St. Matth. 15. 21.
Today's Gospel lesson is one that I've always felt uneasy with. Our Lord seems uncharacteristically dismissive of the Canaanite woman. A few chapters earlier, Jesus had said, ‘Come unto me all that travail and our heavy laden, and I will refresh you.’ How different does his treatment of this woman seem! If anyone was travailing and heavy laden, it was her: her daughter was grievously vexed with a devil–and of course the daughter’s vexation became the mother’s as well! And so much did she desire the healing of her child that she left her own land to seek out a foreign religious healer.
But what she received was not an immediate refreshment. Rather, he ‘answered her not a word.’ The disciples interceded for her–though not with as much goodwill as we might wish–he responded to them that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. Still being not dissuaded, she pressed him yet more, and he finally addressed her, ‘It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.’ How unlike the Jesus we learn of in pietistic hymns, or devotional images!
But, if this is striking to us, it was certainly striking to those in the past as well. Given that ‘whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope,’ the consensus of the patristic commentaries is that Jesus only responded the way he did because he in turn knew how she would respond. And that his delays in granting her request were meant only to elicit and display the fullness of her humility and faith to those round about, and thus to us, rather then fulfilling her wish while such virtue remained hidden. If this is not the first understanding that came to my mind, it nonetheless seems reasonable.
What, then, is the lesson for us? ‘A woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts.’ First, we must recognize that we need him. She was unable to do anything for her daughter herself, nor could her own people. Similarly we often find that our own afflictions vex us: but we find ourselves unable to overcome them alone. ‘She cried to him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David.’ When other humans fail to help us, we may find that the reason is that we didn’t ask. Perhaps they knew of our distress and could have aided, but by not asking we implicitly said that we did not yet require help. Now God knows when we need help without our asking-but, as with humans, until we ask we may well be unable to receive. Help may be ‘near the coasts,’ but unrecognized because we aren't yet looking for it. When she got no answer, she nonetheless ‘cried after them,’ inciting the intercession of the Apostles. When we do ask for help, but seem to get no answer, it’s easy to think the answer is ‘no.’ But her faith led her on toward the healer who would refresh her. ‘No’ was not the answer. And the delay excited the compassion-even though it be embarrassed!- of others to her cause. When he said he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel, ‘she worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me.’ This was as much as to demand that she be counted as such a lost sheep. Finally, he compared her, as a heathen, to a dog. She did not deny it, but demanded the due that even the dogs may receive. In all of this she did not waver or turn back. And that is what Jesus wanted to show to those round about, and to us who now read the story. For he then exclaimed, ‘O woman, great is thy faith! Be it unto thee even as thou wilt.’
A few chapters earlier, another pagan had come to him for the healing of a loved one: a centurion who’s boy was sick. That interaction gave a different example, but the result was the same: Jesus said, ‘I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.’ Within the Use of Rome, before receiving the Eucharist, the Prayer of the that Centurion is prayed (altering the word ‘servant’ to ‘soul’): ‘Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only and my soul shall be healed.’ In the Anglican use, the Prayer of Humble Access is similarly used before receiving the Eucharist, and contains an allusion to this woman’s response: ‘We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy.’
At the Eucharist we come of out of the coasts of our everyday lives, and Jesus draws near to us. And he would teach us through these Gentile examples that, if we may wrestle with the seeming contradiction, that to receive his blessing we must come to him in true humility-and yet demand it of him. In the 32nd chapter of Genesis, we read that Jacob wrestled with the Angel of the Lord. The Angel said, ‘Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob. And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.’ In a more homely image, Jesus gives us the Parable of the Unjust Judge:
‘And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint; Saying, There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man: And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary. And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man; Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge saith. And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them?’
And so the church, as the widow of the parable, troubleth God through repeated bidding prayers, litanies, and petitions. Like the Canaanite woman, the church cries many times a day, ‘Have mercy on me, O Lord,’ that we as individuals might make it our own prayer as well. The only reason to do this is in the faith that God will hear and answer. But, as with the Canaanite woman, the petitions must be given in humility. As long as we fail to truly recognize our weakness and need, we fail to allow God to work. When we ask for something, and upon receiving no quick response turn away, we don't allow him to help us. When we see blessings given to others and become jealous, we don’t allow him to help us. And should drawing nigh to him bring to our mind our own imperfections: if we bristle with pride and indignation, we do not allow him to help us!
Today’s Collect begins, ‘Almighty God, who seest that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.’ This is the point the Canaanite woman was at. And in this humble realization, she was able to press on in an untroubled faith. No turning back, not disputing, but only pressing ever nearer to him, knowing that only in him could her salvation be found. There are those who would dispute the language used in our liturgies in the confessions of sin or the prayers before receiving communion, finding them ‘cringing’ or displaying ‘unrealistic false humility.’ But like so many things in our liturgies, if they reflected only our current disposition, they would in no way draw us nearer to God. If the prayers do not currently reflect my sentiment, I can in an case believe them to be true, and pray them, not as writhing in guilt, but as a simple acknowledgement of fact.
In the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indy comes to the temple where the Grail is housed. He knows he must press through the challenges that await him, because only by attaining the Grail can he save his father who lies mortally wounded at the entrance. He knows from his father’s grail diary that ‘Only the penitent man shall pass’ the first trial. Others have died here. He moves slowly and cautiously: not drawing back- he must press on. Salvation is on the other side. Only the penitent man shall pass. The penitent man will pass. The penitent man... The penitent man is humble before God... He kneels before God... Kneel! In just the knick of time, Indy kneels and thus avoids the blades that aimed at head-height which constitute the first trap. I wouldn't draw too close an association between Indiana’s climactic trials and our own lives, but as with Indy-humility is about honestly assessing oneself and one’s weaknesses, and proceeding accordingly.
And so, in humility, we may approach God in faith. Jesus assures us that though mercy we crave may be delayed, it will not be denied. I would like to end with a parable the 19th century Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon reported concerning faith:
She had to cross a stream, and the current was strong, and there came one to her who said, “faith, I will help you! Come with me up the river till we can find a place where we can ford it.” Faith said, “No; I was bidden to cross the river here.” So another came, and said, “I will build a bridge for you, that you may go over the river with ease;” and he laid hold of a few stones, but not much ever came of it. Yet another said, “I will go and find a boat.” But there were no boats about; therefore he asked faith to wait till they build a boat for her. What did she do? She took off her vestments, and plunged into the water. “Thank God,” said she, “I can swim;” and so she swam across, and reached the other side without boat, without bridge, and without ford.
And now to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, be all honour and glory, both now and for ever.