THE SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT – Reminiscere
Introit: (Ps. 25) Call to remembrance, O Lord, thy tender mercies, and thy loving-kindnesses, which have been ever of old: neither let our enemies triumph over us: deliver us, O God of Israel, out of all our troubles. Ps. Unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul: O my God, in thee have I trusted: let me not be confounded. Glory be … Call to remembrance …
Collect: Almighty God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
OT Lesson: Thus saith the Lord: Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the Lord. For he shall be like the heath in the desert, and shall not see when good cometh; but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, in a salt land and not inhabited. Blessed is the man that trusteth in the Lord, and whose hope the Lord is. For he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and that spreadeth out her roots by the river, and shall not see when heat cometh, but her leaf shall be green; and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit. The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? I the Lord search the heart, I try the reins, even to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings. (Jeremiah 17.5-10)
Gradual: (Ps. 25) The sorrows of my heart are enlarged: O bring thou me out of my troubles, O Lord. V. Look upon mine adversity and misery: and forgive me all my sin.
Epistle: Brethren: We beseech you, and exhort you by the Lord Jesus, that as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God, so ye would abound more and more. For ye know what commandments we gave you by the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication: that every one of you should know how to keep his own body in holiness and honour; not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God: that no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter: because that the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also have forewarned you and testified. For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness: in Christ Jesus our Lord. (I Thessalonians 4.1-7)
Tract: (Ps. 106) O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is gracious: and his mercy endureth for ever. V. Who can express the noble acts of the Lord: or shew forth all his praise? V. Blessed are they that alway keep judgement: and do righteousness. V. Remember us, O Lord, according to the favour that thou bearest unto thy people: O visit us with thy salvation.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: Jesus went thence, and departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs. And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table. Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour. (St Matthew 15.21-28)
“O woman, great is thy faith; be it unto thee even as thou wilt.”
The traditionally appointed seasonal Gospels, when taken as a series, present in an orderly and logical fashion, the message of Lent, which is reformation—our reformation through the power and presence of God in Christ, triumphing over our sin and wilfulness (that is to say, our demons), and giving us new life through His Word. In today’s Gospel, we read the account of the Canaanite [or “Syrophoenician” (Mk 7.26)] woman who begs Jesus to deliver her daughter, who is “grievously vexed by a devil.” Remember that Our Lord’s miracles, like His parables, are always signs, pointing to some greater and deeper truth. Sometimes Jesus explains a parable, and sometimes He explains a miracle (for instance the Feeding of the Multitude), but just because He does not explain it, does not mean that there is no deeper or spiritual significance.
In the Gospels, details are always significant, and here it is of particular significance that the petitioner is called a “Canaanite.” This term is something of an anachronism, but is used here by Matthew to teach an important lesson. The Canaanites were the ancient pagan inhabitants of Palestine, whom the Israelites sought to expel when they took possession of their Promised Land. Those who remained were despised outcasts. Queen Jezebel was a Canaanite, and her adherence to her heathen ways and worship of pagan gods was instrumental in the apostasy and ultimate downfall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. So this Canaanitish woman is about as far removed as possible from having any claim upon the “children’s bread.” She is a foreigner, alien from the people of God. In this, she represents us in our natural state. Because of our sin, we too are aliens and foreigners. We have no claim on God’s favour or blessing. And the acknowledgement of this fact is the first step along the journey to reformation. But it is a very difficult step to take, and perhaps even more so in our current society, where we are taught to feel “entitled” to anything and everything we want. Thus to come to the realisation that we are “dogs,” and “not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under [God’s] table,” (BCP p. 83f), shatters our reality and turns our world upside down.
