O woman, great is your faith: be it done for you as you desire!
We are now into our second week of Lent, into a kind of wilderness if we are practicing some kind of spiritual discipline. The fast can make us a little more agitated, and yet if we are motivated by love, by drawing closer to God and to our neighbour in our agitation, we should also be seeing some new life, a certain lightness, signs of awakening to the nearness of God, to our dependence upon God, and of the relief God brings.
The first three Sundays in Lent have references to the battles with Satan and with the demonic. It is not surprising. When the desert Fathers and Mothers in the third century decided to leave the cities and go into the wilderness, the deserts of Egypt, it was not to avoid the temptations that they found in the city, but rather to confront temptations head on. They understood that we are normally less aware, that we are bound spiritually in ways that are hidden, and that the reality of that web of deceit needs clear confronting in a less distracted environment.
In our confirmation class we looked at the deceits of the devil, and how he binds us – it is through lies, subtle twistings of the truth. Jesus says that the devil is the father of lies. And last week we saw how the devil attacked Jesus, through trying to twist the truth, and how Jesus responded with the truth to overcome the temptations.
What are the deceits that we may be caught up in? I think there are at least three spoken about in our readings today.
In the Gospel this morning [St Matthew 15:21-28], we have an encounter between Jesus and a Canaanite woman. She comes to Jesus not out of concern for herself, but out of concern for her beloved daughter.
It is a powerful encounter for many reasons, and I would say it is about the unveiling of lies the devil has spun.
First, the woman’s daughter is “severely oppressed with a demon” – this is not about possession, something very rare today, but oppression, some not rare at all. We are oppressed whenever we believe a lie about how it is we will find true life. We don’t know, in this situation what the oppression is, but that’s not so important. The oppression, begins with a wrong idea, and it can be hard to see that the idea is wrong. When it involves the passions of our appetites – greed, gluttony, lust, we can soon get out of control, and it can be seen more clearly in our lives than when it involves our reason alone, things such as pride or envy or a suppressed anger – those things are harder for us to see in ourselves. But whatever the lie we hold, it will always manifest itself outwardly in the end if we don’t deal with it.
Jesus responds to the Canaanite woman’s cry by letting her oppressed daughter go free – somehow Jesus sent to the daughter light to reveal the lie and strengthened her daughter’s will to be free of whatever was her oppression.
In Matthew 15, this morning’s Gospel, when the woman from Canaan comes to Jesus pleading for mercy for her daughter, Jesus is not disinterested in her because she is a Gentile. Some have suggested that she taught Jesus about his wider mission. I think this unlikely, given his healing of the Centurion’s servant in Matthew 8, where he says, I have not found such great faith in all Israel. Jesus clearly knew Isaiah. And in Matthew 10, after being rejected by the Pharisees, there is a quotation from Isaiah, two passages of how the Messiah will be received outside of the Jewish camp – in Him will the Gentiles trust.
So why does Jesus seem to respond to the woman so roughly? When we hear the words, we are shocked, but that is because we are not oppressed by this demon of exclusiveness on the basis of race or tribe, we are Christians. The disciples, on the other hand, probably agree with every response of Jesus. First his silence to her cries. Then, “I was sent only to the lost tribes of Israel”. Then, even more offensively, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
I quoted this before: George MacDonald says, “Jesus would arouse in them the disapproval of their own exclusiveness, by putting it on for a moment that they might see it apart from themselves” and “their hearts were moved for the woman” as our hearts are. By speaking out loud what they are thinking inwardly, those inner thoughts come out in the open, the lie can be revealed and broken.
By commending her great faith and responding to her request, he shows the disciples clearly that his ministry is universal. Any ideas we hold of the exclusiveness of the reach of the Gospel message must be shattered. The Church is catholic – for all people, for all times. Everyone we meet is to be treated with dignity and love; anyone who strives with God is a part of the lost sheep of Israel – that is what Israel means – and everyone is made by God and in the image and likeness of God – so how could we think them unimportant to God?
