The Prophecy of Isaiah is rightly called the Fifth Gospel. More than any other text in the Jewish Scriptures, the Old Testament, we see presented the Messianic hope, a hope fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Through his prophet God tells his people to maintain justice, to do the right thing for the right reasons, that salvation is coming, and that right soon. The promise and the hope is not just for Israel, but for anyone who joins themselves to the Lord, who love His Name, and keep His sabbath. God further declares that ‘His House shall be called a House of prayer for all peoples’ words which Jesus will use when cleanses the Temple of its money-changers. God is one who gathers the outcasts and more besides.
The Apostle Paul was born a Jew, trained in the law, a pharisee of the school of Hillel, who knows God to be faithful, but whose life’s work was to proclaim the Good News of God’s Kingdom to Gentiles, to non-Jews, as God is merciful to all, He loves everyone, and longs to see us reconciled to Him, and each other.
This morning’s Gospel shows us a woman in need. Her daughter is seriously unwell, she’s desperate. She turns to Jesus and begs Him, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ She is respectful, and polite, but Jesus ignores her. Then the disciples urge Him to send her away, she’s a pain, she’s a Caananite, a Syro-Phoenecian, a foreigner, she’s not one of us. Jesus answers the woman, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ And up to this point Jesus’ ministry has focussed on Jews, and would seem to be exclusive to them. She comes and kneels before Jesus, she is completely dependant upon Him. All she can do is to cry out, ‘Lord, help me.’ And even then Jesus replies, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ His words sound harsh, rude and xenophobic, but for a first century Jew they were not strange at all, they were normal, they were expected of the Chosen People, who had forgotten the words of Isaiah. The woman, however, is not put off, she is persistent, and she uses Jesus’ words against Him: ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ She demonstrates complete trust in God, and her attitude is one of worship. And so ‘Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.’ In an instant it is all sorted out. Such is the power of FAITH.
Jesus Christ was never afraid to court controversy, or to challenge a religious hierarchy. Generally speaking it’s the Pharisees who tend to get both barrels so to speak. Jesus has a problem with hypocrisy: when what we say and what we do don’t match up. The Pharisees are so concerned with outward conformity to the letter of the Law of Moses that they have forgotten what the spirit is. While they stress the need for outward purity in terms of hand-washing, they need to remember that what is far worse is how what people think and say and do affects who and what they are. In their rigid outward conformity they have forgotten that at a fundamental level the Law of Moses needs affect our lives and to be lived out in them.
It is a great challenge to each and every one of us to live up to this. It is both simple and difficult, and something which we all need to do together, as a community, so that we can support each other, and help each other to live out our faith in our lives. Otherwise we are the blind leading the blind, valuing outward conformity over the conversion of the soul, more concerned with appearance than reality and making a mockery of God and religion. It is an easy trap into which we can and do fall, so let us be vigilant and encourage each other not to fall into it, and to help each other out when we do.
The healing of the daughter of the Syro-Phoenecian woman can appear to be troubling at first: the Kingdom which Jesus comes to inaugurate is meant to be a place of healing, so its initial absence is troubling. The disciples can only see the woman as a troublesome annoyance, she’s making a fuss. The reward for her faith and tenacity is God’s healing. She shows more love, more care than the people of Israel. And through her the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled. We look to her example as a forerunner in the faith and like her we pray:
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 our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.
Like the woman in the Gospel we need God’s merciful love to be poured out upon us, we long for healing, and we do so through the Eucharist, the Sacrament of Our Lord’s Body and Blood. Like her we need to recognise that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of David, and that while we are not worthy, nonetheless God loves us and heals us. We are healed by the wounds of Christ on the Cross at Calvary, where His Body is broken and His Blood is shed for us, for you and me.
We are fed so that we might be healed, to strengthen us to live out our faith together, not in outward conformity, keeping up appearances, for the sake of propriety, but so that we can be healed, and helped to live out our faith together. That filled with joy we might share our faith with others, so that they too may come to believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to who whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever.
‘God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us’
Hyperichius said, ‘The tree of life is high, and humility climbs it.’
He also said, ‘Imitate the tax-collector, to prevent yourself being condemned with the Pharisee. Follow the gentleness of Moses, and hollow out the rocky places of your heart, so that you turn them into springs of water.’
People can be strange, stubborn infuriating creatures, and the picture given to us of the Israelites in Exodus should strike something of a chord. We can recognise something of ourselves in it: stubborn, wilful, and sinful. But lest we get too disheartened it is important to recognise that Moses strikes the rock at Horeb, as the Lord commands him, and out flows water. This water, like the parted water of the Red Sea prefigures Christ, the living water, our baptism, through which we enter the Church. Through it we are regenerate, born again to eternal life in Christ Jesus, our Lord and Saviour, whose side was pierced on Calvary, and whence flowed blood and water. This water speaks to us of the grace of God poured out upon us, his people, to heal us and restore us, to help us live his risen life.