This Gentile woman lives far from the nation of Israel, and yet she calls Jesus “Lord,” indicating a belief in Him as being more than just a man. And then, she calls Him “Son of David,” a title that clearly refers to Israel’s Messiah. This in itself is a remarkable statement of faith. But what does Jesus do? He ignores her. He answered her not a word. Yet the woman was not driven away by this. Instead, she kept crying out to Him, so much so that the disciples asked Him to just give her what she wanted so that she would go away. To this He replied, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” which seems to say that yes, He is the Son of David – Israel’s Messiah – and so this pagan woman is not His concern. But that phrase, “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” is more significant than appears at first blush. When finally Jesus does give her some attention, it is not at all encouraging, nor complimentary. He replies, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” And that is just as insulting as it sounds. Were most people to have Jesus say this to them, they would probably start looking for another god. But this woman knows there is no other help for her, so she takes the insult, owns it, and turns it to her advantage. That is what confession is. The word “confess” literally means “to say the same thing.” When we confess, we acknowledge what God says about us to be true. We own it, we accept it, we learn from it, and use it as a tool to reform our lives. Her reply, using ‘yet’ or ‘but,’ makes it sounds like she is arguing with Jesus, but actually, she agrees with Him. She confesses, “Truth, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Basically, she is saying, “You call me a dog? OK, I’ll admit that, for that is what I am. So then I’ll be more than content to get the crumbs that the dogs get.”
God doles out some pretty strong insults in Scripture. Jesus says that He came to call not the righteous, but sinners (Mt 9.13), so He is calling all of us ‘sinners.’ He says that He came to seek and save the lost (Lk 19.10), so that means you and I are ‘lost.’ St Paul likewise minces no words in his Epistles (see, e.g., Romans 3.10-18, where we find a whole catena of insults): There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable. Their throat is an open sepulchre, the venom of asps is under their lips, their mouth is full of cursing and bitterness, their feet are swift to shed blood, in their paths are destruction and misery, the way of peace they have not known, there is no fear of God before their eyes. These harsh words are aimed directly at us—notice that word “all.” So in confession, when God’s Law says, “You are lost,” we acknowledge it, and cry, “Yes, Lord, I’m lost. Find me!” When God’s Law says, “You’re a sinner,” we say, “Yes, Lord, I’m a sinner. Save me!” When God says, “You are dead,” we cry to Him, “Yes, I’m dead. Raise me!” And we can be confident when we pray these things, because God has promised to do just these very things for the lost, the sinner, and the dead in sin. So we can take those promises, and hold God to them, believing that He will be true to His Word. Whoever has this woman’s ingenuity should meet God in His own judgement and say, “Yes. Lord, it is true. I am a sinner and unworthy of Your grace. Nevertheless, You have promised forgiveness to sinners.”
In Genesis 32, we read astrange but highly significant little story about the Patriarch Jacob:
And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him. And he 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 thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed. (Gen 32.24-28)
After wrestling with God, Jacob (the “trickster”or “supplanter”) becomes Israel (“one who strives with God”). Such is the meaning and the vocation of “Israel,” but this story is meant as a lesson for us all. St Matthew describes this woman as a “Canaanite,” because it carries with it all those associations of the pagan past that opposed Israel, but this woman wrestles with God, and will not let Him go until He blesses her, thus proving herself to be one of those “lost sheep of the house of Israel” to whom Our Lord claims to be sent, and as a result, breaks into the household of Israel to claim her place at the table. But more importantly, in so doing, she breaks through into the Kingdom of God, into the love and faith of Jesus. Her will is at one with His will, but only through the struggle. We too were strangers and enemies of God, and so this is our story, as well.
That struggle is hard but necessary—necessary for faith, necessary for a true understanding of God and of ourselves. The operative factor here is not just an insistence upon what we want, as if our desires were justified simply by virtue of the strength of our intention, trusting in the perceived rightness of our position. The lesson here is not that the more you squawk the more likely you’ll get what you want, but the truth that what we want and all that is ever to be wanted is to be found only in Jesus Christ. What ultimately triumphs here is her faith in Christ. Thus this Canaanite woman is the symbol of us all, who have no natural claims upon God’s favour; and Our Lord’s gift to her for the free, unmerited grace of God.
She gets ignored, rejected, and even insulted by Jesus, but she wrestles with Him and prevails, refusing to let go until He blesses her. He then holds her up before us as an example of great faith. In fact, she is one of only two people in all the Gospels whose faith is praised by Jesus. The other is the Gentile centurion who had the sick servant (Mt 8.5-13). Not even the disciples get praised for their faith—in fact, they are often chided for their lack of faith. And because she has great faith, this Canaanite woman has something important to teach us.
