The traditional calendar and lectionary in Lent and Eastertide frequently seems divisible into groupings of three. At the center of the 12 weeks in question are two sets of three days, one that ends Lent and one that begins Easter: Lent ends with the Sacred Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday; Easter begins with the Easter Triduum of Easter Day, Easter Monday, and Easter Tuesday. The two triduums are very different in tone, obviously, yet they have certain liturgical similarities, particularly in the old breviary offices.
On a broader thematic scale, Lent begins with three Sundays which have gospel lessons involving the devil: the temptation of Christ by the devil at the end of his forty day fast (Lent I), the healing of the daughter of the woman of Canaan when that daughter was ‘grievously vexed with a devil’ (Lent II), and the casting out of a devil by Jesus and the subsequent discussion about Beelzebub (Lent III). This initial group of three Sundays is followed by more. There are two groups of three Sundays in which each Sunday has a popular name in the Anglican tradition: in the second half of Lent are Mothering Sunday (Lent IV), Passion Sunday (Lent V), and Palm Sunday (Lent VI); and at the beginning of Eastertide are Easter Day, Low Sunday (Easter I), and Good Shepherd Sunday (Easter II). Then in the second half of Eastertide the three Sunday gospels all look forward to Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit.
In any case, early Lent has an obvious and strong interest in the devil. The point of this rather grim subject seems to be that spiritual renewal, which is the goal of Lent, has to begin with the casting out of evil. Purgation is the first stage of the spiritual life, and it is achieved only through the healing grace of God which operates normally through fasting, prayer, and penitence.
In the middle Sunday of this little half Lent, this three week concentration on purgation from the devil and his works, the gospel lesson is taken from chapter 15 of St. Matthew (Lent II). The whole of this chapter from Matthew consists, perhaps by now not surprisingly, of three stories, all of which involve food and eating. The gospel pericope of Lent II is the second, middle story of the three.
The chapter begins with a controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees. In particular, Jesus condemns the Pharisees for putting mere ritual rules or outward observances above the moral law and a right attitude. Our Lord says that we are not defiled by failing to wash our hands ritually before eating, but rather are defiled by ‘evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: these are the things which defile a man…’ (15:20). Or again, he says, ‘Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.’ (v. 11)
In other words, what good does it do to eat in a ritually correct manner, if during dinner we engage in gossip and slander? What good are clean hands, if the heart is black? Elsewhere in St. Matthew our Lord compares the Pharisees to whitewashed tombs:
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. (23:27)
In chapter 15 this same idea is expressed in terms of eating. The Pharisees wash their hands before eating up the poor and the needy. They clean the outside and leave the heart within full of ‘all uncleanness’.
This condemnation of the Pharisees in terms of their eating opens the chapter and immediately precedes the gospel for Lent II. There are many contrasts between the Pharisees at the beginning of the chapter and the woman of ‘Canaan’ in the middle story, but we should consider most carefully the contrast that involves eating. After condemning the Pharisees for their concern with the outward purity in the matter of eating, he speaks to the foreign woman about eating as well. When she asks him to heal her daughter, he puts her off by saying, ‘It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.’ In other words, he says that his concern is with the Jews. Salvation comes to Israel first. Only after the Resurrection will the focus turn outward from Israel to the Gentiles. But the woman refuses to be put off. She loves her daughter and she cannot wait. So, she says, ‘Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.’ She is not asking for much of Christ’s attention. Just a moment; just a little healing — that’s all. Our Lord puts her off and puts her down with something of an insult: he compares her to a dog. But the woman is persistent, and she manages to show her persistence with a response to the insult that is both clever and humble. She accepts the comparison with a dog but says that even dogs get something to eat and a bit of attention. This combination of humility and faith wins our Lord’s approval. You can bet that the Pharisees never would have accepted comparison with dogs and never would have been satisfied with the idea of table scraps. But in their pride they get nothing from Christ but condemnation, while the woman goes away with her heart’s desire — a healing for her daughter: ‘O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.’ (15:28)
What St. Matthew does in chapter 15 is to invite us to compare the hard hearts and pride of the Pharisees with the love and humility and faith of the woman of Canaan. This comparison is built up in large part by stories that involves eating. The reader notices that that the chapter ends with a third story about eating: namely the feeding of four thousand by the multiplication of loaves and fishes. Taken as a whole the three references to eating in the chapter mark the stages of a progress. First, we have the proud and wicked eating of the Pharisees with the clean hands. Secondly, we have the humble and ironic eating of the dogs in the little exchange between our Lord and the woman of Canaan. But thirdly, and best, we have the satisfying and full eating of the four thousand men, not to mention the women and children (15:38). We turn from the pride of the Pharisees to the humility of the woman of Canaan, then we end with the miracle of the multiplying loaves. It is humility that converts pride into true spiritual feeding. The multiplying loaves with which the chapter end, of course, are a type and foreshadowing of the Eucharist, the miraculous bread that always is enough to fill the nations with the grace of God’s goodness.
‘It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs,’ our Lord says to the pagan woman of Canaan. This is an ironic saying, because the children, the Pharisees, have already indicated that they want nothing to do with our Lord’s bread. They are too busy washing their hands and condemning the disciples for not washing theirs according to ‘the tradition of the elders’ (15:2). But in the end it does not matter whether we are Jews or Gentiles, whether we are born children of the house or adopted children. It matters not, because our Lord is the Bread which came down from heaven for the humble and the loving. Our Lord says in St. John 6, ‘Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.’ (v. 53)
Although we are unworthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under his table, yet he came from heaven that we might eat his flesh and drink his blood, and thus have life in us. And so he says, again in St. John 6:
Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. (vv. 54-6)
Saint Matthew 15 moves from a sinful eating, through an eating of humility, to the heavenly banquet. Lent makes a similar progress, as it moves from sin, the flesh, and the devil, through penitence and fasting and humility, to Easter joy and Eucharistic bounty.