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The Woman of Canaan.
by the Rev. John Keble
Sermon XIV from Sermons for the Christian Year: Sermons for Lent to Passiontide
S. MARK vii. 28, 29
“And she answered and said, Yes, Lord; yet the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs.  He said unto her, For this saying go thy way: the devil is gone out of thy daughter.” 
We heard just now in the Gospel, the history of the woman of Canaan, how she came begging of our Lord to cast the unclean spirit out of her daughter, how He kept her long waiting, and made as though the mercy could not be granted: and how at last as one even wondering at her faith, and as if He were unable to resist such prayers, He said, “Be it unto thee even as thou wilt.”  A most beautiful and touching history it is, most full of comfort to all loving hearts, when any belonging to them are in affliction or in sin, and they kneel before God to pray for them; full of comfort to fathers and mothers offering up their supplications for their little ones when they cannot pray for themselves: full of comfort to us all, when our hopes, as must often be the case, are deferred and we feel sick at heart, with waiting so long on our God, and wondering whether or no He will grant us the desire of our soul.  I think there is something practised continually in this and other Churches, which may well remind us of this history.  We are continually asking your prayers, my brethren, the prayers of the Church for this or that sick person, for this or that portion of our fellow Christians, on whom the Lord seems to be laying His afflicting hand.  Day after day, week after week, month after month, nay often year after year, the same names are repeated, the same objects of intercession recommended to you, before the Litany, and also before the Holy Sacrifice and Sacrament of our Lord’s Body and Blood; and I dare say the thought at times crosses many of our minds, why should we go on so long mentioning the same objects? is it really worth while?  Now, my brethren we do not mean it so, but this is at the bottom an unbelieving thought.  If the prayers of the Church were good for a sick man or for one in trouble a twelvemonth ago, they are just as good now, supposing the grief or sickness to go on.  Ask the poor man himself: if he have true considerate faith, he will not wish the Church to leave off praying for him.  You would not in his place: do then as you would be done by: try to remember in earnest each one of your brethren who so asks your prayers, however often he may have asked them before.  Perhaps one hearty prayer more is the very thing God is waiting for to bestow on him some great comfort or blessing. 

But now I go back to the history of the woman of Canaan.  Besides the comfort it offers to a Christian at prayer; I want to show you how it is very particularly a Lent lesson; how it may help us in the spiritual work of this holy season in particular.  In the first place it helps us to war against the devil.  Last Sunday the Gospel, as you know, was the account of our Lord’s Temptation showing us each one how to resist that wicked one when he attacks us in our own proper persons.  Today’s Gospel shows us how to fight against him when he seems to be having his own way with some one whom we are bound to care for, whose soul we are bound to care for.  You have a son or a daughter, a brother or a sister, a friend or companion, or some one committed to your charge: and that person we will suppose is unhappily living in some grievous deadly sin; he is in such a condition, that if he died this moment, there is no help for it, he must perish for ever.  What are you to do? you have spoken to him over and over, but he will not hear, you have tried all ways you can think of with him, and it still seems to do him no good: well then, this Gospel tells you that if you can do nothing with him, at least there is one thing which you may do for him.  You may cast yourself down as Moses did, forty days and forty nights praying for his stubborn unbelieving countrymen, you may do the same this very Lent, for any one belonging to you, who seems to be going the wrong way.  Every day you may add to your prayers a short petition for your friend whose soul is in danger: and who knows but that petition may be answered even before you have got up from your knees?  Put the case which our Lord’s words most especially put us in mind of, the case of unclean, impure behaviour.  The woman’s daughter “was vexed with an unclean spirit.”  Poor creature!  she was like thousands more who grow up and go on in uncleanness, till they are really quite possessed with it, as with a bad and fallen angel.  They feel as if they could not help themselves, so entirely subject have they become to sinful lust, “the law in their members warring against the law of their mind.”  They are such as the Apostle describes: “Having eyes full of adultery, and that cannot cease from sin.”  God help them, poor creatures! against the great enemy! the help of man.  But then, the less you can do for them, the more you should pray for them.  The woman of Canaan could of herself do nothing for her child, but this one thing she could do. she could find out Jesus, and pray to Him: and this she did with all her might.  She prayed and prayed, and by and by came the answer.  Will you do the same for any friend or kinsman of yours, whom you believe or fear to be living in uncleanness.  Try; it will be the very least you can do, but it will prove a great thing if you try in earnest. 

