“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” (Matthew 15:27)
Last week, I wrote about a favorite prayer of mine from The Book of Common Prayer called, “The Prayer of Humble Access.” It is found in the service of Holy Communion, Rite I, just after the bread and wine are consecrated and just before the congregation is invited to receive Communion. However, this prayer troubles some people, so as a way of explaining its merits, I referred to the gospel story on which it is based. It is found in the gospel of Matthew, chapter fifteen, verses twenty-one through twenty-eight. (And also in the gospel of Mark.)
In the gospel reading Jesus and his disciples are resting in the region of Tyre and Sidon, which is inhabited mainly by gentiles. They have travelled there after a particularly bitter debate with the Pharisees in Galilee. A Canaanite woman approaches Jesus, asking for help for her daughter who is possessed by a demon. Although a pagan, she addresses Jesus by his rightful title, “Son of David” and gives him the worshipful respect he is due. Jesus responds to her pleas for help by saying, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” (15: 26) Yet, he is not insulting her; in fact, by speaking directly to her, he is showing her the kind of respect which in this culture is due only to a man. He uses the middle-eastern proverb as a way of inviting her to make her case.
And she, not only talented in the art of debate, but also possessing great faith, returns the volley by saying, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their Master’s table.” (15:27) This is a brilliant response; one that acknowledges the truth about her and about God. Notice that she doesn’t argue Jesus’ point about the Jews. She is admitting she has no ground to stand on; she is not a Jew. Therefore, she doesn’t base her argument on merit, for she knows that before God she is unworthy and undeserving. As a Canaanite, there is nothing about her that could justify receiving God’s attention and care. She comes to Jesus presuming nothing, declaring her complete poverty, her utter need for him. She bases her claim solely upon her confidence in the riches of God’s mercy, not in herself. And by doing so, she grasps what true faith is all about.
Jesus acknowledges instantly and with great delight her insight into her true condition before God. He knows she has understood what many of his own kinspeople, even his own disciples, have not; that there is nothing special about any of us upon which we can base a claim for God’s mercy. Our willful disobedience will always outweigh any good that we can do. Apart from God all our actions end up riddled with sin. So neither our religious orthodoxy nor our good works or standing in the community entitle us to receive God’s mercy. We have no ground of our own making upon which to stand.
The truth is that everyone is unworthy of God’s grace. But, this doesn’t mean we are worthless, for indeed we are of supreme value to God. He demonstrates our great worth by sacrificing his only Son for each one of us. But there is nothing we can do, on our own, that would ever make us deserving of such love. It requires true humility to be able to acknowledge before God both our infinite worth, on account of his Son, and our abject poverty, on account of our sin.
The Canaanite woman possessed true humility. Jesus responds to her profound and faithful insight by exclaiming, “Great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” (v. 28) He could only hope that his disciples were listening carefully.
So just like the Canaanite woman we, too, must come before God as paupers, holding out our empty hands before him, staking our hope on the richness of His mercy and not on any claim we think we’ve earned the right to make. And this is what the Prayer of Humble Access sums up so well: “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. (Book of Common Prayer, p. 337)
This prayer is not intended to be demeaning. Instead, it’s meant only to be truthful. It concisely sums up our state of unworthiness due to our sinfulness. But it also reminds us that God will not leave us in such a state nor hold it against us. We are freely given the riches of salvation won for us through Jesus’ death and resurrection. They are ours for the asking. And God reiterates his generosity to us through the gifts of bread and wine, which we receive from his table. They are ours for taking, “so that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us.”
But we must also concern ourselves with how we take from God the gift of his Son given in the bread and wine. Receiving Communion should not be just a habit or an afterthought. We should not approach the Communion table casually or indifferently. Instead, we should come without presumption: honestly, humbly and full of hope in the wideness of God’s mercy. The Prayer of Humble Access can be a great help in centering our hearts and minds on what is truly important: that God will not withhold from us, sinners though we are, that of which we are most in need – his son, Jesus Christ.
Next week: Matthew 16:21-28 – Finding Your True Self
Beginning in three weeks — a new series: Cure for the Soul.
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Thank you, Claudia, for these postings on the Prayer of Humble Access. It is interesting that Rite II doesn’t include this prayer. Unfortunately, many congregations use Rite II more than Rite I, and therefore miss the blessing of praying this prayer.
I have always liked this prayer, but I do even more now that you have explained what was going on between Jesus and the Canaanite woman. The passage in scripture and the prayer during the Eucharist are both treasures.
And the scripture passage additionally shows yet another instance of Jesus breaking the cultural rules to minister to show the truth.
I use this prayer to prepare to receive Communion and like you, Rick, I wish it had been included in Rite II. I guess it was considered too “penitential,” but that’s what I like about it. Thank you for your comment! Claudia
Yes, it seems penitence is not fashionable these days, though it is desperately needed.
I’ve been thinking about how intimately woven are humility and boldness in our dealings with the Lord. And how I want to be stronger in holding that tension intact, like this Canaanite woman…
Claudia, thank you for these sermons. I did try clicking the “pulpit icon”, but unable to listen – even after following instructions to “reload quick-time”. No doubt a user problem – hoping to get it figured out!!
Mary, I’m so sorry you’ve had trouble getting to the sermon. You may want to try going to the website of Church of the Holy Cross: here is the link to their sermon menu — http://holycross-raleigh.org/sermons.html You will have to cut and paste it into your browser, but hopefully this will get you there. Look for the date on which I preached this sermon: 2011-08-14. Thank you so much for your comment! Claudia