Concerning the Epistle:
“For this is the will of God, even your sanctification,” St Paul writes in the passage we read today from I Thessalonians. Paul is well known for his unfolding of the great theme of Justification, God's gracious act in simply declaring sinners to be righteous when we look to Christ as our Saviour. That simple faith unites us to Christ so that His righteousness becomes our righteousness and God accepts us as perfectly righteous in His sight.
But as joyful a message as this is, there is even more. The rest of the Good News is continued in the word “sanctification.” Whereas Justification is a judicial decree, declared once for all when the sinner turns to Christ, this is continued in a process which has no end in this lifetime. Paul wrote elsewhere “He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). Put simply, the Christian is not only a man who believes in Christ, but a person undergoing a process. That process is called sanctification.
Sanctification means becoming holy. In this text in I Thessalonians Paul was thinking of passages in the Old Testament, such as Leviticus 19:2. “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy.” That sounds like an impossible command. Jesus did not make matters any easier when He said, “Be ye therefore perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). We know what this word “perfect” means: faultless, without blemish, surpassing all standards of excellence. Paul tells us this is the will of God for us.
At this point we are bound to feel a bit of spiritual frustration and say, “That is too hard. God is asking too much of us.” We can hide behind a mask of false humility and say, “Oh, I know I will never be perfect.” That trite saying all too frequently really means, “I am satisfied with myself exactly as I am; I feel no need to improve.”
God never commands anything He does not give grace to fulfill. When our dear Lord said, “Be ye therefore perfect,” His words were both command and promise. “Be ye perfect” can also mean, “you will be perfect.”
Holiness, sanctification, perfection (these three words are all the same) have been called “the moral result of Christ's atoning work.” They refer to the inward moral rehabilitation, in which sinful hearts slowly become pure hearts, unclean minds become clean minds, impure lives become pure lives. That is God's will for us and His work in us. It has been well said that God loves us enough to accept us as we are, but too much to leave us as we are.
Concerning the Gospel:
Today's Gospel is echoed in one of our most beloved prayers, the Prayer of Humble Access, with the words “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.” This is derived from the Canaanite woman's humble plea, “Yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table.”
This Gospel is truly a puzzling passage. Many have stumbled in its interpretation. Some have said that Jesus was having a bad day, treated the woman rudely, but came around when she outwitted him with her clever reply. Others have opined that Jesus shared the prejudices of his Jewish race against Gentiles, but this woman helped him to overcome his narrowness. Really!
We must study the reactions of Jesus to this woman carefully. He moves from (1) utter silence, to (2) a statement of His mission, then to (3) a statement of testing, and finally to (4) a statement of delight and abundant grace. “Great is thy faith! Be it unto thee even as thou wilt.”
The silence of Jesus reminds us that God is sovereign and acts on His own timetable. The statement of His mission, “but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” reminds us of the great separation and demarcation which runs from “the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman” in Genesis 3 to the final separation of the sheep and the goats at the Last Judgment. And yes, indeed, God indeed tests us. No person of faith will claim that God has never been tested him. The untested person probably has no faith at all or faith in small degree.
Possibly (and here we cannot be sure) the Gentile woman only knew of Jesus as a wonder-worker, someone who could simply oblige her desires, like the nine lepers who were healed and promptly abandoned Jesus. Her words “thou son of David” surely appear to recognize Jesus as the Son of God and Savior of the world, but that had to be tested.
The scene changed when the woman expressed her own humility, unworthiness, and utter dependence on Divine grace. The woman has no one else to go to; she has no other option, no other place to look for healing. Jesus is her last resort. Her prayer is the prayer of desperation.
When we learn that we too are just as needy as this woman, having no Saviour but Jesus, and are truly the dogs eating crumbs from God's table, then we too will hear Jesus' own voice, “Great is thy faith! Be it unto thee even as thou wilt.” LKW