Sermon for Lent II
The Revd. Fr. William Martin
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 examined the temptations that Jesus withstood for us 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; and, because of this, I pray that we shall come to learn that all sin whether subtle or direct threatens to control us. Lastly, I pray that we shall find deliverance from sin through persistent and humble submission to the Lord’s judgment of our condition and His provision of cure. I pray also that we might be willing to submit ourselves to Jesus’ potent and stinging medicine so that we might be healed fully.
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. Jesus never went into non-Jewish territory. Rather, He visits the periphery and hopes to draw Gentiles into the land of Promise and Salvation. Jesus’ motives should fascinate us. Jesus intends that all men should be saved. He must offer salvation to God’s chosen people first. Yet, isn’t it interesting that more often than not He finds Himself drawn to the borders of heathen nations. Today, He had just finished a discourse to His own people about how sin originates in 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) What Jesus experienced from his own people was the outward shell of meticulous religious observance of the Law but hearts that were not devoted to the Spirit of the Law.
So, the Spirit draws Jesus to the borders of Canaan. He will find the need for what He brings into the world from foreigners, aliens, and outcasts. A Syro-Phoenician woman, a Greek inhabitant of Canaan will approach Jesus. From a distance, she had learned that the Jews had brought those which were possessed with devils, and those which were lunatics to Jesus for healing. (St. Matthew 4. 24) She had heard that Jesus’ cures were instantaneous. His cure was efficacious, and she was determined to have it also. Jesus was coming, and she wasted no time. 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 from afar not for herself but for her daughter who is further away. She bears the burden of her daughter’s illness in 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. St. John Chrysostom writes: The Word has no word; the fountain is sealed; the physician withholds His remedies. (Homily LII: Vol X, NPNF:I)
Jesus, however, will elicit more from her to teach us about true faith –the faith that storms the gates of Heaven until Jesus responds.
We learn that the Apostles cannot see what Jesus is doing. While they have been with Him for some time and have witnessed what He can do, they prefer to hoard Him selfishly, so that seeing, they see, and do not perceive. (St. Mark 4. 12) Like many Christians, they settle for the observing more of what Jesus can do than what all men need. Send her away, for she crieth after us. (St. Matthew 15, 23) The woman is ruining their spiritual friendship with Jesus. They want only to be rid of this pestiferous annoyance. 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) They are selfishly annoyed. Jesus is not. He will engage the woman, for He knows that in her heart there is a faith that persists in finding the cure that God alone can give.
Jesus is teasing the woman. His first response to the woman 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 should be the Children of Promise. Jesus, the Great Physicianbegins to open this heathen woman’s spiritual swelling. The Apostles are silent. She is neither daunted, disheartened, nor disturbed. She needs more from Jesus than the Apostles, for now. As audacious and brazen as it would have seemed to these Jews, she moves closer to Jesus. The more acute the disease, more urgent is the need for the physician’s immediate attention. Then came she and worshipped Him, saying, Lord, help me. (St. Matthew 15.25) She will insist that Jesus is her Lord and she will submit to His rule. From His heart, Jesus is already healing 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 is amazed. She is courageous, determined, and true to herself.
Jesus is first silent and then discouraging. Now, He rubs salt 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) He calls her a dog! He takes the ancient Jews’ prejudice of the Gentiles and hurls it at her. Yet, if we look more closely, Jesus is trying to tease out of this woman not only faith but humility. Is he mocking this woman or the Jews? He knows that this woman, no matter what her race or cultural origin, might actually possess a faith that will put His faithful Jewish followers to shame.
This Gentile outcast is on a journey after and for Jesus. She is going up to Jerusalem with Him in heart and mind. She needs Him completely. She hangs upon every His every word and refuses to let Him out of her grip. She will follow Him come what may. She believes Jesus is God’s own Son. She responds with, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table. (St. Matthew 15. 27) She needs Jesus’ severe mercy and hard love. She may be a dogand not a lost sheep. But she knows herself to be dog who needs the Master’s attention. Jesus can become hers. I am a stray dog who, when found, will sit at my master’s feet. A dog belongs to its master. I sit at his feet but will not be cast out -under but not forsaken. I belong to thee, O Lord. 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 more than sufficient 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) My daughter is sick, and if I am a dog, let me at least eat the crumbs and morsels of mercy that fall from your table. I believe that ‘thou hast the words of eternal life.’ (St. John 6. 68) Lord, evermore give [me] this bread. (St. John 6. 34)
With her words, this woman storms the gates of Heaven and conquers its 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 her faith ensures that her daughter is healed. In the end, it is her faith that secures the healing she seeks. Faith in Jesus Christ, the Wisdom of God and the Power of God, is what always obtains Jesus’ healing for our sin-sick souls. This woman’s faith did not demand that Jesus come down in person to heal her daughter. This woman’s faith knew that the Word could easily retrace the distance she traveled to find her daughter. In faith, she believed that Jesus need speak the word only and [her daughter] would be healed. (St. Matthew viii. 8) St. Mark writes 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, H would do no good. (Idem) So, we must be willing to endure the pain of hearing the hard truth we learn about ourselves from Jesus. He comes to diagnose our condition and provide the cure. He intends to empty us of any pride that our faith might persist in finding His loving cure. 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 Syrophoenician’s faith and humility let us confess that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves. (Collect, Lent II) Let us beg deliverance from all evil thoughts that may assault and hurt the soul. (Idem) With her, let us abandon the lust of concupiscence in Gentiles who know not God. (1 Thes. i. 3) Jesus longs to find a faith that will not cease until it finds His cure. Let us all admit that we are dogs. He calls us out as dogs because God call us not to uncleanness, but unto holiness. (Idem) Jesus is always overcome by the faith of dogs who fulfilled with His crumbs can conquer demons and heal human hearts. Jesus may resist us at times, but only to tease out that faith that will have Him, and Him alone as Master.
March 13, 2022