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The Second Sunday in Lent

Fr. David Curry

Christ Church Windsor NS, AD 1999


“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.


Jacob 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.


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.


She didn’t 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.”


In our 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 his Word.


We come 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 table.”


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.”


“Truth, Lord; yet the little dogs eat of the crumbs...”