As a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool repeats his foolishness.
The season of Lent is nothing if it does not confuse human wisdom and turn man’s expectations upside down. For what the lections of this Holy Season attempt to show us is that the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He takes the wise in their own craftiness. (1 Cor. iii. 19) And again, as Isaiah records, therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvelous work among this people…for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid. (Isaiah 29. 14) In Lent, we learn that the Wisdom of God revealed in the human life of Jesus Christ, more often than not, challenges and overturns the wisdom of this world. And I don’t mean to say that human wisdom is destroyed, but rather that its limitations are revealed as what are always in need of God’s redemption and perfection.
In last week’s Gospel we read of a real challenge and trial that Christ underwent in order to resist the wisdom of this world and to embrace God’s Wisdom. You will remember that the Spirit led Christ into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. And there we learned that Christ resisted the temptations and in the end banished Satan and his ways. The wisdom that we gleaned from that Gospel is that somehow this Jesus Christ, God as Man, faced evil, resisted it, and in the end overcame it. Man’s wisdom walks in step with the devil; it thinks that it can use the Divine Spirit for worldly ends, that it can make God subject to its whims and idle curiosities, and that it can be as absolute as God. (RDC. Lent I) What Jesus Christ reveals to us is that true wisdom is God’s will and that the new humanity which He struggles to establish as a pattern depends wholly upon it. The devil strives to sever Jesus and us from God’s will and way. He longs to hide us from ourselves, establishing and centering us in our muddled confusions and delusions, concealing from us the true way of liberation and healing. He longs to shield us even from the Wisdom of God, from seeing and knowing that the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to depart from evil is understanding. (Job xxviii. 28)
But Jesus came down from Heaven to reveal God’s wisdom in human nature for our benefit. He came down to bring us back to the fear of the Lord, and that the Divine Wisdom might be born our hearts. But if we heed the message of today’s Gospel, we learn that there is another dimension still that must be added to our piety if God’s Wisdom is to come alive in our lives. This is the element of desire. For it is from the limitations of our earthly passions and desires that we must learn to long the more earnestly for the Wisdom of God.
In this morning’s Gospel, we see how alien, unfamiliar, and even foreign God’s Wisdom is to most men in most ages. Jesus had departed from Jerusalem and from a people who would not receive the Wisdom that He endeavored to disclose and reveal. The ancient Old Testament prognosis of God’s people was finding fulfilment in Jesus’ hearing: This people draweth unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. (Matthew xv. 8) God’s Wisdom had found no place to germinate and grow itself in the hearts of the religious Jews. Even Jesus’ disciples seemed hard-headed and dimwitted. Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught? But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: These are the things which defile a man. (St. Matthew xv. 18-20) God’s Wisdom cannot reach and touch those who do not need it from within. Those who come to need it from realize that their earthly desires and satisfactions provide no lasting health and happiness. So, because He found no need for what He offered from His own people, in this morning’s Gospel Jesus left religious Jerusalem for the frontier territory where Israel borders the land of the heathen. Perhaps the Wisdom that He carried would not be so dyspeptic and disagreeable to those who lived at the far removed from Judaism’s heart.
What He found confounded the customs and habits both of the Jewish scribes and also of His own disciples. God’s Wisdom was, after all, aimed and directed first and foremost at them. That their blindness and ignorance should be overcome only by the discovery of its nature and desire for its power in the heart of a pagan woman would prove all the more confounding. Behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. (St. Matthew xv. 22) Canaan means place of submission, humiliation, and lowliness. So, from this lowly place was heard a cry for the Divine Wisdom and Mercy- that is with and in Jesus. Jesus seemed immune and impervious to the cry. St. John Chrysostom writes that The Word has no word; the fountain is sealed; the physician withholds His remedies. Jesus studies what will emerge from this supplication. Wisdom is quick to hear and slow to speak…(St. James i. 19) Divine Wisdom will elicit from its seeker a sincere and determined desire for its love and power.
Next, we read that, His disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. (St. Matthew xv. 23) The disciples long selfishly to derive the truth from Jesus without the distraction of the mob. A selfless woman will have Him for her daughter in a far better way. But not before she has overcome a Jesus who will draw out her faith in Him to the utmost. He responds, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. (St. Matthew xv. 24) Jesus reminds her that the Jews alone should want what He has because they would know that they are lost sheep. She will insist that the Gentiles are promised a share in it also. And, besides, she knows that she too is lost and needs to be found! Jesus is intrigued. His trying of her is rooted in the tough love of the Old Testament: I will wound and I will heal (Deut. xxxii. 39) St. Augustine describes His method in these words: He is no unkind physician who opens the swelling, who cuts, or cauterizes the corrupted part. He gives pain, it is true; but he only gives pain, that he may bring the patient on to health. He gives pain; but if he did not, he would do no good. (Aug, Serm. xxvii) This is God’s Wisdom. She has pain, the pain of her possessed daughter and the pain of her broken heart. It is painful for her to express this truth but it moves her all the more urgently to cry out, Lord, help me. (St. Mattew xv. 25) Jesus draws out the painful truth of her predicament and her powerlessness. This alone can fuel the passion that will secure her desire. It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs. (St. Matthew xv. 26) To which she responds, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table. (St. Matthew xv. 27) Wisdom has elicited from her heart the confession of pain and the poverty of her spirit. She knows that she is alien to Israel’s promises; she claims no rights to God’s Word and Wisdom; she knows herself as powerless creature in the presence of her mighty Creator. She knows that no man can assist her. She cannot help herself. So she turns to the sole source and origin of all healing. The Wisdom in Jesus is met by her own. Yes Lord, in comparison to your own people who should know themselves as lost sheep, I am a dog. But surely Lord, thou dost not merely enlighten me to the knowledge of my lowly sickness, but so that thou might open to me the door of thy healing. God’s Wisdom desires to touch and to heal all men. God’s Wisdom is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. (Ps. xlvi. 1) Jesus honors what he could not find in His own people or even in His disciples. 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 xv. 28)
Today let us take note of the alien woman’s pain. I wound and I will heal. (Idem) The pain that Jesus elicits reveals her limitations and she comes to discover herself in the light of God’s Wisdom. She claims that she is a dog because dogs are content to eat the fragments and morsels that fall from Christ’s table. She knows that they are more than enough to heal both her and her daughter. Luther tells us that, Like her, thou must give God right in all He says against thee, and yet must not stand off from praying, till thou overcomest as she overcame, till thou hast turned the very charges made against thee into arguments and proofs of thy need, till thou, too, hast taken Christ in His own words.’ We might think it foolish that we should become as clever dogs to secure the power of the Divine Wisdom that Christ offers. But it is foolish only if human wisdom is the mark and measure of truth. Where is the wise person?…Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. (1 Cor. i. 20, 21) The woman of Canaan was a fool for Christ. This alien woman, a dog, gladly and thankfully receives supernaturally charged crumbs that drop from Christ’s table. For, as the Venerable Bede writes: If, after the example of the Caananite woman, we continue resolutely in our praying…certainly the grace of our Maker will…correct everything in us which is wrong, sanctify everything unclean, and 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)