Prayer of Humble Access, part one

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)

Christ and the Canaanite woman , REMBRANDT, c. 1650

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.

About Claudia Dickson Greggs

I am an Anglican priest, author, wife and mother. Writing and teaching about Christian life and faith are passions of mine.
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6 Responses to Prayer of Humble Access, part one

  1. Siri says:

    I am so glad I could access this post much more easily this morning. I have feared it was my computer, but if you have changed some setting, thank you!
    I have never heard this story explained as Jesus showing respect to this woman by engaging her in a witty debate. That puts the story in a whole different light (and reminds me of your discussion of God welcoming Abraham’s feistiness).
    We had a Ghanian exchange student last year and I could see aspects of Biblical culture in the Ghanian ways she shared with us. For example, she often spoke in proverbs, so I can see Jesus opening a dialogue by engaging the Canaanite woman this way. For me, it’s a whole new way to think about this passage — thank you!

    • Siri, What a delight to hear from you! I’m sorry it’s been difficult to access my posts. Usually when they are emailed to subscribers I’ve included only the first few paragraphs and then there appears the phrase, Read more of this post in light blue print at the bottom of the email (just above the words, “Add a comment to this post”, also in light blue). If you click on that phrase you will be automatically connected to my blog. Sometimes (like today) I forget to insert the program in my post which will only offer the first few paragraphs to email subscribers. When that happens, the entire post is sent via email. While that would save you having to click “Read more of this post,” it messes up the blog and no comments are allowed on previous posts. (There is a very good technical explanation for this, but I can’t remember the specifics — I only remember the consequences!) You may recall over a year ago when you couldn’t make comments — this is what I discovered.

      Sorry for that long explanation, but thank you for your wonderful observation about feistiness! I think what God appreciates about “fiestiness” is that the person is presenting him or herself — and their need — as he or she “is” — not as they think they “should” be. It’s when we are authentic, honest, that God can work with us and transform us. When we pretend, he has to wait for the “real” self to show up. C. S. Lewis once said “we must bring to God who we are, not who we think we should be.” Thanks again! Claudia

      • Rick says:

        I saw that that link wasn’t there, Claudia. It messes up comments, eh? It was so much easier when Jesus just pushed offshore in a boat and spoke loudly and clearly. Sigh. LOL!

  2. Rick says:

    Thanks for this posting, Claudia. I don’t remember what I may have heard in the past about this passage, but I agree with Siri that understanding it the way you have explained it makes a lot of sense. I don’t think I ever saw Jesus’ response to her as Him being harsh or rejecting her. I guess I have always thought of it as a test of the woman, seeing the outcome of it. Her respect for Him, and recognition of her status compared to Him is something that more of us need to exhibit more of the time. And her persistence was rewarded, as ours will also be.

    • Thank you, Rick. I really like what you said about the Canaanite woman’s persistence. Isn’t that the attitude Jesus was recommending in Luke 11:9-10 (ask, seek, knock) and 18: 1-8 (the parable about the widow and the judge)? Claudia

  3. Rick says:

    Yes, it was. Being ourselves and being persistent are two key attitudes to have. Also gratitude.

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