22 - The Canaanite Woman, January 30, 2011

I Tim 1:15-17

Matthew 15:21-28

Hearing the Gospel of the Canaanite woman read on Sunday morning tells us that we’ve come upon that bend on the better and changeless path that will bring us in view of the gates of Great Lent poking above the horizon of the liturgical year like the rising moon. And, in fact, next Sunday is Zaccheus Sunday; and the Sunday after that is the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, the beginning of the Lenten Triodion.

So why did Christ “answer the Canaanite woman not a word”? This is so contrary to the image of Christ I hold in my own mind. I find it unsettling, even offensive. What is the expectation of Christ in my mind that is offended when He answered the Canaanite woman not a word? Do I expect God to answer me? Actually, when I look at myself more closely, I see that I do. His silence to the Canaanite woman gives me pause and turns my mind to think: by what goodness of mine am I justified to presume that God who alone is Good would want to answer me? Suddenly, I discover in my expectation for God to answer me whenever I call on Him a sense of entitlement. I see how I pray to God in the arrogance of a master and not in the fear and humility of a servant.

I am ashamed by such a revelation; but surprisingly, I am not disheartened. I experience not despair but the birth of hope because I find that acknowledging the sin of my hubris is deeply healing to my soul. It gives me to feel a certain cleansing.

I note that the Canaanite woman did not get sulky when the Lord answered her not a word. I wonder if that speaks to the absence of any egotism in her soul. Was that why she finally received a response from the Savior? To be sure, it’s not the response I would have expected; but, she apparently took it as an invitation to draw near to the Savior, because that’s what she did. For, when the Savior said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” the Canaanite woman did not go away. She drew near to Him and worshipped Him and cried out: “Lord, help me!” What did she hear in those words of the Savior – I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the House of Israel – that she takes them as His invitation to draw near and to worship Him in the prayer that He would save her daughter?

According to St Paul, what distinguishes the true Israelite is faith;[1] but Israel fell into idolatry. That’s what makes them lost sheep. So, if Jesus was sent to the lost sheep of Israel, He was sent to idolaters – like the Canaanite woman. And so, His words should have given her hope. He was saying that He was sent precisely to someone like her, someone who was lost in the worship of false gods. And apparently, they did give her hope, for as soon as He says those words, she draws near to Him; and as she calls on Him for help, she is found; for, it says that as she called on Him, she worshipped Him. She fell on her knees, it says. That is the physical gesture of worship. And Christ is not an idol. He is the Image, the Icon, of the invisible God. In worshipping Christ, the Canaanite woman worshipped Him in whom and by whom and for whom all things were made.[2]

St Paul also tells us to put to death everything in us that is earthly: fornication, for example, impurity, passion, evil desire, greed.[3] For these things, he says, are idolatry. Here, St Paul gives us the essence of idolatry that entices us away from God, of which the Molochs, the Baals, the Asherah that enticed Israel of old were but the masks. If we are not working to put these things to death in us, are we not serving them, as the Israelites of old served Moloch, Baal, Astarte, and Tammuzi? Are we not idolaters, lost like the lost sheep of Israel? Like this Canaanite woman? That means that we are those whom Christ was sent to find. I think it means that all of us are the Canaanite woman, even the disciples in this morning’s Gospel, because did they not show an idolatrous greed when they were arguing amongst themselves who would have the higher place in the Kingdom of Heaven? According to the prophet Isaiah, “all of us are like sheep who have gone astray. We have each one gone after our own way.”[4] We are all idolaters. None of us serves Christ. We all serve our ego in the form of fornication – in thought if not in deed – impurity, passion, evil desire and greed.

That means that when the Savior says to the Canaanite woman, “It is not good to give the bread that belongs to the children and throw it to the dogs,” He is calling you and me “dogs” – if not something worse; because the Canaanite woman was worshipping Him when He called her a dog. If He called her a dog, what would He call us when we bear His Name as Christians, yet we are not worshipping Him, when we are not working to put to death what is earthly, what is idolatrous, in us: impurity, greed, sexual immorality not just in deed but in thought?

