March 1, 2015
He is no unkind physician who opens the swelling, who cuts, who cauterizes the corrupted part. He gives pain, it is true, but he only gives pain, that he might bring the patient on to health. He gives pain, but if he did not, he would do no good. (St. Augustine: Sermon xxvii)
Last week we contemplated the temptations that Jesus withstood on our behalf in order to draw us deeper into His love for God our Heavenly Father. And I pray that we came away with a real sense of His desire to serve God alone and to fulfill His will for us. This week we shall come to see and grasp the nature of sin and our powerlessness over it. I pray that we shall come to learn that all sin whether subtle or palpable threatens to control us. I pray too that we shall find deliverance from it through persistent and humble submission to the Lord’s judgment of our condition and the faith that He makes to ensure its cure.
This morning we read in the Gospel that Our Lord Jesus Christ comes to the coasts of Tyre and Sidon.(St. Matthew 15. 21) He comes to the borders of the pagan Gentile world –a place which had only heard of Him and the promises made to God’s chosen Jewish people. Sin brings all of us to the borders of paganism, alienation from God, potential despair, and threatening unbelief. And yet this spiritual place is never far from Jesus. Whoever and wherever a person might be, Jesus comes to those who struggle to confront and overcome sin. And in order to liberate them from the chains of evil, He will elicit faith, clarify desire, and heighten the hope of the person who then opens to His healing.
And so in this morning’s Gospel we read that a heathen woman seeks out Jesus and His disciples. As we said, His reputation had spread to the lands outside of Israel. The Jews had brought their sick to Him, those which were possessed with devils, and those which were lunatics, and He healed them. (St. Matthew 4. 24) She had heard of this news, and so she would see Jesus. (St. John 12. 21) She does not waste any time, but cuts to the quick, for she cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. (St. Matthew 15. 22) She comes not for herself, but for another. She bears the burden and pain of her daughter’s illness within her heart. Her daughter’s misery is her misery. She will learn that Jesus’ misery is our misery. She implores His mercy, and finds something that surprises us. –That He answered her not a word. (Ibid, 23) Jesus is silent. As St. John Chrysostym has said, The Word has no word; the fountain is sealed; the physician withholds His remedies. (Homily LII: Vol X, NPNF:I)
The Syro-Phoenician woman implores Jesus’ healing power for her daughter. But this is not enough. Jesus will elicit more from her in order to teach us about true faith that desires His Grace –the suppliant posture of the earnest seeker who would secure His benefit. The Apostles cannot see what Jesus is up to. They have been with Him for some time, have witnessed what He can do, but prefer to keep Him for themselves, so that seeing, they see, and do not perceive. (St. Mark 4. 12) Evidently, like many Christians, they settle for the Jesus whose presence comforts them and is best enjoyed when left undisturbed! Send her away, for she crieth after us. (St. Matthew 15, 23) As far as they are concerned He might heal her daughter or not; their chief end is to be rid of this pestiferous nuisance. Theirs is that heartless granting of a request, whereof most of us are conscious; when it is granted out of no love to the suppliant, but to leave undisturbed his selfish ease from whom at length it is exhorted. (Trench: Gospel) And yet, Jesus will not be hurried by this woman. He will engage her, for He knows that in her heart there is a faith that needs to be revealed and expressed for the benefit of all.
Jesus’ first response is: I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. (St. Matthew 15. 24) In St. Mark’s Gospel He says, Let the children first be filled. (St. Mark 7. 27) In both He states clearly that He is sent first to the Jews, the offspring of promise and faith. Jesus, the Great Physician begins to open this heathen woman’s spiritual swelling. The Apostles are silent. She is neither daunted, nor disheartened, nor disturbed. She sees more in Jesus than any of His Jewish brethren. The wounded alien moves closer to Jesus. The more acute the disease, the greater is the need for urgent care. Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. (St. Matthew 15.25) Jesus neither commands nor promises –as the devil did in last week’s Gospel, by promising, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. (St. Matthew 4. 9) But it is the woman’s persistence that moves her to fall down humbly and worship Him. As Calvin writes, She will not suffer that general beginning of [her] salvation, which is founded [in faith] on the word of God, to be in any way torn from [her]. (Calvin’s Comm’s. xvii)
And yet Jesus who was at first silent, then discouraging, now seems to respond with derision and condemnation. He cuts into her wound. Jesus says, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs. (St. Matthew 15. 26) Jesus calls her a dog. It is a term that the ancient Jews used when referring derisively to Gentiles or non-Jewish peoples. But if we pay close attention to what Jesus is eliciting from this women, we might rather conclude that He is mocking the Jews! He knows that this woman believes, and that she believes in a way that will put His faithful Jewish followers to shame.