But I must warn you, that you will not try in earnest to pray for the soul of one sinning by impurity, unless you be deeply convinced of the guilt of impurity in your own soul, in your own life and heart, so far as you have ever given way to it.  If you think it a trifle yourself, you will never pray as you ought for your friend or child to be delivered from it.  A mother may be really anxious to have her daughter steady, a father may make a great point of his son’s keeping out of bad company, but it may be merely on account of the inconvenience and discredit it will bring upon you in this world, and then neither their advice, nor the prayers which they seem to themselves to make, will be likely to do their children much good.  If they in their young days have sinned at all in the same kind, O let them make haste to repent of those sins, deeply, bitterly, with all their hearts, and then they may hope to have their prayers heard, when they come to our Blessed Lord and ask Him to cast the unclean spirit out of their son or daughter.  But if in your secret heart you think it a matter of course for young persons to sin more or less in that way, and so feel little troubled at the remembrance of your own sin; it will be a wonder if such evil ever depart from your house.  You will not be able to keep your children steady, for you will not pray as you ought that the unclean spirit may go out of them. 

Now this woman in the Gospel will teach you if you will mind her, how to repent both of your lusts, and of every other transgression which stains your conscience.  That is the other Lent lesson which you may learn of her, though she was not even an Israelite, and you are a Christian.  This poor woman was at the beginning far from Christ in every sense: she was a Greek, a Heathen or Gentile, living out of the Holy Land in the coasts of Tyre and Sidon; she was far from Christ in her home, and far in her religion, not however so far perhaps as too many of Christ’s own people have made themselves by their sins.  Perhaps you are amongst them: then hear what she did, and do you go and do likewise.  First she watches for her Lord and Saviour, she found out when He came nigh, she would not for the world lose the chance which His coming afforded her.  She went out to meet Him, and as it seems, did meet Him first on the road, and there applied to her, when He answered her not a word, she did not leave off, but still kept calling upon Him “have mercy on me, O Lord, Thou Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil.”  So persevering was she, and in such an agony did she pray, that the disciples had pity on her, and hinted to our Lord that it would be well to give her what she asked, that she might leave off troubling them.  “Send her away for she crieth after us.”  Then when He had gone into a house seeking to have no man know it, He could not be hid: she found him out, and still her prayer and her cry was the same.  My brethren, when shall we be like this poor Gentile woman, in seeking from the Son of David that we and those belonging to us may be quite freed from the evil spirit?  when shall we return to our prayers again and again, as she did, and take no denial, nor ever be contented until He has really cast out the evil one, make us whole of whatsoever disease, whatsoever bad custom we are living in? we who instead of seeking Him out, too often rather avoid Him, and draw back on purpose from where we know Him to be, who shut the book, or cut short the conversation when we see it is going to be edifying: in whose ears is the sound of the Church bell, and we cannot think why it should go so often: who put off holy things, the seeking of Christ, until the world has turned its back upon us, or we have lost the power of enjoying it.  O be wise, be dutiful, be grateful in time, seek out your Lord while you yet have a choice, while you have some little to give up for Him, lest He refuse to be found of you at all: for why should the great King, our God and Saviour condescend to be the happiness of those who fall back upon Him as it were, because they can find nothing better? 