How does that square with the image of Christ we have in our minds? Does that offend you? Do we dare to be offended when Christ calls us dogs, or worse? Do we like Christ only when He is saying nice, cozy things to us, like “For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son?” He’s not being nice to us here. Here, He’s calling us dogs.

Why didn’t it offend the Canaanite woman? She says, “Yes, Lord.” Yes, you’re right, Lord. I am a dog. For, I am an idolater. I have gone after sexual immorality, passion, evil desire and greed. These are not “rational”, they are not “logical” because they are not of Christ, the Divine “Logos”, the Reason, the Logic of God. By going after them, I become like them: irrational, illogical. I become not like the Divine Logos in whose image I was made, but I become like an irrational beast, a dog, on account of my sin and my love of sin. Yes, Lord, I am a dog. I am an idolater. You are right in your judgment of me. It is not right that I should sit at table with your saints, your holy martyrs and partake of the bread that belongs to the children of God, the divine nature,[5] because I am unclean and impure in my self-serving arrogance and greed.

Let’s be thankful that we do not hear Christ saying to the Canaanite woman or to us dogs, us idolaters, this morning, “Depart from me, for I never knew you!” At least not yet. Let us take a lesson from the Canaanite woman so that we learn to approach God not in arrogance, not with any sense of entitlement, but with fear and trembling, acknowledging our sin as the Canaanite woman acknowledged her own, and saying with her humility: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs feed from the scraps that fall from their masters’ table.” I think the Church teaches us to pray like the Canaanite woman – to say, Yes, Lord, I am a dog. I am an idolater, but even the dogs, even idolaters feed from the scraps that fall from their masters’ table – when she, the Church, gives us to say in, for example, the Canon of Repentance, “Like a swine lying in the mud so do I serve sin,” Yes Lord, I am a dog. “But pull me out of this vileness and give me the heart to do Thy commandments.” But even the dogs feed from the scraps that fall from their masters’ table. Or with the Psalmist: “For, if Thou, O Lord, shouldst mark iniquity, Lord, who could stand, but there is forgiveness with Thee.” Or with St Paul in his letter to St Timothy this morning, “I believe, O Lord, and I confess, that You came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first;” or in the prayers of the Memorial service for the dead, “I am a lost sheep. Call me, O Savior and save me.” Or, in the prayers of Great Lent: “Turn not away Thy face from Thy child, but deliver me speedily. Open to me the doors of repentance and teach me to do Thy will.” Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs eat from the scraps that fall from their master’s table. Hear my prayer and do not let my soul perish. Save me and heal my soul not because I am righteous, for I have done nothing good on the earth. I am a dog, an idolater, but for the sake of Thy compassion, for the sake of Thy Holy Name, through the prayers of your saints, hear me and deliver me speedily.

See how the Lord responds to such a humble soul. “Dear woman,” He says, “great is your faith. Let it be as you wish.” And the Scripture says that her daughter was made whole. By her faith, the Lord “transformed” her daughter from a dog, an idolater, into a daughter of God, a child of the light, a lover of God. He did so because He came not into the world to condemn the world but to save it, because He is gracious and the only Lover of man-kind, and solely out of His goodness, not because of our righteousness, He emptied Himself and was obedient to the Father even to the point of death on the cross, in order that He might descend into the darkness of hell and find us, the lost sheep and all the Canaanite women, and lead us back into Heaven. Here is an image of Christ that comes not from our own imagination or our own ego, but from the Scriptures, and so this image we can trust.

We can be thankful that Christ does not accommodate Himself to our image of Him. He deals with us always on His terms, never on ours. I find that when I lay aside my image of Christ and acknowledge that He is right in calling me a dog, or worse, because I am an idolater, worshipping myself in my passions and not the true Christ, that is when I feel the beginning of the healing of my soul and body; and, I look up the better and changeless path of the Church and see with joy the gates of Great Lent beginning to rise in the distance. May the Lord teach us the humility and the faith of the Canaanite woman, and may He have mercy on us as we begin now to make our preparations for the coming of that blessed season of repentance, Great Lent. Amen.

[1] Rm 2:29

[2] Col 1:15

[3] Col 3:5

[4] Isa 53:6

[5] II Pt 1:4