The Second Sunday in Lent


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Almighty God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves…
1 Thessalonians 4:1-8
Matthew 15:21-28

We know that Jesus was without sin but did he initially make a mistake when he refused to help the woman of Canaan whose daughter was possessed by an evil spirit or was he simply testing her? His response is as churlish as hers is deft: she pleaded with him, acknowledging that he was the “Son of David” but he said nothing; his disciples would send her away but, after proclaiming that he was sent to minister to the lost, he still refused, even though she had worshipped him, likening her to a little dog; but she persisted, saying that even dogs were allowed to eat crumbs from the master’s table. He praised her faith, relented, and cured her daughter. If he was mistaken, he soon corrected himself; if he was testing her, she passed with flying colours.

It is not sinful to be wrong and if we concede that Jesus was, it allows us to see him in a different and more human light, more like us. The story is heightened in its meaning by the fact that the woman was asking nothing for herself but only for her daughter who apparently had no control over what was happening. The Collect takes up the idea of the helplessness of the daughter by pointing out that we can do nothing for ourselves and it then goes on to draw an antithesis between the body and the soul but Paul, who is always, in theory at least, deeply antagonistic to dualism, fuses the sanctity of the body and our spiritual health by saying that the one is the vessel which is the home of the other. The evil spirit does not uniquely inhabit the soul nor ravage the body; by doing the first it does the second. We often only know how afflicted we are spiritually when we examine our physical behaviour.

Interestingly, Paul cites the Gentiles as egregiously immoral even though Matthew is clear that the Gentile daughter was blameless. At one level the war between good and evil is almost separate from what we do: the Collect emphasises our powerlessness and the Gospel portrays Jesus as the channel of God’s power to heal; but at another level the Epistle is clear that we know the Commandments and we have the means, through God’s grace, of making moral decisions. The imagery of the vessel is at the very least subliminally sexual and, typical of Paul, sub-consciously specific to the female who is the vessel, as opposed to the penetrator, in the act of fornication. We need to be clear that such bias as there is is corrected in our understanding. The notion of the female temptress and the male victim is at once glib and hopelessly biased.

What might it mean for somebody to be possessed by an evil spirit? It seems to denote the victim’s complete inability to take moral decisions. The person is inhabited and paralysed; and the cure is not to reverse the position by making the person sacredly inhabited and paralysed in the opposite extreme by being incapable of making moral decisions. The opposite of being paralysed is being freed to exercise the will. We may all be inhabited by sin which paralyses our moral decision-making; we may frantically lust after another person; but almost always we emerge wounded and exhausted. Following the Collect’s general view, we may then recognise our sinfulness and pray for God’s forgiveness but Paul more dramatically speaks of vengeance.

The ideas of human weakness and God’s mercy on the one hand and God’s vengeance on the other, are very difficult to reconcile. It is as if Paul is wrestling with his traditional Jewish upbringing and his Christological perception. As the Bible is indivisible we are left with the same problem but we must surely give precedence to the New Covenant over the Old. The Crucifixion and Resurrection, however we understand the ‘mechanics’ of atonement, radically alter the relationship between God and his people. If it does not, there is no point being a Christian.

At a more mundane level it is easy to see how our bodies can be an obstacle to rather than a channel for the reception of God’s Word. An obsession with earthly pleasure—or, in a different way, our fall into addiction—blind us to the purpose of creation, that we were made to love God freely and to thank him for his creation by enjoying it in the way he wishes. We must, however, remember at this point that it is equally sinful to dismiss the physical world, and not least our own bodies, as intrinsically harmful or even wicked.

Because we were created not only as sexual beings but also as sexually competitive, with our urge to perpetuate our race only surpassed by our need to eat regularly, it is easy both to dismiss and to exaggerate the significance of concupiscence which, at the lowest level, trivialises sexual relations but which, at its worst, wrecks lives. It is an area of moral life where, without knowing the motives and resources of the people concerned, we are apt to generalise and judge. We might also note that, nested in Paul’s customary tirade against sexual sin, there is a reference to fraud. If we paid as much attention to that as to the sex lives of our neighbours, the world would be an unrecognisably better place.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. Did Jesus make a mistake when he initially rejected the woman of Canaan?
  2. How do you understand the concept of being inhabited by an evil spirit?
  3. How do you reconcile our dependence on the mercy of God with the idea of God’s vengeance?
  4. Can you reconcile our belief that we were created to love with our biological disposition to compete?
  5. Why are we so much more exercised about sexual rather than financial immorality?

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