Unlike Idolatry, True Worship Calls Us into Question: Homily for the Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost and the Seventeenth Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

2 Corinthians 6:16-7:1; Matthew 15:21-28

            We all like to get what we want when we want it and on our own terms.  Experience teaches, however, that very often it is better to have to wait and overcome obstacles we had not anticipated before our desires are met.  When we have to persevere, we learn to accept our own limitations as we learn to see ourselves and our place in the world more clearly.

That was the case in today’s gospel lesson for a Gentile woman from the region of Tyre and Sidon who wanted the Lord to cast a demon out of her daughter.  In that setting, she was likely of higher social class than were the Jews of the area, who were typically poor farmers.  There was also a history of severe tension between the Jews and Gentiles of the region. Those dynamics surely colored the scene when this Canaanite woman called on the Jewish Messiah as “Son of David” to deliver her daughter.  At first, He did not answer her at all.  Then the disciples made the situation even more tense by begging Him to send her away.  That is when the Savior said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  In response, she knelt before Him and simply said, “Lord, help me.”  Christ then truly put her to the test by saying, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”  With those harsh words, He reminded her that she was not a descendant of Abraham and had no claim on the blessings brought by the Messiah.  As a pagan, she and her people were thought by the Jews to be as unclean as dogs and spiritually inferior.  The Lord spoke to her in terms that pressed the point of her presumed distance from the God of Israel as a Gentile.

That is when the Canaanite woman uttered a shocking theological truth: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”  With those words, she acknowledged that, if God’s promises applied only to those of Hebrew heritage, she had no more claim on them than dogs had to the food of their owner.  Those dogs would not have been beloved pets, but more like scavengers viewed with suspicion.  Nonetheless, even those dogs could lick up the crumbs that fell from the table.  Her response showed that she knew better than our Lord’s disciples that the ancient promises were ultimately for the salvation of all.  The Lord praised her great faith and healed her daughter when she put the request in those terms.

It may be hard to understand why Christ responded to this woman’s pleas as He did.  We would be happier had He immediately granted her request and not referred to her as a dog.  In order to understand this conversation, we have to remember that He was challenging a particular person to grow in her faith.  He forced her to face head-on what it meant for a Gentile to receive mercy from the Messiah of Israel.  He prodded her to grow into a mature understanding of how the blessings of His ministry could extend to her and her fellow Gentiles.  That was not only a truth she needed to learn, but that His disciples needed to see enacted before their very eyes as He praised the faith of a despised foreigner and delivered her daughter.

The Savior put this woman to the test and she responded with humble faith.  She did not take offense when a lowly Jew at first ignored her and then said that she should go away and stop bothering Him.  She did not deny that, as a Gentile, she was an enemy who had the standing of a dog, an unclean animal that was not really part of the family, in the eyes of the Jews.  Indeed, her great expression of faith reflects her acceptance of that lowly designation.  She acknowledged that she deserved nothing from the Lord.  The Savior’s response enabled her to see clearly who she was in relation to Him and how shocking it was that His mercy extended even to the Gentiles.  He made clear that she was not entitled to a religious favor that she could receive and then simply go back to life as usual.  Christ spoke to her in this way because He knew she had the spiritual strength to respond as she did for her own benefit and that of her daughter, the disciples, and the Church.   She saw as clearly as anyone who encountered the Savior that His salvation extends to all people with faith in Him.

The ministry of St. Paul as the apostle to the Gentiles conveys the same shocking truth.  He addressed the Gentile Christians of Corinth as “the temple of the living God.” He called them to live in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy by separating themselves from all that is unclean as God’s sons and daughters.  Their ancestry was not the question, but whether they would cleanse themselves “from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of God.”  The question was not whether they were circumcised or followed the dietary laws of Judaism, but whether they were rejecting the idolatry that was all around them in their culture and had been part of their lives before their conversion in order to offer themselves fully to Christ.

Perhaps the Lord challenged the Canaanite woman so strongly in order to underline the profound difference between idolatry and the worship of the one true God.  People worship idols in order to get what they want from them in almost magical ways.  Nothing more than burning incense or shedding the blood of an animal is required.  In contrast, the Savior’s words to the Gentile woman shook her to the core.  Only someone with deep faith could have humbled herself so profoundly and persistently before Him.  She embodies the kind of sacrifice the Lord requires of us that goes to our hearts.  She shows that true worship is not about getting what we want on our own terms, but about personally encountering the God Who calls us into question.

That is the kind of faith that the early martyrs had when they refused to worship the gods which the Romans thought protected their empire.  The pagan Romans actually worshiped themselves and their way of life in this world.  Of course, we are unlikely to fall into the idolatry of literally performing rituals to gain favors from false gods.  We are more likely to worship ourselves and our way of life in more subtle ways that are all the more dangerous as a result.  Perhaps we expect that God will reward us with health, wealth, and success if we come to church and say our prayers.  Maybe we think that our salvation is in the flourishing of a nation, a political party, or an ethnic group—and that God will bless those entities if we believe and behave in certain ways.  We might assume that those we label as our enemies for whatever reason in this life are also God’s enemies—and that He will deliver us from them if we are good enough.  In other words, we may be trying to use God simply to get what we want on our own terms.  And if He does not deliver for us, then why should we worship Him?

In contrast to such idolatrous distortions of the Christian faith, the example of the Canaanite woman shines brightly.   She cast aside the conventional social and religious assumptions of her day as she encountered Christ from the depths of her soul.  She had the humble faith to recognize the very difficult truth about herself before God and then to see how His mercy could extend even to her.  That is what we must all do with the persistence of this blessed Gentile woman, for in Jesus Christ the promises to Abraham are extended and fulfilled for the salvation of all with faith in Him.  Let us stop worshiping our desires and instead offer them to the Savior for healing as His sons and daughters.  That is truly the only way to “make holiness perfect in the fear of God” as we entrust ourselves to Christ like that holy woman from the region of Tyre and Sidon.

 

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