Vol I No. 7

A Sermon for Lent II

by William J. Martin

Truth Lord, yet the dogs eat of the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.

(St. Matthew xv. 27)

We have said that Lent is all about Christian pilgrimage up to the Cross of Jesus and beyond. Last week we discovered that Jesus Christ had endured and resisted every temptation that vexes and disturbs the heart of the earnest pilgrim who seeks to travel up to the Cross of His Love. We found also, I hope, that Jesus Christ desires to live within us to enable us to banish and expel those same temptations in our own lives through His indwelling Holy Spirit. And this week we come to discover our need for His indwelling, or shall we call it in-willing, in a deeper way. What I hope we shall discover is that passionate faith alone, borne out of an acute sense of helplessness and powerlessness, is suited and fit to pursue and secure the spiritual healing and health that Jesus Christ comes to effect and apply.

But first we must consider one spiritual disposition that stands to hinder and frustrate the healing that Jesus desires to effect. It might be summarized neatly in the response of so many men to God or to the world around them when they say, Life is so unfair. So many people think that they have been allotted and dealt a bad rap or a bum deal. And all of this is because they have never once persistently pursued the spiritual good or God’s way in this life. We see something of it in this morning’s Old Testament Lesson taken from Ezekiel. In it we hear the children of God, the Ancient House of Israel, complaining yet again. I say, yet again, since despite the many mercies and riches bestowed upon them continually by God in Biblical history, we read of their constant resort and return to the land of moaning, groaning, complaining, and grousing. The children of Israel say that the way of the Lord is not equal. (Ez. xviii. 25) And what they mean is that God and life have not treated them fairly. But God responds to them, through Ezekiel, with a point of theological clarification when He says that if the righteous man turneth away from his righteousness, and committeth iniquity he dies in it, and also that when the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness…and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive. (Ibid, 26) The equation is simple. If a man commits sin and lives in it, he will suffer the consequences of it bodily, physically, emotionally, and spiritually until finally he dies. If he embraces righteousness, his soul shall live through faith and hope. God gives man free will, and he is justly allowed to reap the rewards of his choices and decisions. There is nothing at all unfair in any of this. That a man should be full of resentment and bitterness having thrown in his lot with the wicked is his problem. For His part, God never withholds his mercy and forgiveness from them that lead a Godly life. Man was made to be accountable and responsible for his own desires. If any man expects that a life of sin should merit God’s protection and favor, he should rightly be called mad or insane. Ezekiel makes clear that if a man’s loves and desires are ordered to the pursuit of sanctification and holiness, his life will be blessed. When any man freely wills and chooses what contradicts and contravenes God’s will and law, he, effectively, holds God in contempt, ridicule, and derision. And yet God’s desire doesn’t change. He still longs for our change and transformation: Cast away from you all your transgressions…and make you a new heart, and a new spirit: for why will ye die O house of Israel? (Ez. xviii. 31)

And yet this business of making a new heart and a new spirit is not as easy as it seems when either the ancient Jews or even contemporary Christians try to do so. We discover this lesson in this morning’s Gospel. Here we find that the Apostles are struggling to go up to Jerusalem with Jesus. In it, Jesus had just finished rebuking the children of Israel, the Jews of his own day, for being more concerned with strict and exact adherence and acquiescence to external and visible piety, than with the sinful and wicked human heart whose sorry state is always the source and cause of man’s need for conversion and newness. The Apostles, being good Jews, probably thought that by cleaving to Jesus externally and visibly they would be counted sufficiently fit to be partakers of the Grace that Jesus was about to impart.

