Saturday, February 16, 2013

Homily for the Sunday of the Canaanite Woman in the Orthodox Church

            Gospel According to St. Matthew 15: 21-18  

             We have all had the experience of being ignored, left out, and made to feel that we weren’t included or recognized by others.  Whether at school, among friends, at work or wherever, that can be painful, no matter what our age or life circumstances.  No one likes to be rejected or overlooked.   But sometimes, what seems to be rejection really isn’t; sometimes it is testing and preparation for a deeper relationship in which we learn more about ourselves, our neighbors, and God.
            Such was our Lord’s conversation with the Canaanite woman. She is a Gentile with a demon-possessed daughter, and probably at the end of her rope.  So she calls out to Christ, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David!”   But He doesn’t answer her and says to the disciples that He was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, to the Jews.  When the woman persists with her cries for help, He tells her that it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.  In other words, God’s blessings are for the chosen people of the Old Testament, the Jews, not for the Gentiles.  The woman doesn’t disagree with that answer, but says that “even the dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”  Then Christ praises the woman’s faith and her daughter is healed.
            We may find it hard to understand this passage.   Why doesn’t the Lord heal her daughter immediately?  Why does He seem to exclude the Gentiles from His salvation?  Why does He call her a dog?
            To answer these questions, we have to remember that the Jews of that time typically believed that their Messiah was for them only, that God’s blessings were for the Jews to the exclusion of the rest of the world.  This Gentile woman knows enough about Christ to call Him “Son of David,” a Jewish term for the Messiah, and that He is a healer.  But when her conversation with the Lord begins, it’s not clear what kind of faith she has in Him.   By the end of the conversation, however, it’s quite clear that she has a faith in Him that surpasses that of most of the Jews and of the disciples.  For she knows that in Jesus Christ God’s blessings extend to all people who believe in Him, that through Him the crumbs of the table of Abraham spill over to feed and bless the whole world.
            The Lord’s apparent exclusion of the Gentiles from His ministry is a teaching tool to help her and the disciples see the truth about God’s salvation and blessing.  She didn’t deny that, in the story of the Old Testament, the Jews are the Chosen People, the children of God.  She didn’t balk at being called one of the dogs, one of the unclean Gentiles; she must have known that that was how the Jews thought of her and her kind.  But she knew the message of the Scriptures even better than the Jews, for God told Abraham that through him and his family all the nations of the world would be blessed; and Hebrew prophets envisioned the day when all the nations would come to the mountain of the Lord.  And now in Jesus Christ, Jew and Gentile alike become beloved children who share fully in God’s blessings.
            Our Savior’s apparent delay in healing her daughter is also a teaching tool designed to strengthen her faith, to bring her belief in Him to maturity.  We have probably all learned important lessons through patience, by having to persist in getting what we want.   The same is true for this woman.   Her final insight in this conversation is like that of St. Simeon when the forty-day old Christ is presented in the Temple:  “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word.  For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people:  A light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of the Thy people Israel.”  Simeon’s life of patient waiting for the Messiah came to fulfillment when he held the baby Jesus in his arms in the Jerusalem Temple.  God’s anointed, the Savior, had finally come.  And that is good news both for the Jew and the Gentile, for the whole world.  The patience of the Canaanite woman and of St. Simeon was rewarded, for both received the Messiah with faith.  
            Many of us admire teachers, coaches, parents, or other mentors and instructors who tested us, who did not make it easy because we grew through their tough guidance and high expectations.  We became stronger, more mature, more capable and confident people by overcoming challenges that at first may have seemed insurmountable.  The same is true of this woman’s relationship with Jesus Christ.  He challenged her to see clearly where she stood before Him.  Had she been full of pride, she would have walked away.  Had she been impatient or insincere, she would have left.  But she knew that in this man she encountered the salvation of God for her daughter, and she let nothing deter her.  She refused to be denied.   
            This Canaanite woman is a tremendous model for us as Christians, for we so easily give up on the Lord and on ourselves.  We are tempted to think that we are who we are, that there is no point in trying to change, and that even God can’t heal and transform us.  Now it certainly would have been less stressful for this Gentile woman to have stayed home that day and not made a scene about Christ healing her daughter.  She could have said “I’m a Gentile and this Messiah is a Jew.  Why should I even ask Him to help?” But then her life and that of her daughter would have remained miserable and without the Lord’s blessing.
            The same is true of us.  We can assume that we are like the Gentiles of old, cut off from salvation, from God’s blessing and transformation in our lives because of our failings, our weaknesses, and whatever mistakes we have made in life.  Yes, we have all sinned against God and neighbor in thought, word, and deed.  Yes, we may find it less stressful simply to give into our habitual sins, our passions that have been with us so long that they have become second nature.   But if we accept the lie that the new life in Christ isn’t really for us, that we are defined by our sins, that we’re better off just accepting who we are than growing into the full stature of Christ, we will end up choosing misery over joy, death over life, and despair over hope.
            This woman learned that she, too, is called to be a temple of the living God.  God’s promises extended even to her, and the same is true for us.   Nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord, except for our own refusal to accept His love, to open our lives to Him as did this woman in humility, faith, and persistence.
            She could have stayed away from the Lord on the grounds of her identity as a Gentile.  That would have been an easy excuse, but she pressed on nonetheless.  She didn’t take an easy out, but persevered in opening her life to Him beyond what anyone in that time and place would have expected.
 We all need to follow her example in our own lives.  With patience, humility, and persistence, we must call upon the mercy of Christ for His healing and transformation.  We must not be paralyzed with guilt or shame, no matter what we have done at any point in our lives.  We must refuse to be distracted by our fears and reject the temptation to take the easy way out by making excuses.  And then, like her, we will come to know that God’s salvation really is for us, that there are no limits to His presence in our lives other than those we set by our own sins and lack of faith.  Like her, let us refuse to be conquered by fear and instead throw ourselves upon the mercy of Christ with courage, patience, and perseverance.   For this alone is the path to the Kingdom of God.   

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