Why Does God Keep Silent?
It is rare that a Sunday Gospel reading naturally follows as a sequel to a previous Sunday Gospel reading. But that is what we have today. Our present Gospel reading is a natural follow up of last Sunday's Gospel reading.
Of course, a connection, even a logical connection, can always be made between Sunday Gospel readings. But it is rare that the connection follows naturally.
In last Sunday's Gospel we learned why Jesus went to a lonely place in order to pray. The basic reason was because he prayed aloud, not silently, as most of us are wont to do and he did not want to disturb others in their sleep and he also did not want to be disturbed during his prayer.
We also learned that that is how Jesus wants us to pray, aloud. He said to his disciples, "When you pray, say", that is, speak out.
A question that some of us may be thinking is: If we pray aloud, will we hear the reply of God? Or to put this question in another way: When we pray aloud why do we not hear the reply of God?
Most of us do not experience an audible reply from God. We do not usually hear with our ears God's reply.
Of course, there have been cases where God's reply is physically heard. Take the case of Moses. The Bible tells us that he spoke with God as a friend would talk to another, face to face (Exodus 33:11).
There have been saints who experienced what theologians call "locutions". These are verbal communications from God, sometimes audibly heard by the human ears, at other times heard spiritually, as was the case with St. Teresa of Avila.
But most of us do not experience locutions. Most of us do not hear a reply from God. And this is where our Gospel reading today helps us to understand how God replies to our prayer.
We are told in our Gospel reading that when the Canaanite woman prayed to Jesus to help her about her daughter who was tormented by a demon, Jesus did not give any reply. Even when this woman was insistent to be heard by Jesus he still did not give any reply. It was the disciples who came to the rescue of the woman. They wanted Jesus to send her away because she was pestering them with her request. It was only then that Jesus made a reply, a reply that was a virtual denial of her request. In essence Jesus said that he had nothing to do with non-Israelites, like this Canaanite woman.
It was possible that Jesus kept his silence for more than 10 minutes, because this occasioned the irritation of his disciples. If it was less than 10 minutes the disciples would not have bothered about it. A ten-minute is a long time of silence.
In our experience God may be perceived by us as silent for more than 10 minutes. A husband prays for his wife who is sick with cancer. He prays for days, for weeks, for months and even years. And still he does not hear God's reply. God is silent for a long time.
An unemployed single mother of two little children desperately prays for a job that can give food to her children and herself. She prays for what she feels is a very long time and no such job is forthcoming. God is silent to her desperate prayers.
Our Gospel reading tells us why Jesus maintained his silence as a response to the request of the woman with a daughter tormented by a demon. He wanted to give that woman an opportunity to express and increase her faith. And he was right, for he heard the expression of that woman's faith and admired it for its greatness. He acknowledged that this woman had great faith. He said, "O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish."
The silence of Jesus evoked the great faith of this woman.
And that is the purpose of Jesus when he seems not to reply to our prayer, when he is silent about our request. He wants us to build up our faith. This was true when he was still physically present in our world. This is still true now that his presence with us is no longer in a physical manner but only sacramentally and spiritually. He wants to strengthen our faith by his silence.
The first reading tells us that God will bring to his holy mountain the foreigners, the non-Israelites who believe in him. He will make them pray in his house because this house is "a house of prayer for all peoples." There God will reply to their prayers as he builds up their faith.
In the second reading Paul the Apostle tells us that the Gentiles or non-Israelites are now accepted by God. They can now pray to God and God will give a reply.
This reply of God has been made in a person. Our Catechism says that God has said everything in his Word, that is, in Jesus. He has spoken to us by his Son. "In him (Jesus) he (God) has said everything; there will be no other word than this one." Then it gets this idea from St. John of the Cross: "In giving us his son, his only Word (for he possesses no other), he spoke everything to us at once in this sole Word - and he has no more to say . . . because what he spoke before to the prophets in parts, he has now spoken all at once by giving us the All who is his Son." (65).
God has replied to all our prayers in Jesus. He can remain silent now because he has already given his reply and this reply is for the Jews and for the non-Jews like ourselves.
Jesus told us to pray aloud. We listen to God's reply. This reply is given in Jesus and through Jesus. And Jesus' reply is to build up our faith so that it will be done for us as we wish, just as it was done for the Canaanite woman as she wished.
Why does God keep silent when we pray to him? Because he has already given his reply in Jesus, through Jesus. We need only to look at Jesus and we will know the answer to our prayer. His Spirit bears witness with our spirit what this answer is. If we are attentive we hear his reply in the silence of our heart.
Let the man with a wife stricken with cancer look to Jesus. There a reply has been given to him. Let the single mother look to Jesus. Jesus' Spirit will lead that woman to the job she desperately needs to feed her two young children and herself. As the song goes, God will make a way when it seems there is no way. Jesus builds up our faith. And with this faith all things are possible for us.
Let us pray as we bow our heads. Lord Jesus, usually we do not hear God's reply to our prayers. Make us realize that God has already replied to our prayers in you and through you. Thank you for replying to our prayers by building up our faith. Amen.
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Note for the readers:
The Mass readings are from the New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE). This is where our Lectionary gets the readings.
NAB stands for New American Bible (before it was revised). This is the translation I use. Unless otherwise stated the text I use is from this translation.
AV stands for Authorized Version of the Bible. It is more commonly referred to as the King James Bible. It is the version most used in English literature, therefore it is the one known more by the English speaking world.