Sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Lent
King’s College Chapel
May 16th, 2017
“Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously
vexed with a devil. But he answered her not a word.”
The silence must have been deafening.
His disciples, at first, at a distance. Jesus, alone with her.
Not a sound. Nothing from the one in whom she had put her hope.
No doubt she had heard rumours of this man whispered throughout the land, rumours of one who could cast out demons and offer miraculous healing, even to some who simply touched his clothing.
It was a mother’s love and desperation that brought her to him, seeking help for her daughter who was possessed by an unclean spirit.
But she was a Canaanite. And what’s more, she was a native of the area into which Jesus and his disciples had entered. Tyre and Sidon were Gentile territory within the holy land itself; to disciples and indeed to most Jews it was a land of darkness, idolatry and false Gods.
Whatever interactions she had with the Jewish community in her life could most likely be summed up in the disciples’ response to seeing her beseeching Jesus for help, “send her away.”
To them she was no more than an annoyance.
And devastating as Jesus’ silence must have been for her, his next words—equally hard for us to digest, and seemingly un-Jesus-like—would be crushing, yet expected, “I have not come but to save the lost sheep of Israel,” which is to say, “I have not come for you.”
We ought, I think, to be somewhat puzzled by Jesus’ response here. His actions should, for you, as it did for me, stand out.
He treats her with silence, he refuses her, and then calls her a dog. This woman who in faith reached out to seek help for another.
Our Lenten pilgrimage so far has been shaped by readings that give us a sense of what torments and hazards we will face on our journey to Easter morning, and they have shown us Jesus at work, casting out devils and offering healing—they have shown us the pitfalls and dangers of our pilgrimage, but also show us the answer to them, the salve and medicine—that is, Jesus.
Today is no different, but with the curious—and perhaps difficult—reaction of Jesus to the Canaanite woman. This is not the Jesus we have seen, or that we feel that we know from other parts of the Gospels.
The easiest thing for me to do at this point, to make both a long sermon short, and to give you a take-away for tonight, is to point out that it is the Canaanite woman’s persistence in faith that had the unclean spirit banished, and returned her daughter to health.
Christ as God surely had the foreknowledge of how this event would go for he, “needed not that any should testify of man, for he knew what was in man,” as John tells us in his Gospel, and so his silence is simply about bolstering the Canaanite woman to be persistent, to not give up in prayer and faith until she got what she wanted.
I wouldn’t be lying to you if I ended it all here. But I won’t.
Because what is remarkable about this encounter is not just that the daughter was healed, but what she is brought to through Christ’s silence, and indeed his outright refusal of her.
Christ says to her, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and to cast it to dogs,” which is to say, “what I have, what I offer, is for the Jews; to offer it to Gentiles would be to offer it to dogs.”
And her response to Christ, “Truth, Lord; yet the little dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”
This image might conjure up a cute vision of puppies eating up the toast crumbs from the breakfast table, but the image is in fact quite terrible. It is an image of slavery, of the downtrodden kneeling on the floor waiting for even the possibility of a scrap to drop from their master’s table.
Her response illustrates a profound humility with which she approaches Jesus, but only after facing severe rebuke.
We all know the moments, or perhaps the long periods in our lives, when we, like the Canaanite Woman, have experienced Christ’s silence in the face of our pleas.
We know that in times of great uncertainty and anxiety, when everything we know and everything in which we have put our trust and to which we have given our lives seems to hang in the balance as we wait on Christ to speak, that the temptation to distrust grows in us.
Jesus’ silence before the Canaanite Woman shows us that those periods of anxious silence, of painful and fearful waiting, and of facing the temptation to distrust are given to us to help us distil our wills; to help us to weed out what is our selfish demand, borne of fear, and what is our true longing. This is humility.
The Canaanite woman came to Jesus with a plea, with begging, and maybe even frantic begging. And what parent wouldn’t?
But Jesus’ silence and his harsh words—which were his rebuke—brought her to a point of humility, of knowing, “not my will, Lord, but thine, be done.”
Jesus’ silence was not incidental to this encounter, it was essential to it.
And to learn to live in that silence is to know humility.
Without his silence, without that period of uncertainty and anxiety, the Canaanite woman would not have given up her pleas and her desires and surrendered them to God’s will. She would not have come to know her truest longing.
So it is with us.
We believe that our desires and our longings, our pleas that are borne out of fear are good and just, and that if only we throw them at Christ’s feet and demand mercy, we will get what we want. The woman’s plea was for another, it wasn’t wrong or bad, but humility is knowing that the only way to know our truest longing is to know, “not my will, Lord, but thine.”
As much as we attend to the moments when our hearts are the most filled and our souls the most quickened, so must we attend to Christ’s silence, which is the rebuke of our demands. We must listen to it, live in it, and by it, allow our hearts to know and to utter, “not my will, Lord, but thine.”