Not so long ago I read an article online that passionately argued for the elimination of one of the elements that comprises our liturgy every Sunday. The author—we have to call him something, so let’s call him Mr. Sensitive—objected to the Roman Catholic church’s use of the phrase “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof, but speak the word only and I shall be healed.”
Mr. Sensitive was most insistent that this admission of unworthiness is AND I QUOTE “one of the most destructive phrases in human history.”
That seems like quite an exaggeration. But the point of the article was that it is psychologically unhealthy to dwell on one’s unworthiness, and despite the hyperbole of this particular article, I expect the main idea is a commonly held one, that we should as Mr. Sensitive says, instead tell ourselves that “we are all equally worthy.”
Now I completely agree that there is nothing to be gained from pointless self-laceration, that we should not go around beating ourselves up for no reason.
But our liturgy does not indulge in pointless self-hatred as Mr. Sensitive fears, and I think today’s Gospel lesson will shed some light on this issue and explain a uniquely Anglican aspect of our worship as well.
In today’s reading from Matthew, our Lord leaves his home territory of Galilee and charts a course for Tyre and Sidon.
These are cities populated mainly by Gentiles. And one such Gentile, a Canaanite woman, approaches Jesus urgently. Her daughter is demon-possessed, and she needs help.
Notice the way she speaks to Jesus. She addresses him as “Lord” and as “Son of David.” These titles suggest that she already believes something important about who Jesus is. In the Bible, the title “Lord” only pertains to someone you are prepared to acknowledge as your master and therefore are ready to serve. And “Son of David” is Matthew’s preferred title for Jesus in his role as the Messiah, the Savior of Israel.
The Canaanites though are the people whom the Israelites displaced when they took possession of the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua. They would have no love for the Israelites, and yet, here is a Canaanite woman, acknowledging Jesus as the Lord and as the Messiah, in terms that are highly significant.
So what is she up to exactly? Who is this person, and what does she expect from Jesus? This question perhaps is in our Lord’s mind, and it might explain why his response to her seems to us so intolerably rude.
At first Jesus does not answer her at all. Then the disciples ask him to send her away, apparently because she keeps hounding them. Again Jesus excuses himself on the grounds that his mission is to Israel, not to the Gentiles, and in fact at this point in Matthew’s gospel he has told his disciples only to preach the kingdom of God to the Israelites. Still, the Canaanite woman persists, and this time she kneels before him, and issues what must be one of the simplest and most poignant requests any person can direct toward God: “Lord, help me.”
The heartfelt quality of this appeal provides a sharp contrast to our Lord’s reply: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
This is undoubtedly abusive language; for the culture of the time a dog is an unclean animal, and this label was used by Jews against Gentiles as an insult.
Despite this insult, the Canaanite woman is undaunted. And yet rather than simply oppose Jesus or refute him directly, she subtly turns the insult around. “Yes, Lord,” she says, you’re right. It’s not fair to take food from children and give it to dogs, but “even the dogs eat the crumbs from their masters’ table.”
For the one and only time in Matthew’s gospel Jesus appears to lose a debate. The Canaanite woman in the end has gotten the best of our Lord, who ends a conversation he did not begin with the words, “great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And without any further drama whatsoever, her daughter is healed.
The Canaanite woman’s story is unique. She is the only person in Matthew’s Gospel who Jesus says has “great” faith.
Even the disciples Jesus routinely says have “little” faith, as in “O ye of little faith.”
She alone has “great” faith. We should be very interested in this. We want to have faith presumably, and here is someone whose faith is great. So what can we learn from the Canaanite woman?
What does it take to have great faith?
First, let me suggest that the Canaanite woman’s faith is great because she recognizes who Jesus is, and she acts accordingly. She does not call Jesus “Lord” once but four times over in this short passage. And when she kneels down before him, the term Matthew uses there is the one that the Bible generally uses for the posture of worship. When you are in the presence of your Lord you kneel down and make yourself ready for his service. You worship by physically placing yourself at your Lord’s disposal, and that is what she is doing.
Second, the Canaanite woman’s faith is great because she is persistent. She does not relent, not even when met with silence, not when Jesus’s handlers try to have her bundled away, not even when insulted. She persists until she prevails.
The third thing I want to say about the Canaanite woman’s faith may be the most important of all, because if I am right then this would explain her persistence. Why does she not get discouraged and give up?
I think it may be because she has abandoned all self-righteousness, she has given up any sense of entitlement, and she has trusted only in the mercy of Christ.
What are her first words? Before she even addresses Jesus as “Lord” and “Son of David” she says “Have mercy on me.”
I think she expects Jesus will be merciful to her.
And she’s right about this. Despite his aloofness and hostility Jesus does hear her cry for help. He does speak to her. He doesn’t listen to the disciples or send her away. And by the end of Matthew’s gospel we know that he is indeed here for the whole world, for people like her, for people like you and me.
And she is right that he will show mercy.
The Canaanite woman does not respond to Jesus’s provocation in the way that I think most of us would.
We would insist upon our rights.
We would demand what we are entitled to.
We would be like Mr. Sensitive and say “we are all equally worthy.”
But that is not how she wins Jesus over. She does not convince him she is worthy.
She wins him over because she admits she is unworthy and yet she does not expect him to be “fair.” She expects him to be merciful. It’s not fair to give the children’s food to the dogs.
But this is the thing about mercy. Mercy is not fair.
We are shown mercy not because we are worthy but despite the fact that we are unworthy. If we deserved it, it wouldn’t be mercy. To trust in Jesus’s mercy is to expect what we don’t deserve.
I suspect we don’t want to hear this. I suspect it’s the reason Mr. Sensitive thinks it should be stricken from the liturgy.
It’s rude. It’s insulting. It’s as rude and insulting as Jesus was to the Canaanite woman.
In the Anglican tradition I suppose we are even worse than the Roman Catholics because we have a prayer they don’t. It’s called the Prayer of Humble Access, and we say it right before we receive Communion.
In that prayer we say:
We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.
So where did that phrase come from?
Every time we say that, every time, we remember the great faith of the Canaanite woman.
We say these words to remind ourselves not of how awful we are but of how awe-inspiring God is. Because what is the very next line of that prayer?
But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.
This is good news in the end, not bad news.
We are not worthy to gather the crumbs underneath his table. But Jesus does not ask us to be content with the crumbs. Jesus says you are not dogs but the children of God. When we stop trusting in our own worthiness and start trusting in his mercy, then we can come to our master’s table. At this table we receive the mercy of Christ. At this table there are no dogs waiting for crumbs to fall. There are only invited and beloved guests.
So have great faith. And come to this table, where the food never runs out, the wine never runs dry, and the mercy of Christ is infinite. Amen.