O woman, great is your faith: be it done for you as you desire!
Two weeks ago St Paul reminded us that we can have all the right thinking on matters of the Church’s teaching, but if we don’t have love it is worth nothing. I spoke about how our hearts are changed not primarily by having right thinking but by acting on that thinking. That is why in the Epistle this morning (1 Thessalonians. 4:1-8), St Paul exhorts us not just to think right thoughts but to walk according to what he has taught, and to do so more and more.
Likewise, if we hold wrong ideas, they may not hurt us if we don’t act on them (though others may be hurt if they act upon those ideas, and we hold some culpability for their fall if we encourage them by our assent), but when we do act on them, it will hurt our hearts, and the more we follow in that way, the more we experience the repercussions in our souls, even a kind of binding, an enslavement. Following the Truth leads to wholeness of soul (and in some cases a recovery of health of body), following a lie spun by the devil leads to our destruction.
In the Gospel this morning (St Matthew 15:21-28), a mother suffers terribly out of compassion for her daughter who she says is severely possessed by a demon. We don’t know the nature of that possession or the particular lie that she had assented to and was held by.
How can a person be delivered from the sort of lie that begins with a simple assent, a minor transgression of the law of love, and becomes an enslavement that “severely possesses” a person, leading them to a pride which refuses repentance, which leads to a break with God and humanity, which leads on a path of further self destruction?
It is only love and faithfulness in prayer to our Lord that can break these “possessions” of ourselves and of our loved ones by demons, by principalities, by lies.
In the Gospel is set before us an example of great love and faithfulness in prayer in this woman of Canaan, a woman who, Mark tells us in more detail, is a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth.
She is not a Jew, but, descended from the tribes of people who were found in the promised land when the Jews arrived after the Exodus over a thousand years before. They were never integrated into the life of the people of Israel – they were not sharers in the Old Covenant. And yet she has heard of Jesus and of His mercy and of His miracles and she comes and cries out desperately for help.
And in her case we are astounded to hear that Jesus remained silent to her cries. We know that Jesus often healed people who were brought by others, we know that he sometimes healed people who did not even ask, and yet here is a woman repeatedly crying out and the Gospel says he did not answer her a word. His silence seems to our ears as cruelty.
The disciples are bothered by her annoyance. Maybe they have that superiority of race or gender that looks down upon her as a Gentile woman unworthy of God’s mercy. They came to Jesus, the Gospel says, they begged him saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.”
Jesus knows that whatever their reasons are for wanting her to be sent away, they are insufficient. So. after his silence, he says these words that surprise us, He says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” It surprises us because we know how history unfolded – that God’s promises were always to be a blessing and salvation to all nations, we know the history of the early church from Acts, where this debate continued and was only resolved by the Council of Jerusalem once and for all – the Good News is that Jesus Christ is the Saviour of the whole world. But Jesus’ silence and then His words did not surprise the disciples—the disciples expected him to say this.
But the woman is not satisfied, she comes and kneels down before Him, perhaps she even “held those sacred feet” [Pusey], and she says, “Lord, help me.”
And Jesus says words that shock us, He says, “It is not right to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.” It is hard to imagine, how Jesus said these words.
The harshness of the words to our ears, one commentator [George McDonald] has suggested, was for the sake of stirring up love in the disciples. He 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.” And even so our hearts are moved for her.
But somehow in these words of Jesus, the woman is not discouraged, she could see not a door closed but an opening. And she replies, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs eat of the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
What a marvel. Martin Luther loved this passage and the example of this woman’s faithfulness – Listen to what he says,
All this, … is written for our comfort and instruction, that we may know how deeply God conceals his grace before our face, and that we may not estimate him according to our feelings and thinking, but strictly according to his Word. For here you see, though Christ appears to be even hardhearted, yet he gives no final decision by saying “No.” All his answers indeed sound like no, but they are not “no”, they remain undecided and pending. For he does not say: “I will not hear you;” but is silent and passive, and says neither yes nor no. In like manner he does not say “she is not of the house of Israel;” but that he “is sent only to the house of Israel;” he leaves it undecided and pending between yes and no. So he does not say, “You are a dog, one should not give you of the children’s bread;” but “it is not right to take the children’s bread and cast it to the dogs;” leaving it undecided whether she is a dog or not. Yet all those trials of her faith sounded more like no than yes; but there was more yea in them than nay; aye, there is only yes in them, but it is very deep and very concealed, while there appears to be nothing but no.
The Old Testament lesson appointed for Morning Prayer this morning is from Genesis 32 – the story of Jacob struggling with the angel of God by the Ford of the Jabbock. And how appropriate to throw more light on our Gospel this morning.
Do you remember how Jacob wrestles with the angel until near the break of day – the angel tells him to let him go, but Jacob says, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” The angel blessed him, after putting his hip out of joint (!) and renames him Israel – he says, “for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Israel means – “he who strives with God.”
The Syrophoenician woman is a lost sheep of the house of Israel – because she has out of great love for her daughter and with great faith in Christ, striven with him and received what she desired.
“O woman, great is your faith! be it done for you as you desire.” These words, “O woman,” Jesus only used in one other place, at the marriage of Canaan when he addressed his mother (St John 2). And the Gospel tells us, her daughter was healed instantly.
What an example to us to persevere in prayer, when the answer seems to be no. What an example to us of great humility and boldness before our Lord Jesus.
The Syrophonecian woman’s words are remembered in Anglican Services of Holy Communion, in the Prayer of Humble Access. Her example is memorialized by Anglicans Sunday by Sunday around the world – recalling this great moment in today’s Gospel, when we say – we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table, but you are the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy, grant us therefore…to eat at your banquet. The Prayer of Humble Access is a prayer that combines wonderfully the elements of self abasement (not trusting in ourselves) but also a boldness (trusting in the goodness of God).
The Syrophoenician woman strove faithfully with God in prayer and received her desire – we likewise will soon once again have this opportunity to humble ourselves at the feet of our Lord and in full assurance of faith, made confident by Christ’s Passion and Death on the Cross, be drawn up into the holy of Holies – and mystically reunited with our Lord Jesus.
I say “reunited”, because all of us are in one way or another still bound by sin in our lives and are in need of humbling ourselves before our Lord that we might be joined with Him afresh or deepen that union. This past week we have assented in small or great ways to lies that we tell ourselves – lies that our salvation is found in the world or in fulfilling the desires of the flesh and somehow not in God. If the Holy Spirit has brought to our mind a particular way that we are being enslaved this morning, we can repent of it and bring our desire for release and new life in God, we can bring that hope to Jesus this morning and we will not be sent empty away.
If you have a loved one who is grievously vexed by a lie – come like the Syrophoenician woman and plead before Christ your hopes for your loved one with the assurance of faith and perseverance in prayer that He may deliver your family member or your friend.
Now unto Him that is able to keep us from falling and to present us faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy; to the only wise God our Saviour be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. AMEN.