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The Faith of the Canaanite Woman

36th Sunday after Pentecost / St. Ignatius the God-bearer / 2 Cor. 6.16 – 7.1; Matthew 15.21-28.

F/S/HS. Brothers and sisters, this morning’s Gospel story of our Lord’s encounter with the woman of Canaan is rich with teaching about the ways of God.  And with our ways with God!

So rich that a collection of our beloved saints have said that her name, like Mary the Theotokos’s name (Lk. 1.46-48), will be remembered and blessed by all future generations.  We remember Mary’s proclamation to Elizabeth, that the Mighty One has done great things in me.  So too can the woman of Canaan say the same thing about herself.

What are these great things?  What is it that is so worthy about this woman from Canaan and her encounter with our Lord that all future generations will remember and keep precious her name?

Our story opens with Jesus in the cities of Tyre and Sidon, which are located along the coast of Palestine.  In other words, Jesus is in Gentile and not Jewish territory. 

The Apostle Matthew, who is narrating this story, writes primarily to influence his Jewish audience in at least two ways.  First, he seeks to build a case that this one Jesus, who is speaking to this woman of Canaan, is indeed the Messiah—God with us.  And second, Matthew wants to show his Jewish audience that Jesus’ Messiahship is not just for God’s historically chosen people of Israel, the Jews, but that it extends to all peoples of the world.  As Matthew’s friend and fellow Disciple John would eventually pen, For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life (Jn. 3.16).  

Matthew’s Gospel and Mark’s Gospel, which also has this same story, identify this woman of Canaan in slightly different ways.  Matthew refers to her as a woman of Canaan.  In other words—and given Israel’s dark and ignominious history with the Canaanite people—this woman is not just an outsider, she is the ultimate outsider.  Mark refers to her similarly, only his pejorative naming of her is more subtle: She is, says Mark, a Greek, a Syro-Phoenician by birth (Mk. 7.26).

The woman approaches Jesus.  Her heart is desperate.  Her young daughter, we now learn, is possessed with a demon.  A mother’s heart is crying out for help, crying out on behalf of her child!  Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David, she pleads with Jesus. 

For Matthew, again writing to his Jewish audience, the exact wording of this woman’s cry is utterly crucial.  She, an outsider, a Gentile, one of the lowest of the lowliest, is naming Jesus as both Lord and the Son of David, one endowed with divine majesty yet fully human.  If she can get it so right, Matthew is saying, then certainly we Jews ought to be able to see in Jesus what she sees in Him.  Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David, she pleas. 

What Jesus then does next is nearly unprecedented in all of our four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  He does not answer the woman.  He is silent; he ignores her.  Almost never, in all of the Gospels, is our Lord silent in the face of such desperate need.  How come?  Why silent?

Because Jesus knows this woman’s heart.  He knows that she will keep knocking at the door, keep pleading, keep seeking His presence; He knows that she will bear great witness to others, including the Jews, as to Jesus’ identity.  And so Jesus is simultaneously testing her, just as He tests us with His sometimes silence.  And He is wanting to show to all generations to come this woman’s remarkable role model of suffering patience and perseverance and faith, despite her agonizing pain.

From a place of humble boldness, still ignored by Jesus, she then cries out even more.  So much so, so embarrassing to His Disciples is she, that they urge Jesus to Send her away, for she cries out after us.

Finally Jesus speaks, though it is unclear who He is speaking to. Is he addressing this woman? His Disciples?  Everyone present, Jews and Gentiles alike?  I was not sent, he says, except to the lost sheep of the house of Isreal

In other words, at first glance, I, O woman, was not sent to your type.  While our church fathers remind us not to interpret Jesus’ words here as an insult to this woman, they clearly are words which indicate to her that Jesus was sent for the purpose of gathering up the lost Jewish sheep of Israel … which she is not.  Why Jesus, why dear Lord, are you conducting yourself as you are with this hurting woman!

And the answer: Because, once again, Jesus knows her heart; He wants to reveal to everyone, to you and to me, the utter treasure of faith that gloriously resides in this woman’s humble soul. 

And what does the woman now do?  What would you do?  What would I do?  She dares … she dares to draw even closer to Jesus.  She prostrates herself before Him and in a spirit of worship she cries out yet again, O Lord, help me! (v. 25).

This time, seemingly even stranger if not stinging words from Jesus.  It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.  Mark’s version is even more clear: Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.

What in the world!  What is our Lord doing with this woman?  He is identifying that the bread, the loaf on the table, is reserved for the Jews, the children of Israel.  It is not for the Gentiles; Gentiles are dogs, and you O woman are one of them, because historically your people have led an unclean life given their involvement with the blood of meat sacrificed to idols.

Immediately the woman responds, an answer, says St. Theophylact, that is both staggeringly wise and deftly profound.  Yes Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their master’s table

I love St. Theophlact’s paraphrase of this woman’s answer: Even though I am a dog and not worthy to receive a loaf of bread, that is, a mighty act and a great sign, nevertheless grant this to me which is a small thing by comparison with Thy power, though to me it is great.  For crumbs are not large in the eyes of those who eat loaves, but to dogs they are large, and they feed on them.

 Now, finally, Matthew’s climax of the story explodes to all present.  O woman, Jesus says to her with words of great praise for her, great is your faith!  Let it be to you as you desire.  And Matthew concludes his narrative: And her daughter was healed from that very hour

And the message Matthew is trying to send here?  It is this: This woman’s heart and faith and understanding is to be a type of heart and faith and understanding that Jesus wants for all future generations; that He wants for all who follow Him; that He wants for you and me, dear brothers and sisters. 

In this very moment with this woman, our Lord sends a universal message.  This Canaanite woman is a symbol of the Church gathered from among the Gentiles.  She, with all future Gentiles, including you and me, she becomes, through her humble boldness, worthy of the Bread of Life; the Body of the Lord broken for all humanity; she is our Forerunner, paving the way for all to come who believe in our Lord, Jew and Gentile alike, to come to the Bread of Life in God’s Holy Chalice.

St. Theophylact points out that the word Canaan literally means made ready by humility.  Likewise, the words Tyre and Sidon, from where this woman is from, literally mean besieged and they who hunt.  In other words, all of you Gentiles who formerly were besieged by evil—by demons who hunted after your soul—all of you are now, through the humility of this woman of Canaan, shown the path to salvation: A path of humility, yet boldly crying out to this same Jesus, placing our faith and hope in Him, persevering even amidst not feeling His presence; persevering by continuing to draw nigh unto Him and worship Him, no matter how much He may seem to be ignoring our pleas for His mercy.

Great is our Lord’s ways in His encounter with the woman of Canaan, a woman who, like our Theotokos, will be remembered by all future generations; a woman we are remembering and honoring this morning.

St. Ignatius, who we also honor this morning, was given the designation God-bearer.  So too is the woman of Canaan a God-bearer, one who completely embodies this morning’s Epistle reading, just as we dear ones are called to embody our Epistle reading:

And what agreement has the temple of God with idols?  For you are the temple of the living God.  As God has said: “I will dwell in them, And walk among them.  I will be their God, And they shall be my people.”  Therefore “Come out from among them, And be separate, says the Lord.  Do not touch what is unclean, And I will receive you.”  I will be a Father to you, And you shall be my sons and daughters, Says the Lord Almighty.  F/S/HS.