21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” 23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” 25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. 26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” 27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
While Jesus and his disciples were Jewish, this woman was not. She and we are cruelly reminded of that fact in this encounter when Jesus refers to ‘dogs’, a disparaging and common slang word used by Jews to refer to Gentiles. In using the word, Jesus seems to be condoning a racist attitude. It is something of a test for the woman which she passes and gets her healing for her daughter. She refuses to be humiliated. She expects more of Jesus than predictable rejection. She gets her miracle, and those who look on in disgust get a sign. The kingdom is opened to everyone, as the healing grace of God is extended in every direction.
In the light of this aspect of a humble but expectant person approaching the throne of grace, Archbishop Cranmer introduced what is called the ‘prayer of humble access’. We are still familiar with the prayer, which begins:
‘We do not presume to come to this your table, merciful Lord’ and contains the words ‘We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under your table, but you are the same Lord, whose nature is always to have mercy’.
This prayer turns the Canaanite woman’s experience Into our experience and reminds us that we, like her, are not automatically recipients of mercy and love. Indeed, we are dirty sinners, who can barely expect even divine scraps of grace. Yet God, in his infinite love and mercy, through Christ’s death and resurrection, offers not scraps but a heavenly banquet to all who approach in humility and penitence.
While we have the assurance of mercy, it is still appropriate to be humble before God. That is why the prayer is so apt, and that is why the story of the Canaanite woman, in which acceptance overrules rejection, is so important to those of us whose spiritual heritage is Gentile in origin.
Jesus Christ, you confound us with your words and actions. We thank you for the privilege of being your people and for the access to the Father that you make possible. By your Spirit, make us humble sharers of your bread for the world until that day when every barrier of race and gender is broken down in your eternal kingdom. Amen