I grew up in a family of prayer, and I heard my grandparents pray every morning as soon as they woke up and every night before slept. So, I have seen many answered prayers as well as many unanswered ones. Some prayers were answered miraculously better than we wished for, and others were answered the way we didn’t like. That reminds me of a favorite joke.
A man falls off a cliff, and luckily, he gets hold of a branch of a tree growing on the side of the cliff. However, hanging on to the feeble branch, he can’t find any way to climb back up. He looks down and can’t even see the bottom. As his grips are getting tired, he looks up and cries out loud, “Help! Oh, God, help!”
Then he hears a deep voice from above, “Yes, this is God. I am here to help you. Just follow what I say.”
“Oh, thank you, God. I am so glad that you hear me. Please tell me what I should do to get out of here.”
God says, “First, let go of the branch.”
After a long moment of silence, the man cries out even louder, “Help! Is there anybody else up there?”
Even though this is a joke, it’s profound. It depicts a situation that we receive an answer to our prayer that we don’t like because it demands a further step to trust that God has our best interest. “Let go and let God” is easy to say but very hard to do.
Today, let’s explore the elements of answered prayers based on this week’s scripture lesson.
[Hi, in case we haven’t met yet, I am Sam Stone, the Lightkeeper. You are the light of the world, and I am the keeper! (No pun intended). It’s my calling to help you shine your brightest so that God is glorified in you, and you are satisfied in God.]
The scripture lesson for today is from the Gospel According to Mark 7:24-37.
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.” (Mark 7:24-37)
[This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!]
This passage has two strange stories of answered prayers, and they are very unusual, puzzling, and somewhat shocking. Jesus was rude to the woman in the first one, and he touched the tongue of a deaf man with his spit. What is Jesus teaching us through these two strange stories? Let’s explore.
Jesus was in the region of Tyre, a Gentile territory populated with Syrophoenicians. The Bible says,
“He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice.” (v. 24).
This indicates that his fame had reached beyond the Jewish territory. Even foreigners were noticing his whereabouts. A Syrophoenician woman barged into the house and asked him to cast the demon out of her daughter. That tells a lot about Jesus’ reputation as a teacher, healer, and exorcist, not only among Jews but also Gentiles.
He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (v. 27).
This statement does not sound like the gracious Jesus you know, does it? Jesus said that he came for God’s children—the Jews, not the dogs—the foreigners. In the first century Israel, people who don’t know the Bible were regarded as barbaric and called street dogs. So, Jesus is saying, why would I save the life of a barbarian, since my mission is to rescue the civilized Jews?
This attitude is not just among the Jews but also in many cultures that believe religion and civilization go together. A person without religion is regarded as uncivilized. Unfortunately, most atheists today think religions are primitive.
Of course, religions have their problems because every religion corrupts over time. Pointing the finger at a corrupt religion doesn’t justify atheism. That’s why Karl Barth said, “the church must always be reformed.” That’s where the Presbyterian slogan comes from: “Reformed and always Reforming.” Our reformation never stops based on the revelation of Jesus Christ.
One of the primary missions of Jesus is to reform the corrupt religion of his time. He never intended to start a new religion but restore Judaism to its glorious state according to the covenant between God and Abraham.
In the passage above this one, Jesus was angry at the religious leaders for being hypocritical—keeping the tradition and setting aside God’s commandment of love. Over and over, we see in the Bible that Jesus taught them to practice love over law.
Then, why did Jesus now use a traditional term calling a foreigner “a street dog” in her home territory? The Jews living in this area must have gathered around him in this house. So, Jesus wanted to show them how a foreigner could have more faith and humility than they did.
Here we have the first and most important element of answered prayer.
1. Pray with Humble Faith
The woman’s answer was very humbling,
“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (v. 28).
Instead of taking offense, she accepted that she was a dog. She could have run out of the house and called her Syrophoenician neighbors to come and beat up this foreign rabbi that was rude to them in their turf. Jesus could have started a riot by his harsh statement.
However, I am sure he knew the woman’s heart, and he wanted to set her up as an example of faith for his people. Now, her faith lives in the Bible for generations to learn. Hearing Jesus called the Jews his children, implying he is the Lord, she believed even more unconditionally that her daughter had hope.
Faith and humility go together. She was humble not because she was alone among the Jews, but despite being the majority ethnic group and having the clout to cause harm to Jesus. Her choice to stay humble and persistent in the situation is more remarkable than humility without choice.
Jesus wants us to become children. Children trust their parents unconditionally with humility. This Syrophoenician woman displayed child-like faith. All she wanted was the crumbs under the table—the spilled-over grace.
