Sunday, January 29, 2017

How Strangers and Foreigners Become God's Holy Temple: Homily for the Sunday of the Canaanite Woman in the Orthodox Church

2 Corinthians 6:16-7:1; Matthew 15:21-28
It is easy to fall into the trap of looking only at the surface of the challenges that we face in life.  Instead of getting to the heart of the matter, we often accept simplistic answers about ourselves, others, and even God.  One of those false answers that Jesus Christ corrected was that only people of a certain ethnic and religious heritage were called to holiness and capable of finding salvation.   That is another way of saying that He came to bring all peoples and nations into eternal life, for His Kingdom is radically different from the ways of the kingdoms of this world.
            Today’s epistle reading is from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.  As I hope you remember, that church was made up primarily of Gentile converts who had recently converted from paganism, and they faced great problems in turning away from their old habits to embrace a life pleasing to God.  St. Paul, the former Pharisee, does something really shocking in today’s reading. He addresses the Corinthians as “the temple of the living God.”  He tells them that, because they are in Christ, they have become God’s people, His sons and daughters, and are to reject all corruption of body and spirit so that they will “make holiness perfect in the fear of God.” 
            What is so surprising is that St. Paul sends them that message by quoting Old Testament passages that called the Jews to become holy by having nothing to do with the Gentiles, to be separate from them and their ways.  And the Corinthian Christians were Gentiles. But because our Lord has fulfilled and extended the promises to Abraham to all who have faith in Him, those instructions now apply even to the very confused Gentile Christians of Corinth.  The holiness to which St. Paul called them was not a matter of having nothing to do with people of different ethnic or national heritages. Instead, it is a calling to acquire the fruits of the Holy Spirit: “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.” (Gal. 5: 22-25)
In first-century Palestine, the Jews did not think such holiness was even a possibility for Gentiles, such as the Canaanite woman who called out “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.” No one was surprised when Christ did not answer her at first, for who would have expected the Jewish Messiah to help a Gentile, especially a woman with a demon-possessed child?  But the Lord was actually doing something quite surprising, for He challenged her to respond to the conventional wisdom of the Jews when He said “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  She knelt before him and cried “Lord, help me!”  He then pressed her even harder by saying “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Christ was stating clearly the common Jewish understanding of that time that Gentiles had no claim to the promises to Abraham. 
Our Savior is obviously an excellent teacher, however, for these sharp words inspired her to utter a profound theological insight that had been forgotten by the Jews and was not known by the disciples.  For she responded, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” In other words, she saw the deep truth that God’s promises to the Jews were always intended to bless the entire world, and now they are fulfilled in all who have faith in the Messiah.  That is why the Lord then said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And then the demon left her daughter.
Think about it for a moment. The Messiah of Israel praised the faith of a Gentile woman whose daughter was possessed by a demon. Could there be a more powerful sign that all people, including the hated foreigners, are also God’s people?  Could there be a more brilliant icon of how all nations are called to holiness than how the demon immediately left the girl when her mother showed such great faith?  This is a sign of all humanity being delivered from corruption by the Savior Who came to heal, bless, and sanctify all who bear His image and likeness.  Yes, that means even the Canaanites, the Corinthians, and people like you and me who probably are not of Hebrew descent.  Race, ethnicity, nationality, and other merely human characteristics have nothing to do with whether someone shares by grace in the holiness of God.  The healing of our souls is equally open to all through the God-Man Who has sanctified every dimension of our common humanity.
We must, however, do our part by actually living as God’s holy temple, as His sons and daughters who “cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit.”  St. Paul’s message to the Corinthians was not to congratulate them on having already achieved something, but instead to challenge them to live faithfully to their high calling.  He does the same with us. Our identity as members of Christ’s Body is nothing that we have earned, but purely a gift of grace which we must continue to receive with humility.  If it were our achievement or possession, then perhaps we could look down upon others as though God’s blessings were for us and not them.   Instead, we are exactly like the Canaanite woman with no claim to anything before the Lord.  We are as dependent upon His mercy as a foreign woman with a demon-possessed daughter begging on her knees and weeping as she cried out for help that no one else thought that she could possibly receive. 
As we struggle to find healing for our souls and to grow in holiness, we must cultivate the bold persistence of that Canaanite woman.  She refused to be denied, even though she knew that she was totally dependent upon the mercy of a Lord Who owed her nothing at all. We must also persist in humbling ourselves before Him as we separate ourselves from all that hinders us from sharing more fully in the life of Christ. We must refuse to be denied in our repentance, and that means taking steps that hit us where we live.  If we watch shows or play video games that inflame our passions and put images, worries, and fears in our minds and then distract us when we pray, we should stop indulging in them. If the news or social media does something similar to us, we must carefully regulate our consumption of it or turn it off.  If we put ourselves in social situations that tempt us to act, speak, or think in ways that we know are not pleasing to God, we should stay away from them.  If we find our greatest joy in food, drink, or any bodily pleasure, we should fast and reorient our lives from self-centered desire to growing in love for our Lord and our families and neighbors.
If we have harbored hatred and self-righteous judgment toward anyone or any group of people, and especially if we gossip about them, we must soften our hearts through the Jesus Prayer and keep our mouths shut when we are tempted to spew venom.  If our daily routine does not include falling on our knees in prayer before the Lord with the humble persistence of the Canaanite woman, that must become our very first priority in life.  For God’s holy temple must be a place of prayer, and as hard as it is to believe, by His grace we have become that temple.  Now we must fulfill our calling “to perfect holiness in the fear of God” by cleansing ourselves from every form of corruption.  That is how we will take our place with Canaanites, Corinthians, and other strangers and foreigners in a Kingdom not of this world.      

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