Sunday in Lent
Fr. David Curry
Christ Church Windsor NS, AD
“Truth, Lord; yet the little dogs eat of the crumbs...”
It is an
arresting and compelling scene and yet, how disturbing. What will it
take to get God’s attention, we may wonder? More usually, the question
is about what will it take for God to get our attention.
A woman comes
to Jesus with a request. She was a Canaanite woman, Matthew tells us,
a Syro-Phoenician woman, says Mark; in other words, a Gentile. The
point is the same. She is from outside the household of Israel.
She seeks the healing of her daughter who is “grievously vexed with a
devil.” She is, we may say, quite determined in her quest.
She has come out of the same coasts into which Jesus is going, the coasts of
Tyre and Sidon, the land of south Phoenicia. There is a meeting
half-way, it seems.
But what is so
compelling and yet so disturbing is how she is responded to in her request.
First, there is no response – “he answered her not a word”- silence.
Secondly, there is rejection – “send her away, for she crieth after us”,
say the disciples. Thirdly, there is refusal – “I am not sent”,
says Jesus, “but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
And fourthly, there is repudiation – “It is not right to take the
children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.”
Only then, at
this point of utter humiliation, when we are speechless with shock at the
harshness of it all, is there the beginnings of the complete turn-around of
grace, and the ultimate exaltation – “O woman, great is thy faith: be it
unto thee even as thou wilt.” She gets what she wants, finally.
But, good Lord, what does it take? It takes a struggle. The
struggle is the struggle of faith. It means striving with God.
wrestling with God becomes Israel, one who strives with God. Such is
the meaning and the vocation of Israel, but it is meant for us all.
This woman breaks into the household of Israel, we may say, if only like the
little dogs “to eat of the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.”
Jesus had referred to her as a dog – “it is not right to take the
children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.” How harsh it seems!
And yet she goes one step further, not just dogs, but “little dogs”,
she says. She breaks into the household of Israel to claim her place
at the table, or at least under and around the table, like “the little
dogs who eat the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.” But
in saying this she breaks through into something more than the household of
Israel. She breaks through into the heart of Jesus. Her will is
at one with his, but only through the struggle.
is hard but necessary, necessary for faith, necessary for a true
understanding of God and ourselves. What operates here is not just an
insistence upon what we want as if our desires were justified simply by
virtue of the strength of our desiring, trusting in the rightness of what we
think we want, as it were. The lesson here is not that the more you
scream the more likely you’ll get what you want. Nor is it the lie, so
often told, that if you want something hard enough you’ll get it. No.
What is present here is a perception of the truth, the truth that what we
want and all that is ever to be wanted is to be found in Jesus Christ.
What primarily operates here is her faith in Jesus.
come waving the Charter of Rights in Jesus’ face with a rabble of lawyers
seeking to indite God for injustices to humanity. She didn’t come
wringing her hands, singing the poor-me’s and whining that life’s not fair.
She came seeking mercy, to be sure, but she came strongly, not pitifully. “Lord,
help me”, she says while kneeling before Jesus. But it is while on
her knees that she responds to his final word of repudiation with her great
words of faith. Her humility results in her exaltation. Such is
faith. G od “giveth grace unto the humble”, even abundant grace.
For God does
not meet us half-way. We have to go the whole way. The kingdom
of heaven is taken by storm but only because God wills it so. She
breaks into the heart of Jesus because he wills that it should be so.
But she breaks in because she has been drawn out. Her faith has been
brought out into the open and “great is [her] faith”.
Ultimately she gets Jesus’ attention because he has her attention, her
complete and undivided attention. She attends to his every word.
The struggle is in the dialogue. “Truth, Lord; yet the little dogs
eat of the crumbs...” she says, while on her knees.
And yet, all
this might seem harsh and mean-spirited, a hard lesson, at the very least.
God might seem to be some sort of mean tyrant before whom we must grovel on
our knees, if not on our faces. Such a God is not a God worth
believing in. No. To get the full force of this story we need to
realise that there is another side which is at work here as well. God
does not meet us half-way because he, too, goes the whole way. It is
only through his humiliation that there can be the hope of our exaltation.
We see this
best, perhaps, at the cross through the eyes of another Gentile - the
centurion. His words, too, are great words of faith. They, too,
have to be drawn out of him, but through the breaking open of the heart of
Jesus crucified. The Word of God is silenced on the cross. It is
our response to his presence with us. It is our rejection of his words
to us. It is our refusal of his will for us. It is our
repudiation of the truth of God. And yet, at that moment of utter
humiliation and shame, before the presence of Christ crucified and dead,
there arises out of the centurion those quiet but exultant words of faith,
that “truly this was the Son of God.”
Liturgy, we come seeking God’s mercy and grace. The Litany, for
example is really one long “Lord, have mercy.” It is about our
breaking into the heart of Jesus who wills that we should do so both for
ourselves and for one another. We come humbly, not arrogantly.
We come humbly on our knees, but not as grovelling in self-pity and
pretence. We come in the honest humility of our faith, as seeking from
God what he wills to give us, whether in the sacrament of the body broken
and the blood outpoured of his only Son or in the comfort and challenge of
recalling the words of this woman which give shape to our prayer. Yet
“that most burning love for the crucified” (Bonaventure) gives an
even greater intensity to our prayer, and we must go even one step further,
for “we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy
Such is the
Prayer of Humble Access which we pray at the Holy Communion. It
perceives in faith the truth which this woman knew in faith, that “thou
art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy”, the truth
which the centurion knew in the presence of the crucified Christ, that
“truly this was the Son of God.” We come like them in the struggle
of faith, humbly yet exultantly in penitential adoration, “Lord, have
mercy upon us.”
yet the little dogs eat of the crumbs...”