares, overwhelming depression, multiple personalities, or self-destructiveness. Satan could use any number of disorders to torment and make a family suffer. Our son has recently begun working at a group home run by a Christian agency; one of the residents has a self-destructive tendency, and can't seem to settle down for the night unless he whacks his own head a couple of times on the door jamb first of all. Ouch! Other young people today are tormented by other demons: cutting, eating disorders, crystal meth or other addictions. If a parent does try to intervene, sometimes they're simply rebuffed and can only stand by and watch as their own child gets dragged down into the pit.
But the woman in our story doesn't just appeal for help for her daughter. Look closely at vv22,25: "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!...Lord, help me!" She's asking for help for herself, as well. Her daughter's condition is affecting her greatly; it's probably taking a toll on the whole family. But parents in particular identify with and are affected severely by their children's problems. Perhaps the mother's not getting much sleep at night because she hears her daughter crying out in nightmares. Perhaps she's driven to her wits' end because the girl simply won't eat and is withering away to skin and bones. Maybe she herself is battling depression because she knows the personalities being expressed in her daughter's frame aren't the person the girl used to be. She too is tormented.
Being a mom or dad, our kids affect us. We're often 'tuned in' in a special way to their condition. Eldredge relates a story "about a young woman who had just given birth to her first child, and her own mother had come to help care for her. The baby had kept the new mother up most of the night with his little mysterious noises, so she was going to ask her mom how long it was before you stopped hearing all those sounds. Before she could ask, however, her own mother asked her, 'Are you getting a cold, dear? I thought I heard you wheezing last night.'" (!) Caring parents identify with their kids and are impacted by what they're going through.
The Canaanite woman doesn't just ask once and leave it at that. She's persistent. V23, the disciples came to Jesus and urged Him to send her away "for she keeps crying out after us." Mothering takes persistence. There's a special endurance moms must have to keep making meals, washing dishes, doing the laundry, tidying the house, day after day after day (in addition to whatever they may be involved with outside the home). It can become very wearing.
One of Yvonne's friends gave her a gift of Canadian humour, Stuart McLean's Vinyl Café on CD. In one episode Dave's wife Morley describes to him what her life as a mother is like: "My life is a train...I'm a train dragging everybody from one place to another, to school and to dance class, and to 'now it's time to get up' and 'now it's time to go to bed'. I'm a train full of people who complain when you try to get them into a bed and fight you when you try to get them out of one. That's my job. And I'm not only the train, I'm the porter and the conductor and the cook and the engineer and the maintenance man. And I print the tickets and I stack the luggage and I clean the dishes, and if they still had cabooses, I'd be the caboose...The train starts at a town called 'first day of school'...and it goes to a village called 'Halloween' and then through the township of 'class project' and down the spur line called, 'your sister is visiting'. And do you know what's at the end of the track? Do you know where my train is heading?...To the last stop on the line, Christmas dinner...And when we finally get through that week between Christmas and New Year, do you know what they do with the train? They back it up during the night when I'm asleep so they can run it through all the stations again!" (Excerpt from A Christmas Collection: Dave Cooks the Turkey)
Mothering requires persistence - keeping that locomotive moving. The Canaanite woman showed such persistence in appealing to the Lord.
Being a caregiver of any kind means you don't give up even when troubles and testing drive you to your knees. For some reason Jesus hadn't been answering the woman (v23); he explains to the disciples, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." Finally the woman comes and kneels right in front of Him, calling out, "Lord, help me!" NLT says "she came and worshiped Him..." (25) This shows how desperate she is, but also that she's honouring Him while humbling herself. It recalls Job's response to the news of the destruction of all his material herds and goods and the death of his children: "At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship" (Job 1:20) Sometimes parenting is just that hard, you are driven either to despair or to worship, one or the other.
Each family has its own demons to fight. Stasi Eldredge in Captivating shares some of the angst and distress both she and her mother went through during her growing-up. "My relationship with my mother was strained.It was painful.For both of us...She was grieved to have learned she was having another child, and that child happened to be me...My mother was overwhelmed by my coming along.I was too much for her and so I did my best to hide my true self and be the easy daughter she needed me to be...When my mother found out that I was smoking in the fifth grade, she sadly said that I wasn't her little girl anymore.I cried.And I got better at hiding.She didn't know my dreams, my struggles, my gifts, or the treacherous path my life was taking...Beneath the surface, I was seeking affirmation and life in all the worldly, destructive ways available...When I came home blasted one night in high school after having been sick all over myself and left my soiled clothes in the tub, neither my mother nor my dad said a word.Nor did they confront me later when I came home too drunk to get into the house without their help.[She was also arrested for drunk driving.]One night, I simply didn't come home. When I finally showed up in the morning, I was met by a hysterical mother who had, during my absence, smashed all the drug paraphernalia I openly kept in my room.In her frantic worry to find me, she had looked through my school notebook to find my friend's phone number. What she found instead was a list of all the drugs I had taken in the last month. It was a very long list...I was shamed by her discovery.But I did not repent.No.Not yet.Instead, I became even better at hiding."
Some of you have probably witnessed or been involved in such stormy mother-daughter relationships, to varying degrees. Whatever demon was tormenting the daughter of the Canaanite woman, it was making her suffer as well as her girl. Hence Jesus finds her kneeling on the ground at his feet, pleading for help for them both.