She doesn’t come seeking to indict God for injustices to humanity. She comes seeking mercy, and with every rebuff her faith is increased. And her humility results in her exaltation. “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble” (Prov 3.34; Jas 4.6; I Pet 5.5). She breaks into the Kingdom of God, into the heart of Jesus, because she has been drawn out. Her faith has been challenged, brought out into the open, and increased. Ultimately, she receives Jesus’ attention because He has her attention—her complete and undivided attention. She attends to His every word. Against all that is thrown at her, this woman grasps hold of this one thing: the mercies of God in Jesus Christ. And this humility of faith is what gains her access to the heart of Christ. She presumes upon nothing else. Blessed Edward Bouverie Pusey writes:
Her humility was completed, her perseverance accomplished, her faith perfected. Almighty God had allowed her to plead with Himself, and Himself to be vanquished. He had been pleased to allow His own words to be turned back upon Himself, with eloquent humility, which prevailed. Like the Patriarch Jacob, who said, “I will not let Thee go unless Thou bless me,” she had power with God, and prevailed. She had accepted the likeness of the dog and our Lord gave her the very title, which He gave His Mother, “O woman.” She asked help for her child; she received, over and above, the praise of God, “O woman, great is thy faith.” “Thou hast not,” says a Father [Chrysostom], “seen the dead raised, nor lepers cleansed, nor heard the Prophets, nor meditated on the law; thou hast not seen the sea divided, nor any other miracle wrought by Me; nay, thou hast been reproached and perplexed by Me; I have rejected thy suffering and thou wentest not away, but didst persevere. Now therefore do thou too receive a worthy and becoming praise from Me. ‘O woman great is thy faith.’” (Sermon X from Parochial Sermons, Vol. II.)
Humility is not the same thing as low self-esteem or grovelling. It is not the whine of “poor me,” or “I’m not very good at… ,” which is really just a clambering for attention or ego-stroking, a type of false humility rooted in self-centred pride. True humility, as demonstrated in this Gospel, is the recognition that God is God, and we are not. Jesus is the centre, and we have access to Him upon His own terms and conditions, not ours. The constant in this story is the woman’s focus on Jesus. She sees in Him alone the source of the healing mercy which she seeks for her daughter. “Have mercy upon me, O Lord, thou Son of David.” “Kyrie, eleison.” “Lord, help me.” It is the prayer of faith. This overwhelming sense of the mercy of God is the counter to our self-presumption and self-preoccupation. “We have no power of ourselves to help ourselves,” as we are reminded in the Collect. Humility ever looks to Christ. It is our openness to Him as the centre of our lives, and the condition of our access to Him. When we are full of ourselves, we are possessed of a demon. We presume to be that centre which we are not, leaving no room for God. It is only faith, only the recognition of and submission to the true and living God, which brings deliverance. Simply to cast out one false god, is to invite another in. Disillusionment with one set of lies or false gods is not enough. The empty soul only invites other unclean spirits to come and take up residence. Deliverance comes only as our souls are filled and our minds renewed with God, as we confess—as we acknowledge and say the same thing about ourselves as God says.
“Kyrie eleison” is a constant prayer, a perpetual prayer. We come continually seeking God’s healing, mercy, and grace. The Litany is effectively one long “Lord, have mercy.” We pray in the honest humility of our faith, seeking from God what He wills to give us. It is the heartbeat of our Liturgy: “Lord, have mercy.” It is the essence of our faith, a faith that clings to the mercy of God and will not let go. Humility opens us to the mercies of God in Jesus Christ.
God leads us away from ourselves – our thoughts, our feelings, our perception – and towards Himself. He leads us toward the One who stands at the centre of His Word – Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word. In Jesus, God has revealed the great “Yes” that overcomes every “no” we may encounter in life. In the crucified and risen Lord, God has revealed His loving heart to us. He has revealed this Word – this Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ – to you and to me. Our calling as Christians is to set our faith upon this Word alone, no matter what happens in life. Martin Luther said, “Our heart thinks there is nothing else but only no, and yet this is untrue. Therefore it must turn away from this feeling and with a firm faith in God’s Word grasp and hold onto the deep, secret yes under and above the no, as this woman does.” This Yes is Our Lord Jesus Christ. This Yes has given us forgiveness. It gives us God’s love. It gives us salvation and eternal life. Like the Canaanite woman, faith clings to this Yes from God, because when we have Jesus, we have the only answer that we will ever need.
