21 - The Canaanite Woman, January 25, 2009

I Timothy 1:15-17

Matthew 15:21-28

This morning is the Sunday of the Canaanite woman. That tells us that next Sunday is the Sunday of Zaccheus, and that tells us that Great Lent is drawing near; from today, it is but five weeks away. Great Lent is a six week period of rigorous ascetic discipline centered on prayer and fasting and charity. The worldly mind would think that the faithful do not look forward to Great Lent because of the ascetic rigor it demands of us. But that is not the case. As we look up the road of the Church’s liturgical journey from Bethlehem to Jerusalem and descry the spires of Great Lent rising above the horizon, it is not dread that fills the soul but holy anticipation, even an ardent longing to experience again the ineffable beauty of that most blessed season. For, while we go about our daily affairs in the world on the outside, on the inside the Lenten Fast is leading us in retreat from the vain noise of the world and into stillness of soul to stand in the presence of God...

…just as did the Canaanite woman in this morning’s Gospel. We know that Great Lent will begin with the closing of the royal doors and the closing of the curtains. The sanctuary will be closed to us. Even the priest will stand outside the closed gates of the sanctuary, vested only in his stole. The melodies of the Church will change into the sweet sadness of the Lenten melodies; and like the Canaanite woman, we will stand before the closed doors of the sanctuary and raise our cry to the Savior; and as he did to the Canaanite woman, so the Lord will do to us. He will answer us not a word; and we will treasure the stillness of his silence; for, it is deeply therapeutic.

The Lord’s disciples were annoyed by the Canaanite woman and urged Jesus to “send her away!” Why did they not urge the Lord instead to heal her daughter as she requested? Where was their compassion? How were they in this cold indifference to the Canaanite woman’s plea students of the Savior who is the “only Lover of mankind”?

“I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” the Savior says to them in reply. He is speaking to the disciples who are of the house of Israel in the same way he spoke to the house of Israel through the prophets, and he is saying that because they belong to the house of Israel, they are lost sheep. Read the prophets and you will see how Israel again and again falls away from the Lord God and chases after the gods of the Canaanites so that in their heart they were no more lovers of God than were the Canaanites. The house of Israel showed the form of religion but they denied its substance: mercy and compassion for one’s fellow man.

The Lord speaks not a word to the Canaanite woman. He does speak to his disciples, but if you listen closely you will hear judgment in his words to them. If he was sent to them, it’s not because they are righteous but because they are lost. They are lost because in their heart, they are in the same camp as the Canaanites. That means, by implication, that they are dogs, too; for if in their heart they love God no more than do the Canaanites, then even though they may be of the house of Israel, they are no different from the Canaanites. This is a hard lesson for the self-righteous to hear. And when the preacher proclaims this prophetic word, they want to rise up and silence the preacher. They’ll even crucify him if they can.

We are Christians; and so we are disciples of the Lord. This is a hard word for us to hear. We want to believe that we are intimate chums with God. We like to believe that God speaks to us softly and tenderly. He does speak to us; but in this morning’s Gospel he is speaking these hard words that he says to his disciples. You are lost, and in your heart you are no different than this Canaanite woman.

Now, we can prove that we are disciples of the Savior, and not among those who want to silence him, by how we respond to his word to us this morning. If we are truly his disciples, we will not rise up against him in a huff; we will not try to spin his words to give them a different meaning closer to what we like. Rather, we will humbly submit to his word and look into our hearts. What do we really love? Which life do we live In our daily life when we’re not in the Church? That of the world or that of the Church? When no one is looking, what do we give our mind to? What do we give our hands and our feet, our eyes and ears to? Are we trying to redeem the time of our life, or are we trying to have the time of our life? How do we look at those around us, especially those in need? With pity or with disdain?

And so the Church directs us, the lost sheep of the house of Israel, the baptized Christians, to stand before the royal doors at the beginning of Great Lent and watch them close in front of us; and to understand that God is turning his back on us just as he did on the Canaanite woman. There are those who become deeply indignant at such a suggestion. Beware of that indignation! It is the symptom of a profound self-righteousness. Open the doors if you will, but in such a state of mind it hardly matters. The doors are in truth closed to you.

