A Sermon by Rev. Julian Duckworth
Jesus said to her, It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs. She said, True, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their master’s table. Then Jesus answered and said, O woman, great is your faith! (Matthew 15:26-28)
A spiritual affection is not acquired by faith alone, that is, faith without charity, for such a faith is only something to be thought about without any activity in life. Such a faith is separate from the love that makes a person’s life, and after death it evaporates like a puff of air. A spiritual affection, on the other hand, is acquired by shunning evils because they are sins, and this is done by fighting against them. The evils to be shunned are all those in the ten commandments. So far as anyone fights against these because they are sins, so far he gains a spiritual affection. For through this combat the things that possess a person’s loves and will are dissipated and his spiritual mind is opened, and the Lord enters through this into his mind and life. It is to these and to none others that the Lord can grant to love Him above all things and their neighbour as themselves. If anyone, by fighting against evils because they are sins, acquires something of spiritual life, even though it is very little, he is saved, and his use afterwards increases, like a mustard seed growing into a tree. (Divine Love XVII)
I wonder if you enjoy playing Scrabble. If you do, you will know that what can often decide a game – and win it in fact – is to know some of those little two and three-letter words that you slip in near the end. Well, linked with the sermon, I am going to give you two to use next time. They are both little words and, significantly, they both have something to do with littleness because we are going to think about the value of crumbs in the sermon.
It is quite amazing how something very little becomes something of huge importance in the Bible. A grain of mustard seed grows into a big tree. And Jesus took a little child and likened him to heaven. One time, the disciples were troubled about which one of them was going to betray Him, and Jesus said, It is the one to whom I give the sop – there is your first word – and He dipped the sop in the communal bowl and gave it to Judas. This word sop means a morsel, but more accurately it means the choicest morsel, the best bit of the food, which in ancient hospitality was given to the most honoured guest at the table. I will leave you to ponder Jesus giving that to Judas!
The second word, in Scrabble terms, is a clincher. It is the little word pyx – P Y X. It means a tiny box but a very special one in which the sacrament bread is kept clean and dry for use. The amount of bread it contains is minute – a crumb, a wafer – but enough to serve the purpose of the Holy Supper with someone who is sick in hospital or at home. It brings the Lord’s presence and love to them. This word pyx is slightly changed from the original which was psyx in Biblical Greek, which literally meant a crumb or the left-overs. When you clear away the dinner dishes and wipe the bits off the plate you are dealing with the psyx.
Now, I want you to notice one more thing of huge importance before we get on with the story. The word for spirit and life in Biblical Greek is psuche. We meet it in the word psychology, and the Greeks had a legend about a beautiful girl called Psyche who was so utterly beautiful that nobody dared to court her. She is that spirit in us from the Lord which is meant to be wooed and loved and finally claimed. Psyche – psuche. What I want you to hold onto is the closeness of these two words – psyx, the crumb, and psuche, spiritual life. Something so small it is trivial, and something so big it is the whole reason for our existence. A scrap of something may almost not exist but if it isn’t there in some shape or form, nothing else will come forth. From time to time, it rains. And the rain brings us water and makes the plants grow. The gentle rain from heaven. But if the atmosphere did not contain myriads of infinitesimally small particles of dust there would be no rain. The water vapour needs an anchor around which to form itself. Let me give it to you more doctrinally: If anyone, by fighting against evils because they are sins, acquires something of spiritual life, even though it is very little, he is saved, and his use afterwards increases, like a mustard seed growing into a tree.
Jesus was encountered by an adamant woman whose daughter was possessed. But Jesus was out of Israel and in a neighbouring country whose people were not only looked down on by the Jews but they were known for their belligerency. The woman was a Syro-Phoenecian. Perhaps we should think of her as a Palestinian. And she came to Jesus, pleading for her daughter, “Have mercy on me, O Lord!”. What follows seems terrible until you come to the climax of the story. First of all Jesus appears to ignore her completely and doesn’t say a single word. How could He not! Then the disciples begged Jesus to send her away because she keeps crying out and being a nuisance. How could they be so heartless! And then Jesus finally speaks and says – to her – I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Inference – you are not one of them so go away and leave us alone. It looks like a stinging rebuke. Then the woman almost breaks down. She came and worshipped Him and said, very poignantly, “Lord, help me!”