So as we continue our Lenten pilgrimage, we can do so joyfully because God’s love has been poured into our hearts – what matters is what has been done to us, by God, out of love, so that we can be like him. He is the reconciliation which achieves what we cannot: restoring our relationship with God and each other, healing our wounds, and giving us eternal life in Him.
Picture the scene – it’s the middle of the day, the sun is blazing overhead, he’s been walking for hours, days even. Jesus is tired – as a man, a human being, he is no different from you or me – he ate and drank, he was thirsty, and he was knackered. Mid-day is certainly no time to be drawing water from a well – it’s something you do first thing in the morning, as the sun is rising. What sort of a woman is drawing water at mid-day? Hardly a respectable one, but rather someone shunned, someone beyond the pale, cast out of polite society as an adulteress who is living in sin. Jesus asks the woman for a drink – he’s defying a social convention – he’s breaking the rules. She’s really surprised – Jews are supposed to treat Samaritans as outcasts, they’re beyond the pale: they’re treated something like the Roma in Eastern Europe – outcasts, second class, scum, to be despised and looked down upon. And yet Jesus asks her for water, he initiates the conversation and the encounter, with an outsider, to bring her in.
Jesus offers her living water, so that she may never be thirsty again. The woman desires it, so that she will never be thirsty again, or have to come to the well to draw water, she’s fed up of the work, and fed up of being an outcast, and having to do it at antisocial hours when the community can see who and what she is. Jesus knows who and what she is – he recognises her irregular lifestyle. He also sees her need of God – her need for the water of grace to restore her soul, and inspire her to tell people the Good News. Her testimony is powerful because she has experienced God’s love as a living reality and she simply has to tell people about it. She brings them to Christ so that they can be nourished, so that they too can experience the grace of God.
People are interested in who and what Jesus is, what he’s got to say, and they believe and trust in Him as the Messiah the Anointed of God, as the Saviour of the World, a title recently taken up by the Roman Emperor, big claims to make, and dangerous ones, which along with His healings will soon lead to His condemnation and death. In plenty of parts of the world the proclamation of the Good News still leads to imprisonment, torture and death, even today. And yet as Christians we are called to bear witness regardless of the personal cost, so that the world may believe. Here in the West we have as a church become comfortable, we forget about persecution, or view it at a safe distance. We’re not involved, it doesn’t matter that much to us. Are we far from the grace of our baptism, have we not encountered Jesus in Word and Sacrament? Are we too afraid of the World? The world which Christ overcomes on the Cross.
To live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often. If we are changing into Jesus Christ, then we’re on the right track. If we listen to his word; if we talk to him in prayer and let him talk to us; if we’re fed by Him in the Eucharist, by Christ both priest and victim, to become what He is – God; if we’re forgiven by Him, through making confession of our sins, not only do we come to understand Jesus, we become like him, we come to share in his divine nature, you, me, all of humanity ideally. We, the People of God, the new humanity, enter into the divine fullness of life, we have a foretaste of the heavenly banquet.
Lent should be something of a spiritual spring clean, asking God to drive out all that should not be there, preparing for the joy of Easter, to live the Risen Life, filled with God’s grace. In our baptism we died with Christ and were raised to new life in the Spirit. Let us prepare to live that life, holding fast to Our Lord and Saviour, clinging to the teachings of his body, the Church. Let us turn away from the folly of this world, the hot air, and focus on the true and everlasting joy of heaven, which awaits us, who are bought by his blood, washed in it, fed with it. So that we too may praise the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever…
Two works of mercy set a man free: forgive and you will be forgiven, and give and you will receive.
When you pray we are all beggars before God: we stand before the great householder bowed down and weeping, hoping to be given something, and that something is God himself.
What does a poor man beg of you? Bread. What do you beg from God? – Christ, who said, ‘I am the living bread which came down from heaven’.
Do you you really want to be forgiven? Then forgive. Do you want to receive something? Then give to another. And if you want your prayer to fly up to God, give it two wings, fasting and almsgiving.
But look carefully at what you do: don’t think it is enough to fast if it is only a penance for sin, and does not benefit someone else. You deprive yourself of something, but to whom do you give what you do without?
Fast in such a way that you rejoice to see that dinner is eaten by another; not grumbling and looking gloomy, giving rather because the beggar wearies you than because you are feeding the hungry.
If you are sad when you give alms, you lose both bread and merit, because ‘God loves a cheerful giver’.