“O Lord, Son of David, have mercy upon me.” cries the Canaanite lady in today’s gospel. Sound familiar? If you recall from the lesson of the blind man a couple Sundays ago, “Son of David” was a well recognized title for the Messiah, but very few of God’s chosen people of Israel” would consider calling Jesus this, because they refused to recognize Him as such. This mother pleading for her demon possessed daughter is from the despised tribe of the Canaanites, yet she recognizes that this is the Christ, the Messiah. Many times we are told of those who were outside of the house of Israel and yet exemplified true faith far more than those “insiders” who were bona fid members of the “chosen people.” The Canaanites were despised by the Israelites yet today we have the Canaanite women being told by Christ “Great is your faith.” Christ says to the Roman centurion who asked Him to heal his servant without coming to his house, “Assuredly, I have not found such great faith even in Israel!” We also have the women at the well, one of the hated Samaritans – St. Photini – who ended up being one of our most precious martyr saints with the title “equal to the apostles. We have the parable of the Good Samaritan, and many other faithful “outsiders.”
As bona fid members of the Orthodox Church, the new Israel, the original Church that has kept intact all that has been passed down from the apostles themselves from the very beginning of the church throughout every age until today, we should take note of this. We may be in the true Church, but our membership, our baptism into the Church does not guarantees our salvation. Nor do we know the fate of those outside the protection of the Church. We must each grow our faith and continue to accept and walk in the gift of baptism we have received. God has sons and daughters but no grandchildren. Coasting and counting on our membership card will lull us into a dangerous place of false security. Seek Christ and you will find Him, knock and the door will be opened, awaken you who sleep – these are all action words. We are told that the violent, or active, take the kingdom of heaven by force and we must each persevere until the end. Today at Liturgy we are worshiping and “working” on focusing on God. This is why we do our best to pay attention, to “stand aright” to physically as well as mentally enter into focusing by venerating and crossing ourselves, by responding with our “Lord have mercy” and “Amen” and doing our best to concentrate on what is going on without getting distracted. In Greek, the word “Liturgy means “the work of the people.”
We see here in the Canaanite women what persistent and determined action looks like and we see the results. “And her daughter was healed from that very hour.” She is as far from being from the house of Israel and having any claim on the blessings promised to them, as God’s chosen people, as you can get. The Canaanites were despised from the start of the book of Genesis. In Genesis chapter 9 we hear how Noah, when he had established life back on land after leaving the ark planted a vineyard. One night he became drunk and passed out in his tent naked. One of Noah’s sons. Ham, the father of Canaan, the patriarch of the Canaanites, saw his father naked and mocked him, telling his brothers Shem and Japheth. Shem and Japheth then respectfully walked in backwards and covered their father’s nakedness. When Noah found out he cursed Canaan, Ham’s son, and named him a servant of servants to his brothers Shem and Japheth. Later we read that the people of Canaan were to be destroyed and their land given to the Israelites when they crossed over the river Jorden after their 40 years in the wilderness.
As a little side comment on this. I can’t stress enough how important it is to respect the law of God, regarding honouring your parents. This is the 5th of the 10 commandments, and in both Exodus (20:12) and in Paul’s Epistle (Eph: 6:2) it is noted that this is the only commandment of God which has a promise attached; “That it may be well with you and that you may live long upon the earth.” Paul quickly adds “Fathers do not provoke your children to wrath…” When we cause our children to react in anger and make it difficult for them to honour and respect us as their God given parents, we cause a great wounding and place a heavy burden upon them which needs to be healed. When we experience this as children or parents, it is very important to come to Christ as persistently as this Canaanite woman, asking for His grace to be able to forgive and to be forgiven, that life may be well with us. This of course has nothing to do with accepting abusive behaviour or playing “let’s pretend it wasn’t so bad.” Forgiveness and being forgiven are about coming to healing, not about excusing or lessening the wrongness of sinful behaviour.
How persistent was this Canaanite woman? She falls on her face before Christ and begs Him for help and what was His reaction? He completely ignored her, “He answered her not a word.” She doesn’t pout and turn away, telling herself “well, that was a waste of time.” No she continues to cry out, she is not going away politely. That’s persistence. The disciples say, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.” She is causing quite a scene. Just like the blind man who Christ healed. Some of the Fathers say that the disciples were in effect asking their Lord to “just heal her, get rid of her already, she’s driving us nuts.” The Lord then addresses her. He tells her He wasn’t sent to help the cursed Canaanites, he was sent to the tribe of Israel. The Israelites were the blessed descendants of Noah’s son Shem, and she descended from the cursed Ham and his son Canaan. What is her reaction? “Then she came and worshiped Him saying ‘Lord, help me.” Christ then calls her a dog. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
How would we react when confronted with such rejection? First being completely ignored, then being told we aren’t of enough value to have our petition even considered, and then being called a dog. Would we just soldier on? Just take it in stride, perhaps even think that this is true and probably what we deserve? Or would we be more likely to have that snake of self-righteous indignation rise up in our throats and fill us with anger. “I don’t deserve to be treated like this? It’s not fair and I’m not going to put up with it. I’m out of here. I’ve got to maintain some self respect, some basic pride in who I am.”
Our Canaanite lady doesn’t go down that road. She demonstrates that saving characteristic, that great attitude, which we are told all through the scriptures and the writings of the Fathers in every century is the most pleasing and soul saving quality we can possess. Do you know what I’m referring to? Humility of course. “Yes Lord,” – she agrees that she is only fit to be considered a dog not a child, “yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters table.” A crumb from Christ’s table would be enough to bring healing to her daughter. What is the “children’s bread?” (John 6: 51) “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” This woman had faith like the centurion who didn’t need Christ to come but just to say the word and his servant would be healed. Like the women with the flow of blood who knew if she could just touch the hem of His garment it would be enough. She knew who was before her, Christ, the Creator of all, true God of true God, He who was in the beginning with God, and who existed before anything else existed stood before her. John tells us (John 1:3) “All things were made through Him and without Him nothing was made that was made.” If we have this knowledge, this God-given faith, it is more precious than all the treasures the world can offer. She knew whom she was petitioning, and she knew that His love for all of mankind would spill over even to her, the least of all.
Let us pray that we too may receive the grace to understand the incomprehensible vastness of the love of God, and our complete and utter need to rely on that love, to even exist. May we like the Canaanite lady come to realize the transformational power of even one crumb of the body and blood of Christ and the great rewards gained through persistence in seeking God above all else. With the feast!