Posted by guest blogger, Fr. D.
1st Thessalonians 4:1–8
St. Matthew 15:21–28
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
On the first Sunday of Lent, we talked about the temptations of Christ in the wilderness, an episode occurring shortly after His baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. We observed how the three temptation the devil put to Jesus represent all of the types of sin that we face. First there is the temptation to material things, to claim self sufficiency, wealth and security. Secondly there is the intellectual temptation to presume upon our relationship to God, to ask God to bless us in actions that He has told us are sinful. Finally, there is the sin of simply defying God wilfully and turning away from Him to worship something else completely.
Overlapping these previous categories in some ways, the First Letter of John gives us a somewhat different categorization, where we read in 1 John 2:16 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. These three categories, the lusts of the flesh, the lusts of the eyes, and the pride of life, to some extent become the focus of the second, third, and fourth Sundays of Lent. Thus it is that today we take up the matter of the lust of the flesh.
The term lust of the flesh is used here in the general sense of desire or that which is an object of desire. It does not refer exclusively to sexual desire, although that is most certainly included. In the more broad sense, it is everything that caters to the sensual appetites of man. This includes eating, drinking, gambling, merrymaking, carousing, and sexual indulgence.
Turning to the Epistle lesson for the day, we find St. Paul exhorting the Thessalonians to holiness of life. He speaks to them affectionately as brothers, but also firmly, reminding them that he speaks to them with the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is important that they remember that this is not just Paul the man who writes to them, but St. Paul the Apostle who is speaking to them, and that they must take his words to heart. He tells them that they must live so as to please God and live lives leading to their sanctification because this is the will of God for their lives. It is important to note that the Gospel teaches not only what a man should believe, but also how he should live. It is not enough simply to believe what it right; it is necessary to live according to that belief, in so far as we are able.
Then comes a sentence fragment that we need to pay particular attention to because it requires some special interpretation. We read in 1 Thessalonians 4:4-5 That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour; 5 Not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God: The difficult word here is vessel, which is the proper translation of the word from Greek, but there are two ways to read this, both of which are reasonable.
First, recall that the body is the vessel of the soul in that, through this earthly life it carries, or contains, the soul. In this life we live IN our bodies. With this understanding, the passage is saying that each of us is to know how to discipline our bodies so as to lead to our sanctification and the eventual honor of our souls in heaven. This specifically excludes the sexual immorality common to those outside the Kingdom of God who know nothing of the will of God for their lives.
The second understanding of this passage is to take it specifically in reference to marriage. You will no doubt recall the reference from 1 Peter 3:7 Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered. Here the wife is referred to as the weaker vessel, so the suggestion is that the term vessel in our Epistle lesson refers to a wife. This interpretation has rabbinic support as well. Thus St. Paul is exhorting each man to know how to hold his wife in a sanctified marriage, to their mutual sanctification. He further specifically excludes any sexual violation of the marriage vows as is common among those outside the Church.
St. Paul goes on in 1 Thessalonians 4:6 That no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter: because that the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also have forewarned you and testified. For this passage also, there is more than one interpretation.
Considering what comes immediately before it, it seems likely that what St. Paul is saying here is that no man should attempt to steal the wife of another. This is, of course, a pattern of human behavior that is as old as mankind. It is a combination of the sexual urge and the desire to possess that which belongs to someone else, covetousness. We think immediately of David lusting after Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, the Hittite. Or perhaps you will think of Herod lusting after Herodias, wife of his brother Philip, all condemned by John the Baptist. There are countless other examples in everyday life as well as in the Scriptures. The sinful nature of this sort of behavior is made abundantly clear in the Bible, and this is what St. Paul is reminding the Thessalonians about when he issued this warning.
If we decouple this verse from what has gone before and take it by itself, it is an injunction against defrauding another person. We know that we are not to deceive any other person, to take advantage of their lack of information, their disability, or their disadvantage in order to profit from it ourselves. The fact that this is common place in the world of business today changes nothing; it is evil in the sight of God and stands condemned. This is, however, not the primary meaning of this verse.
St. Paul then sums up his exhortation in two verses, in 1 Thessalonians 4:7-8 For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness. 8 He therefore that despiseth, despiseth not man, but God, who hath also given unto us his holy Spirit. The Lord God has not called us to live lives of uncleanness of any sort, whether it be impurity, filth, lewdness, or unchastity. Instead, He has called us instead to live sober, righteous, godly lives, showing the grace by which He has called us to His Kingdom and to glory. St. Paul goes on to warn that refusing to do this is not just an offense to other men, but more importantly, it is turning our backs on God who is the one who has called us to holiness. This is a most serious thing. Here we move into complete defiance of God Himself. It means that we have rejected God’s grace and chosen to go our own way instead.
The Gospel lesson for today is the story of the Syro–Phoenician woman whose daughter was vexed by a devil. This comes immediately after Jesus teaching regarding those things that come out of the heart of man that make him unclean, and we may infer from that the daughter was in some such way defiled when it says that she was grievously vexed with a devil. She suffered from an unclean spirit, although the exact nature is not spelled out. We may reasonably take it that she has fallen prey to the lust of the flesh as we have been talking about in one form or another.
Her mother, the Syro–Phoenician woman, is the very image of a model penitent. Her prayer is (1) short, (2) humble, (3) full of faith, (4) fervent, (5) modest, (6) respectful, (7) rational, (8) relying solely on the mercy of God, and (9) persevering. She simply will not give up! She is a model we would do well to keep in mind.
In this passage, Jesus seems quite aloof because this woman is a Canaanite, a person outside God’s Covenant with the Jews. This is reflected in Christ’s comment that it is not right to take the children’s bread and to cast it to the dogs. Although Christ loves “the dogs,” He will not neglect His sheep.
Finally, Jesus relented, saying in Matthew 15:28 Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour. The Syro–Phoenician woman had faith not only in the power of Jesus, but also in His love, a faith that enabled her to endure His continued aloof silence, to be patient under His rebuff, and to turn His apparent insult into an argument for the benefit of her daughter. We need to take her example. We too should be equally in earnest in prayer, unwilling to accept denial but pressing our case, confident that despite all appearances, we will be answered. Strange as it sounds, at times, Christ waits to be conquered, in the sense of waiting for urgent entreaty, before He will use His power to conquer the spirit of evil. Let us pray then, urgently, and without accepting rejection, for the help that we need in order to live the lives we are called to live to the glory of our Lord and four our own sanctification.
Let us pray again the Collect for the Day:
Almighty God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves; Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.