So what is the third idea that can bind us in our readings today?
It is in St Paul’s Epistle [I Thessalonians. 4:1-8] – described in some translations as “fornication” or in the ESV as “sexual immorality.” The passage is here, because in Lent we’re to do a kind of check up on how things are going in our soul, and given the importance of this matter in the human soul, we need to reflect on it.
To speak of sexual immorality in the modern Church is a deep dilemma. If I don’t speak about what this means, some of you will be offended; and if I do speak about it, whatever I say some will be offended. So how does an Anglican priest walk this tightrope?
Most of you will know, that I hold the traditional understanding that sexual relations are meant to be within marriage as that has always been understood in the Church – that that is somehow more beautiful and a part of the overall plan of God in our creation. We know that in the Anglican world (and beyond) there is much discussion about this. I personally have not been convinced by modern arguments for changes, and I’ve read many of them, but I am open to listening and if you want to speak to me personally about this I am willing.
One of the reasons given for Marriage itself has been that it is a remedy for lust – the hallowing of the union between a man and a woman, or in the older language: for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body. But what if we’re not married according to that traditional understanding? That’s what the modern world struggles to understand.
Well what can we agree on? I think we can all agree, that, whether we are married or not married according to the traditional understanding of marriage, dwelling on lustful thoughts in our minds is breaking the 6th commandment, you shall not commit adultery. Jesus has spoken this clearly in the Sermon on the Mount [St Matthew 5:27-30]. So the dwelling on heterosexual or homosexual or any other kind of sexual thoughts is an oppression that is destructive to our souls and leads to an objectification of others – it undermines true love. The growth of internet porn, the horrors of hidden sexual slavery, the sexual abuse of children are grievous manifestations of the danger of unchecked lustful thoughts. It all begins with the lie that we can pursue these thoughts in our minds without hurting others and that it will somehow help us, that it is what we really need. And yet it blinds us from the goodness in others, leads to exploitation, and it blinds us from seeing the goodness of God and His purposes in Creation. It is not rocket science – so long as we’re dwelling on lustful thoughts, our mind is not thinking upon God nor truly loving our neighbour.
The breaking through this oppression, if we’re suffering lustful thoughts, begins with confessing them, acknowledging the truth that we are oppressed. It may need to involve being accountable to someone else – a friend, a spouse, a priest. We can take practical steps to avoid situations of temptation – what images are we filling our minds with? how are we looking at others when we look at them? and most importantly, choosing to fill one’s mind with the true direction of our hearts desire, the deepening of our life of prayer, the reading of Scripture, engaging in the Sacramental life, using all the means we are given by God to stay close to Him.
God says through Jeremiah – the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick, who can understand it? [Jeremiah 17:5-10] Jesus says, Out of the heart of man come all sorts of evil thoughts, and one of the evils he then mentions is fornication [St Matthew 15:19]. God reminds us in Jeremiah and Jesus reminds us in his teaching to look at the fruit of our actions from our thoughts, and encourages us to purify our hearts that we might bear good fruit.
Our readings today speak about a concern we might have about another person who is oppressed in some way by a lie and also warn us that we ourselves can be oppressed. Ideas of racial or tribal superiority or of the limits of God’s love or of lust or whatever else may be binding us. God is opposed to anything that is not authentic love, to anything that enslaves and hurts. And he has come in the flesh to break every oppression both through speaking the truth, to bring light into darkness, to strengthen our wills to overcome temptation, and most importantly to show us what perfect love looks like in the flesh.
If we know of a loved one who is oppressed, let us offer prayers for that person to Jesus this morning. If we see some oppression in our thoughts today, or in our actions, then let us confess it soon, and be assured of God’s perfect forgiveness through the Cross of Christ and be strengthened through our love of Jesus as we receive His Body and Blood given for us.