But to be sure, it is profoundly therapeutic to lay aside every excuse and listen from the heart to the silence of God. His silence dissolves the false masks we wear and directs our mind down into our heart where we are truly ourselves. It isn’t a pleasant sight to see, but we must see it. We were created in the image and likeness of God, but by our greed, our conceit and our lusts, we have made ourselves into dogs and we are nothing like him. We must confess this truth about ourselves, because if we resist this truth, we cannot receive the Word of Truth that would heal us of our spiritual schizophrenia and make us whole again, make us one with God and with our own true selves in Christ who is the Image of the invisible God in whom we were made. Even we Christians, disciples of the Lord, stand with, not above the Canaanite women of the world, for we, like they do not love God as he commands and we have no more business than they to eat the bread of the Lord’s Table.

It is remembrance of the deep wholeness that follows from the balm of this absolute honesty of Great Lent that is why the faithful so look forward to Great Lent and why we greet the Lenten silence of God towards us with such a deep sigh of relief. The faithful disciples of the Lord, I warrant, are those who have tasted the sweetness of a broken and contrite heart that God’s silence awakens; and they earnestly desire to taste its humility again. The love of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life are wrapped around us like heavy clothes. Our hearts have grown cold. Tears of repentance are far from our eyes. We have strayed far away from the True Shepherd and have become prey to the wolf of souls.

So, when we hear the story of the Canaanite woman, we receive the silence of the Lord to us as his call to us to come away from the emptiness of the world and draw near again to the bridal chamber of our heart. In the silence of the Lord’s call to us, we remember the sweetness that filled our breast in Lents past when we were able in some measure to get down off our religious high horse and descend into our hearts. We remember how dirty we in fact are, how perverse, how lonely and afraid we are in this worldly darkness born from our love for the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, how ignorant of God we are, how forgetful of God we are, how indifferent to God we are. We remember the cry of grief that rose spontaneously from our heart to the Lord, how it came from somewhere deep beneath the masks we wear as though coming from the marrow of our soul. We remember how healing the sorrow of that moment of sincerity felt, the ineffable sweetness that seemed to touch us from afar, as though descending upon us from above, from a place of light, a place of rest where there is neither sickness nor sorrow nor sighing but life everlasting. We remember it when we come to these Gospels of the Sundays announcing the coming of Great Lent; and we cherish the Lord’s rebuke for it is filled with healing, and with a deep sigh of relief, we fall down with the Canaanite woman and say as she did: “We are unworthy to receive the bread of your table, O Lord. We will be satisfied simply to eat the crumbs that fall from your table.”

The Lord does not say to the disciples but to the Canaanite woman, “Great is your faith.” Hear the lesson of the Canaanite woman as we prepare for the closing of the doors at the advent of Great Lent. Faith is but the other side of love, and love by its very nature is humble and desires that all should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. If we can identify with the Canaanite women of the world, and realize that we are lost sheep, that we are dogs, then we are coming down from our religious high horse and we are stepping into her faith that is so great because it is the very faith of Christ himself. Though he was equal with the Father, he nonetheless emptied himself out of his great love for us and became flesh and dwelt among us. And, he was obedient to the Father even to the point of death on the Cross, that he might share with us in all things, except sin, and destroy him who held the power of death and deliver us from death. Such faith that completely trusts in the Lord is so great because it is that faith that identifies with God, who is greatly merciful and compassionate; and in identifying with God, it identifies with the Canaanite women of the world so that all might be saved through the prayers of the saints, just as the daughter was saved through the prayers of her mother, the Canaanite’s woman.

Listen to the Lord’s silence and follow where his rebuke would take you. It will take you into your heart, and it will heal you. It will make you one with the Lord who made himself one with us, so that in Christ, we may offer ourselves to God on behalf of all and for all, for the salvation of all. Amen.