God's Word for today

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Communion and the "Prayer of Humble Access"

This morning I had the privilege of conducting the service at the Sunnyside Retirement Village, which is situated a couple of kilometres north of the Prestbury Methodist Church in Pietermaritzburg.  My message, based on Matthew 15: 21-28, focused on the faith and persistence of the Canaanite woman whose daughter was demon-possessed.

However, the part of this passage that really struck me was when Jesus responded to the woman with the statement that He could "not take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs".  Bible commentators usually take these words to mean that the salvation that the Canaanite woman was seeking from Jesus for her daugher was something that was reserved for Israel.  Since Matthew's Gospel is written for a Jewish audience, portraying Jesus as the Messiah that was long-awaited by the Israelites, much of what Matthew has written focuses on Jesus' plan of redemption for the Jews.

My first thought was that Matthew was therefore putting words in Jesus' mouth, since surely our Lord would not have referred to a woman who not only displayed great faith but also desperate need, as a "dog"?  To be quite honest, if I was faced with that kind of response, I would have probably told Jesus to shove it!

But I sometimes wonder if Jesus was in fact trying to prove something here by making this statement, just as we are able to say certain things to certain people because they will (a) know where we are coming from and will take it, or (b) see the greater scheme of things and take it, or (c) understand the point we are trying to prove and will take it, or (d) all of the above.  For instance, did our Lord know or suspect that the Samaritan woman would respond in the way she did?  I believe that He did - and, in fact, the "greater scheme of things" was that He was about to blow Israel's whole "chosen nation" notion (for which they had become arrogant) completely apart by revealing His salvation plan for all of humankind - including the Gentiles.

The other interesting thing that stands out is that the woman responded to Jesus' "dogs" comment by stating that "even the dogs are entitled to the scraps from under the table".  Her faith was so strong that she knew that even the tiniest morsel she could get from Jesus would be enough to heal her daughter.  I must confess that I would want what I perceive to be "the best" from Jesus, but for this women, even that which was considered "the least" would be nore than sufficient.  That is why I believe that Jesus commended her faith and granted her request.

But further to this is the woman's certainty that there was something falling from the Lord's Table that even the lowest of the low was entitled to.  Throughout the history of the Israelites, the Law stated that there must always be something left behind during harvest so that the poorest of the poor could glean something, no matter how small.  If the Law was followed, the poor may well have little, but no-one would go without.  This must have been a well-known principle, since even a Samaritan woman knew that even those from the lowest echelons of society would never go away completely empty-handed.  But instead of being forced to grovel under the table for scraps, our Lord, in granting her request, effectively created a place for her at the table as an honoured guest.

Which brings me to the "Prayer of Humble Access" that we use in the standard Communion liturgy.  The one that goes, "Lord, we come to Your Table, trusting in Your mercy, and not in any goodness of our own".  But the part that gets me is where we say that "[w]e are not worthy even to gather up the crumbs from under your table".  If I'm reading the account of the Samaritan woman correctly, being able to gather the crumbs from under the table is the one level of dignity that is granted to all.  The "mercy on which we depend", as mentioned in the next line of the prayer, is the mercy that Jesus grants, not to gather the crumbs, but in fact to be able to join Him at the table, seated, like guests.

While I'm not for one minute suggesting that, when we approach the Lord's Table, we should be arrogant concerning our place at the table.  Such arrogance would without a doubt be an example of an "unworthy manner" that the apostle Paul warns us against in 1 Corinthians 11: 27.  And I have no doubt that our approach to the Lord's Table should be one of humility and thankfulness.  But I'm not sure that the idea of coming to the table on our bellies, unworthy even to partake of the scraps, is a healthy one.

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