Orthodox Commentary on Theology, Ethics, and Culture
Sunday, February 14, 2016
From Pagan Idolatry to a Temple of the Living God: 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 our daughter Kate was preparing to begin college, she was interested in studying ancient Greek. A professor in that field at her university told her, however, that because she would be a freshman and had not studied Latin, Greek would be too hard for her. I knew immediately what the outcome of that conversation would be: Kate would take Greek and make an A, if only to prove him wrong. Looking back on it, I suspect that that old professor knew exactly what he was doing in responding to her question that way. He was recruiting Kate by challenging her.
Our Lord took a similar approach to the Canaanite woman. She was a Gentile with a demon-possessed daughter and surely desperate for help. So she called out to the Jewish Messiah, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David!” He did not answer her other than to say that He was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, to the Jews. But she had such love for her daughter and deep humility before Christ that she knelt before Him and begged for help. That was when Christ spoke what sounded like very harsh words: “It is not fair 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 people like her. The woman did not respond with anger, but showed an amazing level of spiritual insight: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then Christ praised the woman’s faith and healed her daughter.
In order to understand this conversation, we have to remember that the Jews of that time typically believed that God’s blessings were for the Jews to the exclusion of the rest of the world. This Gentile woman knew enough about Christ to call Him “Son of David,” a Jewish term for the Messiah, and that He was a healer. But by the end of the conversation, it is clear that she has a faith in Christ, and an understanding of Him, that surpasses that of the disciples. For she knows that in Jesus Christ God’s blessings extend to all people who call on Him with humble faith, that in Him the crumbs of the table of Abraham spill over to feed and bless the whole world.
The Lord’s harsh words to her are a teaching tool to help her and the disciples see the truth about God’s salvation. When pushed and tested by His challenging comments, this Canaanite woman showed that she knew the message of the Scriptures even better than the Jews, for God had told Abraham that through him and his family all the nations of the world would be blessed. (Gen. 22:18) Hebrew prophets also envisioned the day when all the nations would come to the mountain of the Lord. (e.g., Isaiah 2:2-3) And now in Jesus Christ, Jew and Gentile alike become God’s beloved children and living participants in His holy temple.
The 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. Who has not had to learn 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 Thy people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32) 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. How unexpected that a lowly Canaanite woman would proclaim the same spiritual truth as St. Simeon, a righteous Jew.
St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, who were also Gentiles, to remind them that in Christ they are “the temple of the living God” and must live accordingly, separating and cleansing “themselves from every defilement of body and spirit, and mak[ing] holiness perfect in the fear of God.” ( 2 Cor. 6:16-7:1) We know from the situations he addressed in his letters to the Corinthians that many of them still lived in the profoundly corrupt ways of their pagan culture. He had to set them straight in no uncertain terms about gross sexual immorality, idolatry, prideful divisions, and many other matters. He told them to hold themselves and one another to a high standard because they were no longer strangers and outcasts, but living members of the Body of Christ.
St. Paul had been a zealous Pharisee before his conversion, and we can be sure that he would never have expected holiness from Corinthians or Canaanites. But the Risen Lord opened his eyes to the truth that the distinction between Jew and Gentile has become irrelevant, for all who have faith in Him become the blessed descendants of Abraham and the beloved sons and daughters of the Father.
In Christ, holiness no longer has to do with steering clear of people from different backgrounds, cultures, or beliefs. It has nothing to do with racial, ethnic, or national purity. The Canaanite woman demonstrates that even Israel’s most hated historic foes may have faith and be set free from evil by the mercy of Christ. If that is true for them, it is true for all. The Lord calls everyone to become a holy temple and a living member of Christ’s own Body.
The kind of holiness to which Christ calls us does not have to do with simply going through the motions of legal requirements, such as circumcision or dietary restrictions. He invites us to a higher righteousness that purifies the heart and nips in the bud the disordered desires that so easily take root there and lead to murder, adultery, and other actions that are the complete opposite of the blessedness for which He created us in His image and likeness. (Matt. 5:8, 20, 21-30) We all have so much work to do in purifying our own hearts that we should not waste our energy in making ultimate judgments on the holiness of others. When we are tempted to do that, we must remember that God alone knows people’s hearts, including our own.
We will not grow in the divine likeness by defining ourselves over against others such that we congratulate ourselves for not doing X, Y, or Z. We will not become a more faithful living temple of the Lord by viewing anyone or any group as the Gentiles or Canaanites of our lives. We should always remember that we are the spiritual descendants of the Canaanite woman and the confused Corinthians. There is much about us that is a stranger to holiness, that would rather serve the false gods of the world than the world’s true God. So we must struggle to embrace the holiness of the Lord to the depths of our souls by deep, humble, persistent repentance. There is no alternative to doing the hard work of removing from our lives those things that are not holy. That is much more of a challenge than simply praising ourselves in comparison with the appearance of others.
We must focus, instead, on removing from our thoughts, words, and deeds those things that keep us from living as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession.” (1 Peter 2:9) Doing so is never a simple matter of doing what is popular, conventional, or comfortable. It requires purifying the heart, for it is by Christ’s presence in our hearts through the Holy Spirit that we are His living temple. (Gal. 4:6) We must attend to what we allow into our hearts, to what we allow to fill our minds and souls. If we devote our time and attention to anything, it will become what we love and shape profoundly who we are. We can do that for good or bad, for holiness or for something entirely different.
If today you feel as far from God as the Jews thought the Canaanites were, remember that distraught mother who found blessing for the one she loved most through her humble, persistent faith. We may use our difficult struggles in life to help us become more like her, even as the Lord’s challenging words prodded her to know and speak the truth so eloquently. We may devote our time, energy, and attention to the common and simple practices through which broken people have always opened themselves to the healing mercy of Christ. We may grow in holiness and turn away from sin and corruption by reorienting ourselves step by step to the Savior Who has made great saints out of sinners from every nation, Who has restored those wounded by sins of every kind, Who has made holy temples out of the most depraved persons. In Him, there is hope even for you and me.