But this believing woman has discovered Him in His hiding place and lo! she is again at His Feet.  She worships Him crying “Lord help me!” He, still trying her faith, makes answer in a tone of something like reproach, “it is not meet to take the children’s bread,” i.e., My mercies are to be yet for awhile granted to the Israelites only, who are children in Christ’s family; not to the Gentiles who as yet are not better than dogs.  And then comes her answer, that remarkable answer which caused even Christ to wonder, and makes her a very special example to all who come to serve God.  “Truth, Lord, yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.”  The reproach of being classed with dogs did not in the least affront her.  She only made it a fresh occasion of prayer.  To be sure, I and the like of me, are but as dogs, we pretend to no better: but even the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs.  O rare combination of entire faith and true humility! nothing could make her leave off prayer, nothing could tempt her to think well of herself and of her prayers.  And see how great and rare her reward! not only the immediate healing of her daughter, but the especial praise of our Lord, “O woman great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt.”  And moreover to have her saying put into the Church’s Liturgy: those of you who are communicants will remember it, just before the Consecration of the Bread and Wine to be His Body and Blood.  For there we are taught by the Church to confess, that we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under His table, and yet at the same time to pray for the highest blessing He can give.  “That our sinful bodies may be made clean by His Body, and our souls washed through His most precious Blood, and that we may evermore dwell in Him and He in us.” 

This untiring faith, this unfeigned humility, the woman of Canaan practiced for her child’s sake, but our Lord’s Will is that we His servants should practise it, each one for his soul’s sake.  He wants you to come to Him one by one, crying out and saying, “Have mercy on me O Lord Thou Son of David! my soul is grievously vexed” with the devil of lust, of malice, of what not.  He wants you to know the plague of your own heart, and to seek your cure, where only it can be had, from Him.  He wants you to come praying to Him, not once nor twice, but as a regular thing, without which you cannot be comfortable.  He wants you to keep on praying, not to give up because He seems to hide Himself from you, always to pray and not to faint.  Above all, He wants you to be very humble, to think, very lowly and meanly of yourself, and to go on doing so, all God’s grace you are in some measure reformed, and that He has forgiven and is forgiving you.  Every day you call yourself a miserable sinner: take care that you mean what you say: do not come before God, as the Pharisees did, with a lie in your mouth. 

Shall I tell you how you may judge yourself, whether you are committing this great sin or no?  Watch yourself in your daily life and conversation, how you take reproof and ill usage from others.  It stings you of course, it is unpleasant, it cannot be otherwise.  But the true penitent puts down those angry feelings, saying to himself, it is no more than I deserve, if not for this, yet for some other part of my behaviour, some secret which God knows and I know.  He will say like the contrite thief on the cross, I indeed suffer justly, for reproach is the due reward of my deeds, though in this matter I may have done nothing amiss.  Is this your way, when you are reproved or affronted? or do you fall into a passion, and turn away your mind from your own sin, thinking only of the affront you have received?  If such be your mind and way, depend on it you are not yet a real penitent in God’s sight, not yet one of those to whom the merciful promises are made.  You are not yet like the woman of Canaan.  For what was the very point which so recommended her to Christ’s special blessing?  Not simply her perseverance in prayer, but her taking reproof and hard words as she did.  Which of us would not be ready with an angry answer, or at least with an angry bitter thought, if we came to ask a favour of another, and he sent us away telling us we were no better than dogs?  But she was not at all angry.  Why? because she was so very humble: she felt that it was no more than she deserved: and this, my brethren, (mark it well), was the very thing which brought down the blessing she asked.  For He did not say only, “great is thy faith,” but He added, “for this saying (i.e. about the dogs eating of the crumbs) “for this saying go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter.”  She prayed, and He seemed not to hear: she persevered, and still He refused, she believed, but even that was not enough, but the moment she took the affront patiently, the Lord’s gracious word was spoken. 

Would you wish God to hear your prayers, when you say them this very night?  Take care to be patient, indulge no bitter thoughts, should any one offend you between this and then.  The way to be forgiven and heard is, not merely to call yourself a miserable sinner before God, but knowing yourself to be such, not to be put out when others treat you as such. 

It is a great grace: but He will not deny it, if we ask Him in earnest.