But this time Jesus doesn't grant the request right away. He replies in v26, "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs." This sounds a bit harsh; in comparing the Jews to the children of God's family, and the heathen to dogs, Jesus is simply using the customary language of a Jew of that day. He is conscious of being sent primarily to minister among the Jews, in order to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs (Rom 15:8). He is testing her: first by not answering a word to her, now by this expression. John explicitly notes Jesus was testing Philip when He asked him what they should do about feeding the hungry multitude (Jn 6:6). Testing has its place in drawing out the 'real you': we never quite know what we'd actually do until the crisis comes, the heat is on.
Some Gentiles might have gotten offended, thrown up their hands and gone off in a huff upon hearing Jesus say this. But this mother's 'dogged' persistence won't be shaken off. Here's where the greatness of her trust, her tenacity chomped in as with the locked jaw of a bulldog sunk into the meat of God's promises - here's where her faith holds firm. She's already hailed Him back in v22 as "Son of David", acknowledging Him to be the Messiah fulfilling Old Testament prophecies. She's knelt on the ground before Him (25). Now she demonstrates her full range of intelligence, wit, acceptance and submission by using His own word-picture to nudge the limits of His immediate mission. V27 she says, "Yes, Lord, [there's her assent] but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Brilliant! Insightful! Inspired! She challenges the 'poverty mentality' or 'scarcity mindset' behind Jesus' prior image - that resources are limited, only enough for the children, so dogs must be declined. Her faith in God's overflowing lovingkindness and deep mercy instead depicts a 'grace mentality': there's more than enough for every need; the child's plate 'runneth over', God's plentiful riches are available to everyone, He will bless all those who by faith in Jesus are willing to receive. She's trusting as Jesus did that "all things are possible with God" (Mk 10:27).
Hearing this, Jesus can hold back no longer. Even though this woman isn't Jewish, she has a firm grasp of God's Kingdom plan; as promised to Abraham, "all peoples on earth will be blessed through you." (Ge 12:3) Seeing her there, Jesus may have been reminded Psalm 22(27) predicts, "All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations [lit.Gentiles] will bow down before him..."
Without knowing it, this remarkable mother may have been a key encourager to Jesus at a low point in His ministry. Look at the context. Back in chapter 13(57), after sharing some of His choicest teaching about the Kingdom, Jesus is rejected at His hometown Nazareth. Then in chapter 14 John the Baptist, Jesus' forerunner, is beheaded, and Jesus withdraws "privately to a solitary place". Despite feeding thousands miraculously, walking on water, and healing many, chapter 15 opens with criticism from the Jewish religious leaders that Jesus' disciples don't follow their nit-picky traditions; a chapter later they're demanding a sign from heaven. Jesus calls their generation "wicked and adulterous" (16:4). His own people just weren't getting the message.
Is that why He'd gone so far north into the area of Tyre and Sidon? Was He taking some time out whether His sacrificial death would be really worth it, for such rebellious people? Was this a foreshadowing of the wrestling of soul at Gethsemane, facing the cross? Then, out of the blue, out of Gentile 'nowhere', God the Father has arranged this little incident with the foreign mother of a demon-possessed girl. And she 'gets it': she embraces the vision of God's love pouring out to the whole world. Jesus must have been encouraged and given heart. What follows? In chapter 16 He starts to tell His disciples He's going to be killed and raised. The final journey to Jerusalem has begun. The value of His mission has been confirmed, partly by this mother's desperate and delightful faith.
Jesus is satisfied she glimpses God's long-term vision. V28 He answers, "Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted." As NLT puts it, "And her daughter was instantly healed." Perhaps Jesus was praying silently, "Thank You, Father! At least somebody's 'got it'! Thank You for the children You're giving me from all nations!" As He said in astonishment to those following Him when similarly impressed at the great faith of the Roman centurion back in chapter 8(10f), "I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven."
Earlier I referred to the suffering Stasi Eldredge and her mother felt in their disappointing relationship. Later those demons were confronted. She recalls:
Years later, as God addressed yet another layer of unhealed wounds, I was grieving that in my mother's presence I still felt 'not good enough'. I still felt like a failure to her, a deep disappointment. Her words continued to pierce. It was then that God showed me that the way my mother made me feel was exactly the way I made her feel. A disappointment. An embarrassment. A failure...I felt her sorrow. I saw some of her irritating comments in a new light...I had withheld my acceptance from her.I realized for the first time how deeply I had wounded her.
I was compelled by God to see her as soon as possible. I was able to make all the arrangements, get on a plane within days, and fly to see my mother so that I could apologize to her in person. We sat at her kitchen table and I offered her, perhaps for the first time, my true heart. I told her that I knew I had made her feel not good enough. I knew that I made her feel that she was a disappointment to me. I told her that I was deeply sorry, that it simply was not true. I loved who she was. I was proud of her. I was glad she was my mom. And I asked her to forgive me.
She couldn't speak. She didn't have to. But I understood by her eyes, through her shy expression and her tender countenance, that she did forgive me. We embraced then with nothing in between.
How can I relate to you the spacious place in our souls that act of repentance and forgiveness created for us? The walls, the barriers, came down. We could offer and receive each other's love and acceptance and enjoyment for the first time in our lives.We spent the rest of that evening looking over old family albums...It was a tender time. A healing time. A time that was true and real and full of love."