Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost / Sunday of the Canaanite Woman, February 6, 2022
II Corinthians 6:16b-18, 7:1; Matthew 15:21-28
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Once more we journey inside what the Fathers of the Church call the “queen of virtues,” the virtue of humility, and the vehicle that takes us there is this Gospel read on the Sunday of the Canaanite Woman. We don’t hear this Gospel on Sunday every year; it is read only when there are at least three Sundays between the Sunday after Theophany and the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, which begins the period of the Triodion, heralding the coming of Great Lent. So we should be particularly mindful of it when it does come to our attention, if only because of its relative rarity.
In this passage from the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, we see Jesus traveling with His disciples in the region of Tyre and Sidon, coastal cities which are today in modern Lebanon south of Beirut. What is He doing so far north, in the cities of the Gentiles? He was not there to preach. Indeed, He never preached among the Gentiles while He walked the earth. And in the parallel passage from the Gospel of Mark (7:24-30), we read that Jesus wanted no one to know that He was there. This was not a public appearance by Christ. He had gone up there to withdraw Himself for a time from the Pharisees, who had been harassing Him and His disciples in Jerusalem.
Yet nevertheless, as Mark also tells us, Jesus could not remain hidden (7:24), for His reputation had preceded Him even that far from His homeland. Therefore, a woman emerges, and Matthew describes her simply as a “Canaanite woman.” Why should she be called “a Canaanite”? By this time, the Land of Canaan is no more. The Hebrew people had conquered Canaan some 1300 years before. Nevertheless, descendants of those original Canaanites still persisted on the borders of Israel, and of course by this time the whole area was under Roman rule. Matthew mentions this detail to emphasize that Jesus is among Gentiles, foreigners just beyond the traditional boundaries of Israel.
So when this woman comes forward, she is nearly as foreign to Jesus as one could get. She is not even a Samaritan, who are people that at least shared some of the Jewish traditions. Nor does she belong to the Roman imperial classes, who had prestige as the ruling people. She is a Canaanite, a leftover descendant of a leftover people, conquered long ago. She has no right to approach Him, no right to ask anything of Him, no standing in His world.
Further, she is a pagan, a worshiper of idols. How do we know this? This is part of what Canaanite means. Today we tend to think of people groups in terms like race and ethnicity, but those concepts as we now think of them, based on physical appearance or DNA, did not exist in the ancient world. A people was bound up by language, custom and especially by religion.
So Jesus is among pagans. And what standing does a pagan have with Jesus? She actually worships gods who oppose the Most High God Whose Son she now meets in the flesh.
Nevertheless, she comes forth. And as if to emphasize this radical separation between her and Him, she calls Him “Son of David,” an ancient, kingly title, but one that is meaningful among the worshipers of Yahweh the God of Israel: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.”
Many of us here have had some personal experience with great suffering—if not ourselves, then with someone we love. And so perhaps we can identify with the pain and the desperation that this Canaanite woman feels. Her daughter isn’t just sick. She has a demon. How did she get that demon? Probably it has to do with the demon worship that the Canaanites engage in. So some of us can probably identify with suffering that might even be our own fault, at least partly.
And here is the Healer, the miracle worker, this wondrous Son of David. She has no right to ask anything of Him, but in her agony for her daughter, she cries out to Him.
And He ignores her.
But she must have kept on calling out to Him, because the disciples start to get annoyed. They come to Jesus and beg Him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying after us.” Surely in the face of their hard-heartedness toward a woman whose daughter is demon-possessed, He will pay some attention to her now, right? His response: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In other words, “I’m not here for you.”
Now she falls down in front of Him: “Lord, help me.” His response: “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she is determined. And notice her response to the Lord Jesus essentially calling her a dog: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” In other words, “Okay, sure, I’m a dog. But please help me.”
Then He finally says, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.”
Now, perhaps the most perplexing question here is why Jesus seems to mistreat her until the very end. Yet we read this passage with 2,000 years of Christian history and tradition. And we know that Jesus is God and therefore perfectly loving. He is not mistreating her. He is playing for the endgame here. He acts out this script of sorts that He was aware of from before time to bring out the fullness of this woman’s faith.
He acts to bring her away from worshiping idols to a true embrace of the one true God—because that is Who He Himself is.
A more curious puzzle is this woman’s series of requests to Christ. First, she cries out to Him to help her, but even in initiating the contact, she is crossing the line. Given their separation and given the opposition of her gods to the Most High God, she should not have expected Him to help her, but her desperation explains why she decided to try. But then He ignores her. Now remember that, unlike Jesus, she doesn’t have omniscience telling her how this all works out. She has no idea.
Yet she persists, even in the face of His disciples wanting to show her the door. And when He responds by saying that He was sent only for “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” emphasizing the separation between them, she keeps going. Why? Can’t she see it’s hopeless? And isn’t she hurt when He ignores her, then hurt by the disciples’ callousness, then hurt when He points out their differences?
Most of us by this point would be disturbed and offended and even appalled if we experienced the same thing, especially from this so-called “Healer” Who had it seems was proving Himself a fake, surrounded by men who were also fakes.
And then, after all that, He calls her a dog! Most of us would probably be outraged. And yet, she says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” What is this? This is humility.
We may think of humility as being a masochistic, depressive, guilty state, and who would want that? And then to say, as Christianity does, that humility is the only path into the Kingdom of God—that makes no sense. But that is not what humility is. As expressed so powerfully by this Canaanite Woman, humility is to love the Lord Jesus, to continue to implore Him for mercy and for love, even in the face of what can appear to be His lack of love!
And doesn’t it feel that way sometimes? Something terrible happens or we fear it might happen, and we pray and pray and pray, and yet it seems like He’s ignoring us. And we keep praying, and we see Him answering other people’s prayers and blessing other people. And sometimes fellow Christians treat us badly. And when we feel like we can’t take it any more, something bad happens, and it feels like our supposedly loving God is insulting us and inflicting even more pain upon us. It makes no sense.
At that point, people can lose faith. People can get angry with God or with the church community. Where was He in my pain? Where were they when I needed them most?
But it is only when we love God, no matter what we experience, even if it feels like He is ignoring us or even mistreating us, it is only then that we can hear from Him, “O woman, great is your faith!” “O man, great is your faith!” Faith is not about hoping for something we have no evidence for. The Canaanite Woman didn’t believe like that. She couldn’t really even hope. There was no hope that this wandering Jewish healer would do anything for her.
What she did have was humility, which is love for God and a desire to be close to Him and to receive whatever He is willing to give to us, especially if it’s not what we want. That is the kind of character that reveals true faith in God, true faithfulness. We may remember the much-suffering Job in the Old Testament, who at one point actually says, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him” (Job 13:15).
Real love for God is when we can begin to pray without expectations, without conditions that we lay down for God, willing to accept whatever God is going to give us. A true child of God will fall down at the Master’s feet and say, “Lord, help me.” It doesn’t matter what then happens. It doesn’t matter if we get our way. It doesn’t matter what our opinions are. Just, “Lord, help me.”
And though we won’t understand it fully until we cross over into the next life, if we trust Him and love Him and accept anything from Him, what He will give to us will satisfy our innermost heart. And on that great Day we will hear, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”
To Him therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.