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 His provision of a 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. Christ always journeys to the borders of paganism, alienation from God, potential despair, and immanent unbelief. Why? Because it is there that He finds those most in need of His judgment and cure. It is interesting that he had just finished a discourse on how sin originates in the inner man’s heart and soul. He said, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. (St. Matthew xv. 8) Jesus saw that the religious Jews of His day upheld the form of religion without ever coming to discover their heartfelt need for its true substance.
So, Jesus will come upon a foreigner –a Syro-Phoenician woman, to reveal to His Apostles just what kind of person is most rightly related to Him. She was close enough to observe that the Jews had brought those which were possessed with devils, and those which were lunatics to Jesus for healing. (St. Matthew 4. 24) Because His cure was so swiftly efficacious, she was determined to have it also. She did not waste any time, for we read that 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 bears the burden 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 cries out for His mercy, but we read that He answered her not a word. (Ibid, 23) Jesus is silent. As St. John Chrysostym writes: The Word has no word; the fountain is sealed; the physician withholds His remedies. (Homily LII: Vol X, NPNF:I)
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 doing. 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) Like many Christians, they settle for the Jesus whose presence is comforting but whose power is not needed. 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 let her go so easily. He will engage her, for He knows that in her heart there is a faith that will draw out His power to overcome the weakness that she shares with her daughter.
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 means that His mission is first to the Jews because they are the children of Promise. 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 needs more in Jesus than any of His Jewish brethren. The wounded alien moves closer to Jesus. The more acute the disease, the greater the need for urgent care. Then came she and worshipped Him, saying, Lord, help me. (St. Matthew 15.25) Jesus neither commands nor promises anything. From His heart, He is already ministering healing to her. As Calvin writes, We see then that the design of Christ’s silence was not to extinguish the woman’s faith, but rather to whet her zeal and inflame her ardor. (Calvin’s Comm’s. xvii)
Jesus was at first silent. and then discouraging. Now He 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 derisive term that the ancient Jews used when referring to their Gentile neighbors. 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 strongly and that her faith 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 needs Him completely. She hangs upon every word that comes out of His mouth and she will not let Him escape her desire. She will follow Him, and whatever He says about her she will thankfully receive as the truth. She believes Jesus is God’s truth. 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. She may not be a lost sheep. But neither are Jesus’ disciples at this point. So, have it your way, I am a needy dog! She exclaims. Dogs need masters. Jesus can become hers. I am the last and least, like dogs that sit at their master’s feet. But a dog belongs to its master. He is beneath but not out; he is under but not forsaken. He depends absolutely upon the master’s care. 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 you discern me to in, Lord, let it be true. 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 [me] 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 traveled to find Jesus. 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 endure the pain of hearing the hard truth about ourselves from the Saviour. He comes to judge, 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 press upon Jesus to be fed by the crumbs that fall from the His 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.