Bishop Edwin Tompkins
The Gospel. St. Matthew xv. 21.
Jesus went thence, and departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. And, 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 grie- vously vexed with a devil. But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs. And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table. Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.
This prayer, the Prayer of Humble Accessis familiar to you all. It speaks directly to the way we connect with all things divine, especially the Sacrament of Holy Communion. We pray this as a vital part of our approach to the altar, and the prayer echoes our Gospel for this Sunday - the story of the Canaanite woman who comes to Jesus with so much determination and humility.
What is so disturbing is how Jesus responds to her request. First, there is no response – “he answered her not a word”- silence. Have you ever thought about those important times when Jesus is silent in the Gospel? He was silent before Herod. He was silent before Pilate. He was silent watching the Pharisee and the Publican praying in the Temple. We can sense too that He was silent as He watched His soon-to-be apostles while they worked at their nets. In silence, Jesus searches all our hearts, and His silence is more potent than speech. In silence He weighs us, watches the world, and forgives us. In silence, He prays. “Be still and know that I am God,” says the Psalms.
Returning to the Canaanite woman, after the silence, there is rejection – “send her away, for she crieth after us”, say the disciples. Thirdly, there is refusal – “I am not sent”, says Jesus, “but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” And fourthly, there is repudiation – “It is not right to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.” Christ refuses to answer not only because she is a Gentile but also to reveal this woman’s profound faith and love. Several of the Church Fathers see the disciples request to send her away as an attempt to persuade Jesus to heal the daughter as if to say, “Give her what she wants so that she will leave.” Christ’s response indicates this interpretation is correct, for He again refuses to heal the daughter.
But let’s consider this woman. She didn’t come waving the Bill of Rights in Jesus’ face with a rabble of lawyers seeking to indict God for injustices to humanity. She didn’t come wringing her hands, singing the poor-me’s and whining that life’s not fair. She came seeking mercy, to be sure, but she came strongly, not pitifully. “Lord, help me”, she says while kneeling before Jesus, for she sees her daughter’s well-being as her own and her daughter’s suffering as her own. But it is while on her knees that she responds to his final word of repudiation with her great words of faith. Her humility results in her exaltation. Such is faith. God “giveth grace unto the humble”, even abundant grace.
For God does not meet us half-way. We have to go the whole way. The kingdom of heaven is taken by storm but only because God wills it so. She breaks into the heart of Jesus because He wills that it should be so. She breaks in because she has been drawn out. Her faith has been brought out into the open and “great is [her] faith”. Ultimately, she gets Jesus’ attention because He has her attention, her complete and undivided attention. “Truth, Lord; yet the little dogs eat of the crumbs...” she says, while on her knees. God does not meet us half-way because He, too, goes the whole way. It is only through His humiliation that there can be hope of our redemption.
We see this best at the cross through the eyes of another Gentile - the Centurion Longinus. His words, too, are great words of faith. At Jesus’ death, the Word of God is silenced on the cross. That silence is also humanity’s response to His presence with us. We rejected His words. We refused to follow His will for us. We rejected the truth of God. And yet, at that moment of utter humiliation and shame, before the presence of Christ crucified and dead, there arises out of the Centurion those quiet words of faith, that “truly this was the Son of God.”
Jesus tells the mother, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” Christ reveals her humility. She accepts her place beneath the Jews, who were the chosen people of God, yet still desires a share in God’s grace. Christ’s hesitancy wasn’t a lack of compassion, but a conscious means of revealing the virtues of the woman.
And so we too must come humbly, not arrogantly. We come humbly on our knees, but not grovelling in self-pity. We come in honest humility seeking from God what He wills to give us. We come recalling the words of this woman. Yet we must go even one step further, for “we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.”
Such is the Prayer of Humble Access which we pray at Holy Communion. It perceives in faith the truth which this woman knew in faith, that “thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy,” the truth which the centurion knew in the presence of the crucified Christ, that “truly this was the Son of God.” We come like them in the struggle of faith, humbly yet joyously in penitence, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon us.”
Source: The Second Sunday in Lent
Fr. David Curry
Christ Church Windsor NS, AD 1999