We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 337)
The “Prayer of Humble Access” is the name given to a prayer found in the Book of Common Prayer just after the bread and wine are consecrated and just before the congregation is invited to receive Communion. I find it very moving and I often recite it to myself as I prepare to receive Communion. However, some people find this prayer odd or even demeaning. It begins 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…”
Now, most people have no problem with those words. It’s the next phrase that some find troubling: “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.” These words are taken from a passage found in the gospel of Matthew, chapter fifteen, verses twenty-one through twenty-eight. (It is also found in the gospel of Mark.) The best way to consider the merits of this prayer is to turn first to this story upon which it is based, where we are offered an opportunity to discover that on our own, without Jesus, we are merely beggars, but with him and through him we are all truly made rich.
The passage begins as Jesus is entering the district of Tyre and Sidon, coastal cities in present day Lebanon. This is Gentile country; Jews do not live here in great numbers. Yet Jesus withdraws to this area after a particularly bitter debate with the Pharisees in the region of Galilee. His time of quiet rest with his disciples is disturbed when a woman approaches with an urgent request. However, this is no ordinary woman for the text informs us that she is a Canaanite, a member of a group of people who were thought to be particularly iniquitous, totally undeserving of receiving any attention from the God of Israel. Furthermore, as a Canaanite, she is considered ritually impure. Faithful Jews are to avoid such people at all costs.
There can be no doubt that she is aware of her status among Jews. However, her need is so pressing that she dares to approach Jesus. She cries out to him and his disciples, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.” (Matthew 15:22)
What is extraordinary is that this woman, who is not Jewish, and who is despised by Jews, addresses Jesus by his rightful title, “Son of David.” Not even his own disciples have addressed him this way. In fact, Peter won’t make his famous assertion about Jesus being the Christ, the Son of the living God until sometime after this encounter. (See Matthew 16:13-20) Yet, despite her pleas, scripture tells us that Jesus “did not answer her a word.” (15: 23) But we should not assume that Jesus is cold-hearted; he is simply waiting to see what will unfold. Like a Japanese tea ceremony, this encounter will reveal something very significant about the character of this woman and we will come to see that she should be admired, not despised.
The disciples, though, are growing impatient. They are tired of listening to her pleas for help and they want Jesus to send her away. Yet, even though he responds to them by saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” ( 15:24), he does not send her away.
The Canaanite woman seizes the moment and falls prostrate before him, which is a far better translation than is found in most Bibles, which prefer to say that she “knelt” before him.” The word in Greek refers to adoration or worship, which does involve kneeling, but it also involves doing obeisance, which is the appropriate thing to do when addressing the Son of God. This Canaanite woman is giving Jesus the respect he deserves, which many of his own countrymen have failed to give.
She then begs of him, “Lord help me.” (15:25) Jesus responds to her plea by reminding her of a well-known middle-eastern proverb: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” (15: 26) It is important to note that Jesus is not insulting her. Instead, he uses the proverb as a means to open up the conversation, not to shut it down and dismiss her.
Anyone who understands the fine art of debate in middle-eastern culture, which is filled with calculated give and take and great wit, can appreciate that Jesus is actually engaging the woman in a discussion. Yet, as a rabbi, he shouldn’t even be making eye contact with her, let alone addressing her directly. But Jesus shows her great respect by speaking to her as he would a man. So by entering into conversation with her he elevates her status considerably. He is giving her an opportunity to make her case. The ball is now in the Canaanite woman’s court.
Next week: The conclusion to Prayer of Humble Access.