So we read that Jesus went thence, and departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. (St. Matthew xv. 21) Tyre and Sidon were ancient cities in Phoenicia, now modern Lebanon, and were known for their profitable import and export trades. They were inhabited by the ancient Canaanites, a people who originally descended from Noah but became, over time, pagan pantheists, or the worshipers of many gods. And no sooner do we read that Jesus had reached the border of this foreign land than 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. (Ibid, 22) It is clear that this pagan woman crossed a border in more ways than one. To be sure, she crossed the territorial border from her pagan homeland and into Jewish Galilee. But she crossed a spiritual border also, for being a Canaanite she was alien, foreign, unclean, polluted, and beyond the pale of God’s promises to the Jewish children of Israel. She would have been viewed as inhuman, and thus no better than an animal or a dog. So how does Jesus respond to her arrival? He answered her not a word. (Ibid, 23) Jesus is swift to hear and slow to speak (St. James i. 19), especially in the face of a paganess’ plea. He probably wonders how her supplication might inform and define the journey up to Jerusalem that He makes with His friends. The Apostles judge her to be a nuisance, a needless distraction and interruption to their journey, and, at any rate, one to be gotten rid of sooner rather than later. Their selfish pride of place and position as Jesus’ true followers must not be threatened. So they say, Send her away, for she crieth after us. (Ibid, 23)Religious people are often their own worst enemies, especially when their spiritual space is invaded by what they think to be a disruption and disturbance to their unique encounter with and experience of God or His Christ. Jesus ignores them, though they think that He is fulfilling their self-interested and vainglorious appeal. He says, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the House of Israel. (Ibid, 24) He knew full well that the lost sheep of the House of Israel to whom He was sent were mostly set against Him because of their pride, and that those few faithful followers who cleaved to His side had much to learn still about their relation to Him. So He will use this encounter to reveal and disclose to them the proper spirit of the one who would be His true follower and friend. He knows what is in the heart of this Syro-Phoenician outcast and alien. So progressively He will elicit and draw from the depths of her being that spirit which alone can elicit the virtue that He brings. She has already come to Him in earnest. Her daughter’s sickness and pain have become her own, and thus her agony and torment throw her down at the feet of Jesus. She believes that He alone can heal her daughter. Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. (Ibid, 25) She cries first from a distance and hears only the unspoken Word, but now she falls at his feet emptied, spent, and powerless. Jesus’ final response seems even more discouraging, unhopeful, and beyond the reach of her pain. But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs. (Ibid, 26)

At this point if she were like most people she would have quit with disgust in despair, horribly insulted, maligned, and all the more bitter for it. But she does not quit. She will not quit. For she is mighty in faith….(N.M’s, Trench, p. 270) She knows too that the gods of her own nation have been useless. The true God is full of compassion and mercy, long suffering and of great goodness. (Ps. ciii. 8) And it is this God in Jesus Christ whom she will not cease to pursue with her focused faith. It is not meet to take the children’s bread and cast it to dogs. (Idem), He says.  Truth Lord, she responds, but even the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.(Ibid, 27) Indeed, I may be a dog, and my people have made themselves dogs by their idolatry, but be that as it may, though dogs may not be children, they are nevertheless in the care of their masters and they need to eat. Feed me. And besides, as Augustine says, It is but a moderate and small blessing I desire. I do not need [to sit] at the table, but…only seek for the crumbs [that fall from it]. (Serm. Xxvii) Feed me, and so help and heal my daughter and me. I have nothing, no one. I am powerless, helpless. I am an outcast and alien. Yet I believe that you are the Son of the David, the Lord, the Master, and so let me partake of the morsels, crumbs, fragments, and particles of your sanctity which will be more than enough to heal us both. You may not be ready to save the Gentile world in full, so let me have a small part of that future blessing which will feed and save the nations. To which Jesus responds: O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour. (Ibid, 28)

Jesus Christ is all about making a new heart and spirit (Idem) within us. What we, with the Apostles, often miss is that for this to happen our faith must prayerfully pursue Jesus Christ at all times in deepest humility. Our Lord Jesus Christ will often be silent at first as He tries and tests our spiritual condition in relation to Him. With the Syro-Phoenician woman in today’s Gospel, we, with the Apostles, must confess and admit that we have no power over ourselves to help ourselves. (Collect) We must feel our powerlessness. So too must we acknowledge that we have made ourselves aliens and outcasts to God’s promises by reason of our sins. And with this honesty and candor, then we must with deepest faith prayerfully and lovingly pursue Jesus, with all perseverance, persistence, zeal, passion, determination, and diligence, knowing that if we do, though we be dogs, we shall find healing and salvation coming into not only our own lives but also into those for whom we earnestly pray. Amen.