Now, you would expect Jesus to melt at such words, and be filled with compassion for this desperate woman and to take her by the hand and deal with her predicament. But the furore carries on and only seems to worsen. He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” That is adding insult to injury. These little dogs Jesus mentions were not the lap dogs of the luxuriously rich, were not the Pekinese or poodles you would probably have given that sop to from off your plate. These were the strays who hung around the street vendors and the garbage heaps, the dogs who snatched and snarled and slunk away. Jesus is calling her that? After a string of contemptible rebukes and rebuttals? Has He no heart? Imagine being there yourself and witnessing the incident. And if you had then, in shock, turned away and gone, shaking your head in disbelief, you would have missed the point.
The woman stands her ground and throws words back in Jesus’ face. “True, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.” There is no answer to that claim. She has justified her right. She displays the faith that it takes to bring about the change. “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that instant.
I don’t believe for a moment that Jesus was finally swung round from contempt to compassion. The Lord just doesn’t change and He certainly is not capable of this kind of apparent discrimination and writing off with anyone. His single endeavour is to bring each of us into heaven, but into the real heaven, the genuine heavenly state, not the heaven we sometimes imagine it is or fancy we’re already part of. Biblical incidents are never ever about irritations and indifference as if God acts like someone who’s annoyed. You may – I may – He doesn’t. But He might seem to – to you and me – for the end He has in view for us. This is an appearance of how He seems to be. Perhaps we should think of it as a kind of necessary Divine tactic or technique. It is being done for the woman, not for Jesus’ busy schedule or inconvenience. It is all being done for that woman – that desperate mother pleading for the welfare of her own daughter. She herself had to come to the point of discovery of her total right to be included in salvation and her faith that this Lord can and will and must do it for her. And put all that into words for which there is no answer because it is finally true. I have the right to the crumbs. I too am part of your distribution. So do not count me out. Include me. I will not be bypassed.
Is it so unthinkable for us to stand up to God like that and to stake our claim in Him? I don’t think it is at all and in fact I think the Lord wants and needs us to have this sense of urgency about our eternal state. We should rather fear the prospect of missing out on heaven because we’ve always put it off. The Lord can work well with the adamant while He can do very little with the apathetic. The crunch is in those crumbs. Small fragments of what has been substantial food. Small moments in our life when we did not retaliate or harm someone because that is a sin, that is against a deeper goodness. Small moments when we didn’t throw it all in and despair because that is another sin that denies hope and will and we realise the futility of hating our life and being unhappy in our soul. So we don’t. We refuse and we hang in and we hang on, even if we don’t understand very much. Because to throw it away is a sin against this God whom we don’t understand much about and wrestle over with the sadnesses we see in peoples’ lives. And that is faith which sees something in spite of everything and stands its ground over the crumbs. And God must test and deepen our faith and bring it to maturity, so that, like this woman, our faith is more real than the kind of God we seem to be up against! So that our own faith is more real than God Himself appears to be like! And then God can begin. If anyone, by fighting against evils because they are sins, acquires something of spiritual life, even though it is very little, he is saved, and his use afterwards increases, like a mustard seed growing into a tree. Truly I say to you, If you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, Move from here to there, and it will move – and nothing shall be impossible for you.
None of us can claim to know the ways in which the Lord works in human lives. None of us can claim to be good in ourselves. None of us can claim salvation without any of the serious work it involves. None of us can claim to be admitted into heaven by our merits or by our entry passes. But all of us can claim the right and stand our ground to be included in the final purpose. And if we can ever justify that claim, in humble crumbs, it is all the Lord ever needs to hear. And psyx can become the psuche of eternal life.