A Word about the Readings
by Father Gethin
(The readings may be found here)
The Gospel for this Sunday is certainly one the most controversial moments in our Lord’s earthly ministry; voices clamour to point out His heartlessness, His prejudice, and no doubt His lack of political correctness. But what about the story itself, and what might it have to teach us on our Lenten way? “A woman of Canaan came and cried to Jesus, saying, Lord, have mercy.”
Like so many episodes from our Lord’s earthly life, it is a strange place for a story to begin. Israel and Canaan were opposing cultures, beginning from the moment Joshua led the Jews over Jordan into the promised land, and conquered (with varying success) the peoples who dwelt there. The Canaanites were idolatrous, worshipping the false god Baal, who represents an opposing claim to God’s divine authority, and who stands therefore as the very antithesis of all that defines Israel—“Thou shalt have none other Gods but me.”
Speaking religiously, the Canaanites bowed down to demons, and so it is no doubt with a certain sense of irony that Jesus hears the Canaanite woman crying for help, because her daughter is, “vexed with a demon.” There is the old expression, ‘live by the sword, die by the sword.” And so, Christ’s initial silence, which seems hard-hearted, is really quite natural; in a literal sense, there is at first nothing to say. The two worlds, at best, have only silence between them, and what is more, the woman’s claim is nearly absurd. Jesus’ silence allows the weight of the moment to settle in, that things are coming to a strange place. It will require a special sort of perseverance if any good outcome is to be reached.
And for the love of her daughter, the woman does persevere. She persists in her prayer until the disciples are fed up, and until finally she moves Christ to speak—but by way of rejecting her claim—’I am sent to the lost sheep of Israel’, which is to say, those who know Yahweh as Lord, and also their need of Him. She has no place. Yet she also has need.
There is no simpler prayer than, ‘help.’ But there is hardly a more complex answer than Christ’s reply: ‘it would be wrong to throw your child’s supper to the puppy under the table’. And here is the point for us: the line is shocking—and it is shocking—so long as we prefer to hold onto our private worldly sensibilities, rather than be led into the kingdom of God. If we would be changed by the mercies of God, we must be prepared to give up our earthly false-modesties.
Jesus isn’t merely calling the woman a dog; He is showing how there is a story to which He belongs, as a parent belongs to a child, and that story has an absolute priority. Even if Israel is unfaithful, God continues faithful. That is the story. He comes, first of all, as their Messiah, just as He promised. His mercy and healing belong to that world. She has no historical grounds to ask His aid. But: if she is willing to accept His terms, the unique terms of God’s purpose working out His goodness in time, there is a way, there is an eternal ground from which her claim can proceed. It is a way that is even more fundamental than the history of Israel, because it is what the history of Israel issues from and rests upon—the way of faith. “When God called, Abraham obeyed—by faith.” (Heb. 11:8). ‘Yes Lord’, she confesses, ‘you story is true, and I will receive it, sacrificing my own story in the process.’ But, that also means, in that faith, her prayer becomes real—’the little dogs may yet eat the crumbs’. And as we feel His hard words, the hard truth of the law, in the beginning, so we ought to feel His joy, here in the end, in His mercy: ‘for He desires not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness and live.’ (BCP, absolution at Morning Prayer)
And so are we to understand our Lenten way: it is the way of turning from godless earthly interests—fornication and falsehood, fears and fantasies, in order to be converted to the way, the strange, heavenly-minded way, of faith, devoted to one thing: the word of Lord. “For this is the will of God, even your sanctification.”