Presenting Ourselves to Christ like the Canaanite Woman: Homily for the 17th Sunday After Pentecost and the 17th Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

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

          When we think of what it means to become holy, many things probably come to mind that have more to do with our culture, comfort, and customs than with true righteousness.  Even as there is a strong temptation to try to make God in our own image, we are inclined to understand what it means to share in His life according to our own sensibilities. Thankfully, there is so much in the life of the Church to challenge such petty distortions of the calling that Christ brings to the entire world.

Today we are looking forward to the great feast of the Presentation of Christ, forty days after His birth, in the Temple in Jerusalem.  The Theotokos and St. Joseph the Betrothed bring the young Savior there in compliance with the Old Testament Law, making the offering of a poor family, a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons.  By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the old man St. Simeon proclaims that this Child is the salvation “of all peoples, a light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of Thy people Israel.”  The aged prophetess St. Anna also recognizes Him as the fulfillment of God’s promises and speaks openly of Him in Jerusalem.

The One brought into the Temple as a Child is the great High Priest Whose Self-Offering on the Cross destroys the power of sin and death through His glorious resurrection.  In union with Him, all may enter into the Heavenly Temple and participate by grace in the eternal communion of the Holy Trinity.  The priesthood and sacrifices of the Old Testament foreshadowed Christ’s fulfillment of them.   The Savior’s offering and priesthood are eternal, for He intercedes for us at the right hand of the Father in the eternal liturgy of the Heavenly Kingdom.

The Temple in Jerusalem was a place where animals were offered and sacrificed to God.  It provided an image fulfilled in our Lord, Who offered Himself in order to liberate all from slavery to the corrupting power of sin and death.  His great sacrifice did not make possible merely a level of ritual purity for a select few, but the eternal healing and fulfillment of all who bear His image and likeness.   All who share in His life by grace are living temples of the Holy Spirit with the calling to become holy by offering every dimension of our lives for the blessing of the Kingdom.

Since our Savior is the salvation “of all peoples, a light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of Thy people Israel,” the possibility of such holiness is open to literally everyone, including the notoriously confused Gentile Christians of Corinth.  St. Paul addressed them 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 had a particular ethnic heritage, were circumcised, or followed the dietary laws of Judaism, but whether they were offering themselves in holiness and rejecting the idolatry and corruption that were all around them in their culture.  Paul wanted the Corinthians to make no excuses, based on ancestry or anything else, for not embracing fully their vocation to become holy living temples of the Lord.

Something very similar happens in today’s gospel lesson about a Gentile woman from the region of Tyre and Sidon who wanted the Lord to cast a demon out of her daughter.  She was likely of higher social class than were the Jews of the area and there was a history of severe tension between these groups.   That 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.”  Then she knelt before Him and simply said, “Lord, help me.”  Christ then put her to the test by saying, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”  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 vast distance from the God of Israel as a Gentile.

That is how He challenged her to state a revolutionary theological truth in her own words: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”  With that statement, she acknowledged that, if God’s blessings applied only to those of Hebrew heritage, she had no more claim on them than dogs had to the food of their owner. Nonetheless, even they could lick up the crumbs that fell from the table.  This Gentile woman knew better than our Lord’s disciples that the ancient promises to Abraham were ultimately for the salvation of all.  The Lord then praised her great faith and healed her daughter.  He had spoken harshly to her in order to help her embrace the radical truth that His salvation extended even to Gentiles with humble faith in Him.  That was not only for her benefit, but also for His disciples, who needed to see this shocking display of salvation even for a hated foreigner.

The Canaanite woman offered her demon-possessed daughter to Christ and He liberated the child from the corrupting power of evil.  She also offered herself, kneeling in humility before a Jew and pleading for the blessings of the one true God, which was a completely absurd thing to do according to the common assumptions of that time and place.  In her humble offering and brave statement of faith, this Gentle woman provides us all with a shining example of what it means to enter into the glorious truth that Christ is the salvation “of all people, a light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of Thy people Israel.” The Theotokos and Joseph the Betrothed made the offering required by the Old Testament law when they brought the young Savior to the Temple.  He fulfilled all the foreshadowing of the Law and the Prophets as the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world.  He is the Great High Priest Whose Self-Offering enables all who unite themselves to Him in faith to become participants in the eternal liturgy of the Heavenly Kingdom.

We may participate even now in that eternal blessedness by living daily as His beloved sons and daughters, heirs by grace to the fulfillment of the ancient promises to Abraham.  To do so means obeying St. Paul’s advice to “cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of God.”  No human or social characteristic excludes anyone from receiving Christ’s healing and no dimension of our lives is somehow excluded from the calling to become holy.  As living temples of the Holy Spirit, we must hold nothing back as we “commend ourselves and each other, and all our life unto Christ our God.”

Let us follow the example of the Canaanite woman in persistently and boldly offering even our deepest pains and greatest weaknesses to Christ for healing.  As a broken-hearted mother, she held nothing back in pleading for the mercy of the Lord.  The same should be true of us as we refuse to become discouraged, to give up, or to conclude that some dimensions of our lives are broken beyond repair or somehow off-limits from God.  She did not let the common assumptions of that day stop her, but confronted them in order to open herself fully to the Lord’s healing.  We must do the same if we want to unite ourselves in holiness to the Savior recognized by St. Simeon and proclaimed by St. Anna when the Theotokos and St. Joseph the Betrothed brought Him to the Temple in Jerusalem as a young Child. That is what it means to enter each day of our lives into the joy of the eternal liturgy celebrated by our great High Priest.


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