This foreign outcast and polluted Gentile is on a journey after Jesus. She is going up to Jerusalem with Him in heart and mind. She hangs upon every word that comes out of the mouth of Jesus and she will not let Him escape her desire. She will follow Him, and whatever He says about her she will thankfully receive as an insightful prognosis of her sorry sinful state. Thus, knowing that He is the Son of God, she responds: Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table. (St. Matthew 15. 27) She perceives Jesus’ severe mercy and tough love. But it is love nonetheless. This Word that she sees and hears is life and it is love. And she will have it! He does not call her an utter alien, separated finally from the promises of God. He says that she is a dog. Well enough, I am a dog, she honestly admits. I am the last and least, like dogs that sit at their master’s feet. But a dog is a member of the human household. He is a part of the life of the family. He is beneath but not out; he is under but not forsaken. So she says, Let me be a dog. If you are the master, I shall eat of the crumbs that fall from the table that you have prepared for your chosen people. The crumbs shall be all that are needed for my daughter’s healing. As St. Augustine says, It is but a moderate and a small blessing I desire; I do not press to the table, I only seek for the crumbs. (Serm. xxvii, vol. vi. NPNF) In whatever state I am, Lord, hear my prayer. My daughter is sick, and if I am a dog, let me at least eat the morsels of mercy that fall from your table. I believe that ‘thou hast the words of eternal life.’ (St. John 6. 68) What you give us may be crumbs, but Lord, evermore give us this bread. (St. John 6. 34)
With her words, this woman conquers Heaven and Heaven’s Lord. Jesus says, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour. (St. Matthew 15. 28) Jesus cauterizes her wound, and she and her daughter are healed. She has heard the Word about Jesus; she has found God’s Word in Jesus; she has hammered away at this Word until she is not only heard but healed. This woman’s faith demanded not that the Word in the flesh come down with her in person to heal her daughter. This woman’s faith knew that the Word could easily retrace the distance she had traveled to heal her daughter. In faith she was stirred to seek out the severe mercy of God in Jesus Christ. St. Mark tells that that when the woman was come to her house, she found the devil gone out, and her daughter laid upon the bed. (St. Mark 7. 30)
With our opening St. Augustine reminds us that [Christ] the Good Physician gives pain, it is true, but he only gives pain, that he might bring the patient on to health. He
gives pain, but if he did not, he would do no good. (Idem) And so we must be willing to hear the hard truth from our Saviour. He comes to judge us, discipline and correct us that we might be emptied of sin before His healing power fills us with righteousness. Matthew Henry warns us that, There is nothing got by contradicting any word of Christ, though it bear ever so hard upon us. But this poor woman, since she cannot object against it, resolves to make the best of it. ‘Truth, Lord, yet the dogs eat of the crumbs…. (Comm. Matt. xv.)
With the example of the Syro-Phoenician’s faith and humility let us come to see ourselves as those who deserve nothing but the crumbs that fall from the Master’s table. In all humility, because we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves, let us resort to Jesus zealously to secure those crumbs and fragments of sanctity that will heal us spiritually. For, as the Venerable Bede writes: If, after the example of the Caananite woman, we continue resolutely in our praying, and remain of fixed purpose, certainly the grace of our Maker will be with us to correct everything in us which is wrong, to sanctify everything unclean, and to make serene everything which is turbulent. He is faithful and just, so that he will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from every iniquity, if with the attentive voice of our mind we cry out to him who lives and reigns with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for all ages and ages. (Hom. i. 22) Amen.