The lessons for the Second Sunday in Lent focus both on the faith through which we come to Jesus and the holiness required of those who come to Jesus in faith.
In the first century, Jewish people who were religious didn’t like Gentiles. The Gentiles were not a part of God’s people. They were seen as the enemy because the Gentile Romans were a barrier to Jewish independence and Gentile idolatry was an offense to God. Thus, it is remarkable that Jesus, after a brief encounter in the gospel (Matthew 15:21f) not only accepted the Woman of Canaan, but also identified her as a woman of “mega-faith.” To be sure, Jesus had already accepted and praised the pious Gentile centurion (Matthew 8:5f.). But the woman of Canaan was not pious.
The woman’s daughter was demon possessed, or at least demon harassed. We are not told how she fell into this state, but those who end up demonized have been in places they should not be doing things they should not do. This woman’s daughter opened her life in some sort of “faith” to the forces that bound her. Now, the woman turned in faith to Israel’s Messiah.
The disciples didn’t hate this woman. They merely saw her as having no value–“send her away for she crieth after us.” She was, in their minds, already destined, by race, affliction and gender to fall on the wrong side of the great judgment. Three strikes and your out!
Because of her unacceptable condition, this woman is one of the clearest examples of justification by faith in the New Testament. She had no family background, religious works or attractive appearance by which she might attempt to curry favor with the Lord. She only had faith–great faith–and that was enough.
This is the overarching point of the liturgy. We approach God as those who have “sinned in thought, word and deed,” “not trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercy,” not worthy even“to gather up the crumbs rom under thy table.” It is possible for the beauty and poetry of the prayer book to betray us here just a bit. For it may be hard to fully embrace our unworthiness when we sound so good confessing it!
Nonetheless, the liturgy teaches us that our family pedigree, our fine reputation, our success in the world, our money and our good looks do not matter to God. The things the world says we must have or pursue do not advance us one step towards the kingdom. In fact, they may keep us from the kingdom, for they may become idols that take the place of God.
That is why we are most likely to hear the good news when our lives are shaken in some way. When our child is ill or we find ourselves in some sort of need; when a tsunami destroys a city or a nuclear plant begins to melt down; or during the second week of Lent when the fast, quite far from building spiritual strength, has begun to reveal to us just how weak we really are. Then we begin to realize, as the collect says, “that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves.” Then, like the Woman of Canaan, we begin to pray from the heart, “O Lord, thou son of David, have mercy on me!”
If you have every prayed to God in a state of affliction with any persistence, you understand the truth revealed in the gospel. God hears the prayers that spring from humble faith. “A broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (Psalm 51:17). But then what? The epistle (1 Thessalonians 4:1f.) says, “God has not called us unto uncleanness but unto holiness.” Like the Woman of Canaan, we come to Christ in an unclean state. However, God then calls us to be clean.
The central issue in the epistle is sex: “That ye should abstain from fornication.” Nothing has changed in two thousand years. The early church called people away from pagan promiscuity into a life of holiness. The modern church, when it speaks with the Holy Spirit, calls people away from the sexual license of our culture into a life of abstinence outside of marriage and faithfulness within it. This teaching wasn’t any more popular then than it is now.
It isn’t popular, but it is essential because the call to holiness is part and parcel of our healing and deliverance. It would have been strange for the Woman of Canaan to ask for exorcism and then bring her daughter back to the very same place where the demon first entered. It is strange for us to ask for forgiveness for things that we plan to keep on doing.
The real problem is human weakness. “We have no power of ourselves to help ourselves.” We get stuck in patterns of behavior that don’t fulfill us, but we can’t quite break free from them. We want to be forgiven because at some level we know they are wrong, but we aren’t strong enough to actually change. We have had sexual “freedom” in our culture now for over fifty years, and people are less fulfilled and contented sexually than ever before. Yet, sex is still presented as though it is the ultimate answer to the longings of the human heart. People want more, but settle for less because it is easier to give in to human nature that to fight for something higher and better.
It might help us if we understood that holiness is synonymous with freedom. To be holy is to be set apart from the world. Thus, it is also to be free from captivity to the world and its false promises. We are not really free if all we have is some sort of judicial pardon from the punishment for sin, but are still stuck doing all the things for which we asked God’s mercy in the first place.
In Lent, we seek not only to be forgiven for our sins by faith, we also seek to be freed from captivity to sinful patterns of behavior. This takes effort. The purpose of fasting is to challenge our desires so as to bring them under the control of the Holy Spirit. If you find yourself struggling with the fast, that is a good thing. It means you are fighting a real battle. You are denying yourself, claiming new freedom, and the world, the flesh and the devil don’t like it and are fighting back. They don’t want to lose their hold on you.
The point in fasting and prayer where we feel weak is the very point where Christ is able to fill the emptiness with himself. This is why we must persevere in the struggle for the forty days of Lent. We will stumble and fall from time to time, but if we are to make progress we must continue to get up and resume the battle. Some of our besetting sins are only overcome by a commitment to prayer and fasting over time (cf, Matthew 17:21, Mark 9:29 KJV). Today’s gospel teaches us that if we persevere God will answer our prayer. He will give us both forgiveness and freedom.