Sunday 17th August 2014
10.00 am Hadlow
May I speak in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed”.
On one level today’s gospel reading looks like a straightforward conversation between Jesus and a Canaanite woman who asks Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus healed so many people during his ministry that if we are not careful, and allow our hearts to become dull, this can sound like the prelude to just another healing story and we miss much of the real point. For there is actually a great deal more going on here and if we engage with the events properly we should actually be shocked and challenged and ultimately changed by this encounter.
Of course if you are already perfect in your faith, in the way in which you approach Christ and in the way in which you seek to follow him then the prospect of change need not worry you. However if, like me, you are still a pilgrim on this journey through life and you are aware that you are still a long way from perfection then we should not only be always open to the prospect of change but we should actively seek it with every fibre of our being. Although I ought to be a bit wary of quoting Cardinal Newman on the day I have announced I am going to Rome, he is that most rare of creatures: a man who started as an Anglican clergyman who ended up being Beatified, and perhaps one day Canonised, by Rome. Cardinal Newman said: “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
So as we look at today’s reading, and as we approach God in the sacrament of communion, this week and every week we do need to examine our hearts and minds, to root out complacency and staleness, to bring ourselves before God wholly as we are – but not in order for God to leave us as we are and to send us out unchanged – but for us to plead with God in humility to change us and move us just one step closer towards perfection, which is towards him.
So let’s look a little more closely at this reading from Matthew’s gospel, chapter 15. Do feel free to look this up in your pew bibles if you find that helpful.
It is always interesting to look at what came immediately before today’s reading, as that provides some context. If we look at the start of chapter 15 we see that Jesus has been engaged in a dispute with the Pharisees and teachers of the law from Jerusalem. These are obviously good Jews, who are part of God’s chosen people, and they have come out from Jerusalem to test Jesus on how his preaching and lifestyle accords with the Jewish laws of cleanliness. Jesus ends up calling them hypocrites and ‘blind guides’.
After that exchange we are told in v. 21 that Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. These were port cities to the north of Galilee but the important point is that they were outside of Israel – despite a comment Jesus will make in a moment he has travelled out of the Holy Land and into the land of the Canaanites and there he is approached by a Canaanite woman. And don’t forget that Jesus has just been debating the subject of ritual cleanliness with his fellow Jews and here he is in a foreign land which is not dedicated to Yahweh and is therefore unclean, being approached by a foreign woman who, in a sense, was doubly unclean for a Jewish man. I am sorry if any of this sounds politically incorrect for modern ears, but it is important to understand what is happening at the time to really get the message.
The Canaanites were historic enemies of the Jewish people and the Old Testament is full of stories of the Jews and Canaanites battling it out for possession of the land. Whilst those battles were old news at the time of Jesus still the divisions remained and, whilst they were both under the common Roman yoke, this did not make the Jews and Canaanites friends.
Nevertheless the Canaanite woman dares to ask the Jewish rabbi Jesus to heal her daughter who she believes is afflicted with a demon. It is important to bear in mind that she is not asking for herself but is interceding with Jesus on behalf of her daughter.
And how does this unnamed Canaanite woman approach Jesus? Unlike the Pharisees and the teachers of the law this woman does not approach Jesus as someone who is sure of themselves and full of themselves. Instead she approaches from a position of near desperation and humility:
“Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
She acknowledges both that Jesus is Lord and from the Jewish line of David but she also proclaims her own need for mercy. This should put us in mind of the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector from Luke 18. When they went to pray the Pharisee was full of his own righteousness while the tax collector stood far off and simply prayed:
“God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Or the cry of the lepers in Luke 17:
“Jesus, master, have pity on us.”
And each of these simple pleas for Christ’s mercy come from a place which knows its need of healing and change, and they each contribute to that simplest and most profound of prayers, the Jesus Prayer:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
If you ever need to pray and feel lost for words just pray that prayer from your heart and you will have taken an important step along the road.
But at first Jesus seems to ignore her entirely – he did not answer a word. That pause reminds me of the time Jesus was asked for his judgement on the women caught in adultery and at first Jesus say nothing, but seems to simply draw in the sand. In an age of instant reaction and sound bites, perhaps useful reminders to take breath before responding.
And then the disciples urge Jesus to send her away because they say she keeps crying out to us. This woman in her persistence to get healing for her child is obviously prepared to be a real nuisance but she probably sees Jesus as the last and only hope for her child’s recovery. She is desperate and cares nothing for politeness and decorum.
Jesus then seems to answer the disciples rather than the woman directly:
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”.
But before the disciples can do or say anything further the woman kneels in front of Jesus and says:
“Lord, help me”
Jesus’ next answer may then strike the politically correct as being positively rude:
“It is not fair to take the children’s food [i.e. that which belongs to the Jews] and throw it to the dogs [i.e. the Canaanites}”
Now I don’t know about you but, in my pride, if someone called me and all my race “dogs” I would probably be tempted to say something rude and walk away at that point. And I like dogs. And that is not a joke because if we as English people, who like dogs, think it is an insult to be compared to a dog, that is as nothing to the insult in a society which thought of dogs as unclean animals. Again we get an echo of the cleanliness argument – dogs are ritually unclean as is this non-Jewish land and this non-Jewish woman. But the Canaanite women does not take offence and leave. Instead, and perhaps Jesus knew would happen, she picks up Jesus’ metaphor of not giving the children’s food to the dogs and plays with it:
“Yes Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
This women could not go any lower in her humility. She is happy to compare herself to an unclean dog taking a crumb from its master’s table in the faith that although she is unworthy, that one crumb will be enough to heal her daughter.
And at that point, when there was not a shred of pride or presumption left, Jesus says, ‘great is your faith!’ and her daughter was healed.
It has to be said that at one level Jesus humiliated the Canaanite woman – in the sense that it took great humility for her to say that she and her daughter weren’t really worthy of Jesus but like a dog receiving crumbs from the table she would be grateful for whatever came her way. In our society we sometimes act as though humiliation is the worst thing that could possibly happen. We are so puffed up with pride and self-image that to have that stripped away and to learn humility seems like the hardest thing.
But part of today’s lesson is undoubtedly that those who are full of pride are probably incapable of seeing their need for change, their need for God. The truly humble in heart know their need for God above all things.
So we have humility – but we also have faith. The women was sure that if Jesus said a word her daughter would be healed and she was commended for that faith. We should be reminded of the faith of the Centurion, another non-Jew, from Matthew 8.
And we also have persistence – this woman did not give up her intercessions easily – she pleaded to the point of being a nuisance and beyond.
In many ways we are the Canaanite woman, but I suspect we are at risk of forgetting that and becoming Pharisees. We should learn the lessons of today and approach the mystery of God’s healing love with humility, faith and persistence. And if we forget that we are in the same position as the Canaanite women then take to heart the prayer of humble access before communion:
“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”