In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our gospel reading tells us of Gentile woman with a sick daughter who pleads with Jesus to heal her daughter. The world Jesus lived in, however, was afflicted with many of the same prejudices, divisions, and hatreds as our world is. The vast majority of our memories of Jesus are stories where he is with his own people. There are a few stories where a true outsider intrudes. This morning’s desperate mother is one of those outsiders. Notice that he at first ignores her and does not respond at all, as if she lacked the necessary status to bring to Jesus any request at all. Jesus’ disciples urge him to send her away complaining how bothersome her shouting at them is. They want it to stop. Dismissed and insulted, nevertheless, she persisted.
Jesus doesn’t look good in this story does he not? It is in the Bible, though, because clearly there is something we are to learn from her. Jesus explains to her that his ministry is first of all to the Jews and later it will spill-over to Gentiles like her. She can wait. Likely with her ill daughter in mind, this woman will not wait. She gets on her knees and begs for help. He, likely giving voice to what his disciples around him were thinking, says out loud, “it would not be right to give the food intended for the children of Israel to the dogs.” How very insulting! She had probably heard that kind of dehumanizing insult before and here it is from Jesus no less. (And after his big speech insisting that it is what comes out of the heart that defiles. Maybe Jesus should listen to himself?).
Is she done persisting? No, not her. When confronted with an attitude of Jesus that appears near bigotry, She does not defend herself. She does not say, “I am as much a human being as any Jew!” (She would have been right!). Still kneeling she says, “Lord even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” What a disarming answer! Jesus praises her saying, “Woman great is your faith!” We’re not told anythign about the disciples who wanted her chased away like a dog, but they likely stood there ashamed. Jesus grants her request and heals her daughter, Gentile and all.
She is held up in Scripture as a forerunner of what would become the Gentile church, or what we call Christianity. It is a hard story for us to hear though, because of what looks to us like embracing humiliation. It seems to push in the opposite direction of much of how we are taught to look at ourselves and how to look out for ourselves.
One of the extraordinary things about our time is the enormous pressure put upon everybody to market themselves, that is, to manage how they are perceived by the world by promoting a certain image of themselves, and maybe defend against would-be critics. Children in middle school often already have Facebook pages where they are curating pictures of themselves and their activities, presenting themselves as happy, successful, and attractive. Our media age has made it possible in a way to place an image between you and the person looking at you. That is so powerful. It used to he that to be a professional at anything was just about have a skill that people were willing to pay for. Now part of professional life is making yourself a brand. Some of the most successful professionals these days are not necessarily the best at what they do. What they are particularly good at is managing their brand, with all sorts of social media pages devoted to promoting themselves, or, more specifically, a certain image of themselves. It is time consuming and it can be all consuming. There are people now who are only a brand. That is all they do.
The Gentile woman in today’s Gospel has no brand, she’s not managing an image when she says, “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” I don’t think her example is one that says not to engage in social media managing a certain image, but it does mean that there really does need to be somewhere where, like her, you are you, the real you, the unmanaged you, the you not burdened by the pressures of self-presentation and self-preservation. It certainly means that that you is to the one to bring to Jesus who has no interest in our brand or image and sees through all of that anyway.
You longtime Episcopalians probably noticed that the words of this Gentile woman show up in our Book of Common Prayer uncredited to her. There is prayer technically named, “The Prayer of Humble Access.” It appeared in the very first Book of Common Prayer in 1549 and in every one since then. It is what was to be said prior to the reception of communion. In the Rite I version of our liturgy it goes like this: “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.” The instructions are that it is to be said kneeling just like the Gentile woman.
Some of you may have noticed, that there is a difference between our prayer and hers. Our prayer says that we are “not worthy of the crumbs”, while hers insists that she was worthy. Why it is that way is that the framers of the Prayer Book did not want us too easily to assume that we are worthy of making her words our own, as if too easily or too cheaply we assume that we are her equals. Nearly 500 years of prayer books have assumed that we kneel next to her saying we are not even worthy of that, but Lord grant our request anyway just like you did hers.
This determined humble woman anticipated the great Christians of the following centuries. Her confident humility exposes the empty posturing that is too common in our media age. She is such a contrast to every adult playground bully that seeks to appear powerful but in the larger scheme of things amounts to nothing. This sort of proud arrogance wants to be admired for always defending itself. People puff up like balloons, but each balloon in fact grows weaker the more air that goes into it. If we live this way, it is difficult for us to be vulnerable to God or to other people or to have any confident security that is larger than ourselves. In bringing before us this woman to be our example, Scripture wants to move us away from an empty presumption that is all bark, that is all style but no substance.
Scripture wants to move us toward her strange confidence that is real; it has substance and not only style. It challenges us to have such confidence in God that we are free to no longer conceal our weaknesses. It is that that allows us to own fully our faults, failures, and finitude as creatures, and to find the fullness of life without continually hiding who we are through image management. It makes available to us a true closeness, togetherness, or solidarity, because we are only really loved when we are known and loved as we truly are and not just as who we present ourselves to be. In short, our Gospel reading exposes the superficial selves our culture promotes and offers instead a daring vulnerability that is most human and most Christian.
As Christians we come to God not as members of the Jewish people that he brought out of Egypt and made promises to, we come to God as this Gentile woman did. She foreshadows the Gentile Church, and even when others are saying, “send her away,” she maintains her great faith. In this non-defensive faith, she is loved by Jesus. May we have her confident humility so that we can be free not to be always defending ourselves. May we be as vulnerable to Christ as she was and find the strength that is found in weakness, so that our Lord Jesus Christ may approve of our faith as his did that of the Gentile woman. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Paul R. Kolbet