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Praying about Jesus’s miracles: Crumbs are an abundant feast

Lynne Baab • Tuesday May 7 2024

Praying about Jesus’s miracles: Crumbs are an abundant feast

One of my favorite prayers from my childhood evokes crumbs. I feel sure Thomas Cramner (1489-1556), writer of The Book of Common Prayer, was thinking about Jesus’s healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter when he wrote the prayer. I’ll start by describing the prayer because I knew it long before I learned about the story in Mark 7:24-30 and Matthew 15:21-28.

In my childhood, we were in church every Sunday, even though we prayed only at dinner and bedtime, and my parents never mentioned God in conversations. Our churches were Episcopalian in the many places we lived in the U.S., and Anglican when we lived in Wiesbaden, Germany, twice for a total of five years. The consistency of the Episcopal/Anglican liturgy was a great blessing to me in a childhood with so many moves.

Right before communion comes this prayer, known as the prayer of humble access. Here are the first three sentences from the 1662 prayer book that I grew up with:

“We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy.” [1]

In my childhood, my brother and I were told that “children should be seen and not heard.” I felt a bit like a crumb, quite small and powerless. No matter, because “Your nature is always to have mercy.” That’s the wording in the 1993 Presbyterian Book of Common Worship. In the Free Methodist worship liturgy, that line has been paraphrased into this: “But You, O Lord, are unchanging in Your mercy and Your nature is love.” As a child, I needed to hear those words Sunday after Sunday. I still do!

In the miracle of healing in Mark 7:24–30, Jesus and his disciples travel north into what is now south Lebanon. A local woman approaches Jesus and asks him to heal her daughter from a demon. She is called a Syrophoenician in Mark and a Caananite in Matthew.

Jesus’s answer seems quite strange at first. “He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs’” (verse 27). Some scholars argue that “dog” is a reasonably straightforward way that Jews used to refer to Gentiles, not necessarily derogatory.

I love the woman’s boldness. Since I was taught to be “seen and not heard,” boldness has been a long time coming to me. The woman accepts her outsider status in the eyes of the Jews, but somehow, she knows that Jesus’s love and power are big enough to reach beyond ethnic boundaries. “She answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs’” (verse 28).

Jesus obviously likes her response. “Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter’” (verse 29). In Matthew 15:28, Jesus adds, “Woman, great is your faith!”

When I studied this passage with other students in my senior year of college, I experienced a big AHA related to the crumbs. God’s mercy is so immense that even a crumb of it is enough. A crumb will fill my heart. A crumb will give me life and peace and love and all I need.

The prayer of humble access indicates that we aren’t worthy to receive even a crumb. But God’s love is so great that our unworthiness doesn’t matter. In Christ, God’s goodness overcomes our brokenness and sin. Somehow, the woman in Tyre caught a glimpse of that, and she told Jesus she was willing to receive anything from him, any small amount at all, even a crumb under the table like dogs eat. I have always wondered where and how Jesus saw faith in her: her boldness in approaching him, her understanding of the immensity of God’s mercy, some combination of the two, or something else that I can’t see.

About a decade ago, I learned that some feminist scholars view this story as demeaning to women and as a reflection of traditional Jewish views about ethnicity and purity as well as gender. The “dog” language seems pretty derogatory. I see their argument, but I can’t feel it. To me, the woman understood that she could approach Jesus and talk seriously with him. She refused to buy into the “seen and not heard” priority that has plagued women as well as children in many different settings. She saw that even a crumb of God’s love is bigger than we can imagine.

Jesus, Lord of extravagant love and grace, thank you that you have made us worthy to collect life-giving crumbs under your table. You have also seated us at your table and given us yourself, the Bread of Life. Help us live into the words in Hebrews 4:15-16: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

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Next week: Healing of the paralyzed man lowered through the roof by his friends. Illustration by Dave Baab.

[1] Book of Common Prayer Online, page 337.

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