She believed if the God of the Jews is the creator of the universe, He will not ignore His own creation, even a dog. This reminds me of what the Lord said to Jonah, who despised the people in the city of Nineveh because they were godless and uncivilized, like street dogs.
“And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jon 4:11).
That was the last verse in the Book of Jonah. God clearly stated that He cares about the human dogs—those so ignorant that they do not know their right hand from the left—and even the literal animals. The Bible is full of verses about how God cares and feeds the animals and birds, big or small.
So, the word of this Syrophoenician woman is so wise that not only did she not take offense at being called a dog, but she also believed God would not ignore a hungry animal. Her faith is truly exemplary. Jesus revealed that her prayer was answered immediately due to her faith.
Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. (Mark 7:29-30)
What’s your prayer these days? Do you feel unworthy of receiving answered prayers? Religious people might make you think you are unworthy of God’s grace, but you must believe that God cares about every creature in His creation.
As Jesus said that God feeds the birds and dresses the wildflowers, would He not care even more about what you need? Trust that truth and pray with humble faith.
Jesus then moved on to more foreign territories and arrived at the region of Decapolis. That is the southeast region of the Sea of Galilee. Tyre, where he met the Syrophoenician woman, was in the northwest. So, that means Jesus’ influence had reached an extensive area. Decapolis is a Greek territory, and people still kept him busy when he arrived here.
“They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech, and they begged him to lay his hand on him.” (v. 32).
This request is different from the request of the Syrophoenician woman, who asked for her own daughter. It was more personal. This one is a request by a group of people for their friend. It’s an example of group prayer or petition for a friend. They did not just ask Jesus but begged him.
There are other stories of friends requesting a favor for a third person. You might remember in Mark 2, we read about the four enthusiastic friends who opened the roof of the house to drop a paralytic down in front of Jesus because they couldn’t pass through the crowded door.
That reveals to us the second important element of answered prayer.
2. Borrow the Faith of Friends
Sometimes our faith can be crippled, like the paralytic, due to some hardship. Sometimes we might have an impediment in prayer, like the deaf man with an impediment in speech, because of a traumatic experience. At times like that, rely on the faith of your friends.
It will be helpful to keep a list of friends in your mind who have the gift of prayer and humble faith. When you find your faith is too weak to pray, ask them to petition for you. Stories like this reveal to us that God listens to the petition of a community for their friends.
Columbia University Hospital did a research study some years ago. They asked a group of people to pray for specific patients, and the result shows around 33% improvement. To eliminate the placebo effect, they divided the patients into two groups—one group was informed that they were being prayed for, and the other was not, but both groups yielded the same result.
That is a scientific study. Even though it was not 100% proven, I will take 33% improvement anytime when in trouble. It’s a mystery how prayers are answered because God doesn’t want us to make idolatry out of a formulaic prayer.
This time, Jesus used a completely unexpected way to answer the prayer, revealing to us that the way God answers our prayer is not always typical.
He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. (v. 33-35).
Jesus healed the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter without a touch from a distance, but he deployed many unusual contacts to heal this deaf man. The contemporary medicine of Jesus’ time used human spit to cure certain diseases because human saliva has some antidotal effects.
Here, Jesus reveals to us that, while God could heal a person from a distance, God could also use contemporary or traditional medicine to fulfill his answer to a prayer for healing.
We have heard of people who rely only on prayer and refuse to receive contemporary medicine. Here, Jesus indicates that it is an improper use of prayer. We must accept the mode of the answer with humble faith, just as we pray with humble faith. It is our choice to pray, but it’s God’s choice to give us the best, the best way.
Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. (v. 36)
We need to study Jesus’ marketing psychology. I wonder if the Son of God intentionally ordered them not to tell anyone to get the opposite outcome. These two stories show that his name had reached extensively beyond his home region despite ordering them not to tell anyone.
You know Elon Musk does not spend money on advertising Tesla, but his cars are being sold like hotcakes. What is his secret?
I am sure Jesus knows human nature even deeper. He came into the world in a manger, recruited twelve disciples of humble status, and they spread his hot news of salvation to billions of people over two thousand years and still growing.
Based on these two stories, Jesus’ secret strategy is “showing more than telling” because, as always, action speaks louder than words. The passage ended by saying,
They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.” (v. 37)
Based on Genesis, the statement, “He has done everything well” is an attribute to God who created this beautiful world, and it was good. It’s proof of Jesus’ deity because only God can do everything well.
There we have it. Two simple principles we learned from the Lord about prayer in this passage.
1. Pray with Humble Faith
2. Borrow the Faith of Friends
Until we meet again, keep your light shining brighter and broader, and harvest the fruit of profound happiness. Amen!