20 - Canaanite Woman, January 26, 2014

I Timothy 1:15-17

Matthew 15:21-28

Let’s introduce this story of the Canaanite woman by going back to Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan. As we have said, that was a coronation from heaven. God the Father declared Him to be His Son, and therefore the true King of Israel, and the LORD was anointed not by oil but by the Holy Spirit Himself. But, note also the strange character of this coronation. Jesus descends into and ascends from the Jordan, a movement in the likeness of His death and resurrection. Liturgical texts identify the Jordan with the waters of creation; and, they tell us that He was baptized naked. In this, He makes Himself like Adam and Eve when they opened their eyes after their transgression and saw that they were naked. His rising from the Jordan, the waters of creation, therefore shows Him as the New Adam re-creating the world and renewing Adam in Himself.. He rises from the waters not only as the King of Israel but also as the King of creation, and He sees not that He is naked as did Adam and Eve of old, but that the heavens are opening to Him, and the Holy Spirit descending as though clothing Him in the regal Robe of the Glory that clothed Adam in the beginning when he was made in the image of God, i.e., in Christ.

As the New Adam newly crowned as King of all creation, Jesus is led by the Spirit who anointed Him into the wilderness to triumph, we could say, over the devil. Having triumphed over the devil in the wilderness, He descends into Galilee as from the Temple of Ezekiel’s vision (chptr 47), i.e., from the womb of the Theotokos, healing wherever He goes by the “living waters” of the Holy Spirit who indwells Him as Ezekiel prophesied (chptr 47). And, as the very King of heaven and earth Himself, not as a prophet or a messenger, He proclaims the Gospel – the Good News of His victory over the devil, a cosmic victory: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!”

The mystery of this Kingdom of Heaven permeates the “literary air” of the Gospels. What is it, where is it, how is it at hand, how does one find it, how does one enter into it?

It would therefore seem very significant that this woman from Canaan, precisely because she is not an Israelite, cries out to Him: “LORD, Son of David, have mercy!” as to her King in whom she has placed all her hope. She begs Him to deliver her daughter from a devil, showing clearly that she believes Him to be much greater than a worldly King. Like the blind man of Jericho, she seemed to know in her heart; i.e., in faith, that He was the Son of David, the King of Israel; for, the LORD says to her at the end: “Great is your faith. Your daughter is healed, just as you wish.”

This story of the Canaanite woman is full of irony. It begins to come into view when we read it against the backdrop of the exchange between Jesus and certain Pharisees from Jerusalem that took place immediately before.

When Jesus was still in Gennesaret, before He came into the homeland of the Canaanite woman, the Pharisees had come from Jerusalem to rebuke Him for allowing His disciples to eat with unwashed hands. The LORD rebukes them as hypocrites, because they are more concerned with the ritual purity of their hands than they are with the purity of their heart. The LORD then turns to His disciples to instruct them that real purity is purity of the heart. This was apparently a difficult teaching even for the disciples to grasp because they ask the LORD to explain what He means. He answers: it is not unclean hands that “defile” the man, but an unclean heart, for from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness and slander. These, says the LORD, are what defile a man, not eating with ritually unclean hands.

Are we right to be struck by the curious fact that the word for “defile” in Greek sounds very much like the word for “dog”, which is what the LORD calls, in effect, the Canaanite woman: koinein, to defile; kunarion, a dog. It is this word-play that highlights all the ironies in this story of the Canaanite woman. She is the “dog”, “defiled” because she is ritually impure in the eyes of the ritually pure Pharisees. Yet, she is the one who cries out in faith from her heart: “LORD, Son of David, have mercy on me!” “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God,” the LORD, had said. The ritually pure Pharisees do not see Jesus as their King – indeed, they will crucify Him as they cry out, “We have no King but Caesar!” It is this “dog” from Canaan who, in the purity of her biblical “mourning” that the LORD says is blessed, sees what the heavens “showed forth” when they opened at the Jordan: Jesus is the Son of David, the Messianic King of heaven and earth.

Christ rebukes the ritually pure Pharisees, calling them what they are: hypocrites, and they seek to destroy Him. He rebukes the Canaanite woman, calling her, in effect, what she is: a dog, defiled because of the idolatry of her native religion. But, she in response kneels and worships Him as the Messianic Son of David, acting out the prayer of King David in Psalm 51: “Thou art justified in Thy sentence, and blameless in Thy judgment.”

In all these ironies of the Canaanite woman lies another: the LORD seems to debase her, calling her a “dog”; but, as He does so, He is elevating her to the honor of a teacher. For, through His rebuke, He brings out the faith that is in her heart, and by her deeds, she teaches Hisdisciples that earlier lesson of His on what it is that truly defiles a man that they clearly still did not grasp – evidenced, it seems to me, in their plea to Jesus to “send her away, for she cries out after us!” Even today, in the liturgical hymns of the Church, this Canaanite woman is honored because of the faith that was in her heart. To be sure, she is already teaching us a lesson from the LORD’s Pascha. I have in mind that lesson the LORD will give to His disciples in Great and Holy Week, which the Church, judging from the attention given to it by her liturgical texts, considers very important: “Do not judge according to appearances!”

In all of these ironies that we find in this story of the Canaanite woman, the character of the Kingdom of Heaven begins to come into view – and the Canaanite woman is our teacher. She shows us what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like. It looks like her, not like the Pharisees; for, in her we see a heart of faith that is completely submissive to the LORD Jesus as to the King, the Son of David. We see where the Kingdom of Heaven is: it is in your heart, as the King Himself says: “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you!” We see the power of that Kingdom: it is the power of Christ to deliver us from the bondage of the devil and to cleanse our will, to create in us a clean heart, and to put in us a new and right spirit, to re-generate us from above, and to make us children of God, heirs by adoption to the Kingdom of Heaven that Christ our King has opened to us. We see in the Canaanite woman how one enters this Kingdom of Heaven: not by being born of flesh and blood into a certain ethnic race or social class, but through the faith of our heart, which becomes active in us by taking up our cross and denying ourselves in the kind of mourning and meekness and lowliness that we see this morning in the Canaanite woman, and which the LORD says is blessed.

We draw near, brothers and sisters, to the gates of Great Lent, an image in space-time, I would say, of our heart. Next Sunday is Zaccheus Sunday. The Sunday after that is the beginning of the Lenten Triodion, the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee. This morning’s Gospel is showing to us the Kingdom of Heaven that is at hand, that is in you because the King of that Kingdom is “Christ in you”! It is showing us how we find it and how we may enter it: in the faith and love of this Canaanite woman, in the confession of our sins, in obedience to the “Law” of this Kingdom of Heaven whose King we worship as our LORD. Looking to the Canaanite woman as our teacher, let us begin preparing ourselves to take up the Cross of the Great Fast, that we may follow Christ to Pascha and into our hearts, into the Heavens that have been opened to us by the life-creating death of our King. Amen!