The Pharisees earned the rebuke of the Lord as He quoted Isaiah: “This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Isa 29.13). By way of contrast, in the Canaanite woman, Isaiah’s other prophecy of the Gentiles also comes to pass: “I am sought of them that asked not for me; I am found of them that sought me not: I said, Behold me, behold me, unto a nation that was not called by my name” (Isa 65.1). With humility and trust, this Gentile woman sees the grace of God in Christ, and comes to share in the blessings of His Kingdom, as His grace, unmerited by any natural claims, is not withheld: “O woman, great is thy faith; be it unto thee even as thou wilt.” Note that it is only in relation to faith that His grace of healing comes. That is to say, it is only in the recognition of the true and living God that we are delivered from our false gods, those delusions which are our demons. We can perhaps cast out one in favour of another, but that is no deliverance, as next Sunday’s Gospel explains: “When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest; and finding none, he saith, I will return unto my house whence I came out; and when he cometh, he findeth it swept and garnished; then goeth he and taketh to him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first” (Lk 11.24-26).
God does not meet us half-way, because He, too, goes the whole way. The Word of God was silenced on the cross—through our refusal of His will for us. And yet, at that moment of His utter humiliation and shame, there arises from the lips of another “Gentile dog,” the Roman centurion, those quiet words of faith: “truly this was the Son of God.” It is only through Christ’s humiliation that there can be any hope of our exaltation. He allowed Himself to be lifted up upon the cross, that He might lift us up to the heights of heaven. Humility is the condition of our access to God, for in our humility our wills are one with God’s will. We are open to what He wants for us. “Great is thy faith; be it unto thee even as thou wilt.”
Our Lord’s healing miracles are often subject to literalistic misunderstanding. People sometimes think they mean that, if you have the right amount of faith, you should not get sick, or that all worldly ills should be done away. But that is not the point at all. Rather, the miracles of healing are signs of God’s power to make us truly whole, to rebuke the demons of our stubborn wills, and cast them out. The wholeness of body, mind and spirit brings the wisdom to accept God’s will, and gives us victory over the evils of this world. The physical healings in the Gospel miracles are signs of that grace of God which makes us whole, which uplifts the spirit to see the gracious purposes of God in all our circumstances.
“Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls,” we pray in the Collect. As the Gospel deals primarily with those forces that assault the soul, the Epistle deals with our outward actions, and those sins which afflict the body. Lent is a season of renewal and reformation: “Be not conformed to this present age, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom 12.2). It is a time for the casting out of devils, the unmasking of the perversions of our spirits, a time for the nurturing of our souls by the Word of God revealed in Christ our Lord, through prayer and Scripture reading; and for the mortifying of our bodies through fasting, abstinence, and almsgiving, freeing them from the sins which beset us, preoccupy us, and take the place of God in our lives. Lent is a time of confession and reformation—of death and resurrection.
We come as the Canaanite woman came, without any particular merit, without any natural claim upon the grace of God, but with faith and hope in the abundant charity of that grace, and with the same humility, faith, and perseverance that she displayed. We must know ourselves well, trust heartily that God will keep His promises, and persist even when He seems to resist, firmly believing that God will answer our prayers and defend us “from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul.” Perhaps a crumb is all we seek; but Our Lord calls us to share the rich banquet of His Kingdom.
“For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness, in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Collect: O God, whose nature and property is ever to have mercy and to forgive: Receive our humble petitions; and though we be tied and bound with the chains of our sins, yet let the pitifulness of thy great mercy loose us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Prayer Over the People: We beseech thee, O Lord, mercifully to hear our prayers: that, the infirmities of our souls being healed, we may obtain of thee the remission of all our sins, and evermore rejoice in thy heavenly benediction; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
May the Lord bless us and keep us.