23 The Phoenician Woman - February 3, 2008

I Tim 1:15-17

Matthew 15:21-28

When we come to the Sunday of the Canaanite woman, we know that the next Sunday is Zaccheus Sunday, and that tells us that Great Lent is now but five weeks away. It’s time to begin making ready for that blessed season of “sweet sadness.” The story of the Syro-Phoenician woman is hard to understand because of how the Savior treats her. But we must take care not to soften it by giving it our own spin to make it conform to our understanding of God. We must listen, listen; we must let the Gospel speak its own voice, even if it is difficult, if we are to learn its lessons. And this Gospel has a critically important lesson to teach us this morning precisely in that point where it is most difficult. It is a lesson teaching us how to go about receiving from the Lord that deep healing of the soul that is open to us in a special way in the season of Great Lent.

The Church holds this Phoenician woman up as a model of the kind of persistence in prayer and humility that the Savior calls his followers to. This is especially encouraging because of the kind of woman she very likely was; we see in her how great is the Savior’s mercy. Coming from Phoenicia in Syria, she came from a culture centered on an agricultural religion that practiced, at one point in its history, human sacrifice, and that believed the fertility of the crops depended on the practice of sympathetic magic, which meant an annual orgiastic festival, and throughout the year keeping a cult of temple maidens who, representing the Goddess of fertility, offered their sexual services to any man. It is therefore no wonder, given the kind of religious practices she was part of, that the ailment afflicting her daughter was possession by an unclean spirit. It was no doubt because of the perverse and sordid religious practices of the society she came from, and not just because she was bothering them with her persistence, that the disciples found her disgusting and wished the Lord would send her away. But I think it is a most important detail in the story that, while the Lord at first ignores her, and then finally as much as says that she is a “dog” and tells her, with justification given the kind of things she no doubt had practiced in her native religion, that she doesn’t belong at the table with God’s chosen ones – he does not send her away. He does not say to her, as he says to the unrighteous in the parable of the sheep and the goats that we will be reading a few Sundays hence on the eve of Great Lent: “Depart from me, for I never knew you.” Pray God that he will ignore you or that he will say you are a dog a thousand times, but pray that you will never hear him say to you: “Depart from me, for I never knew you.” For, to depart from him is to fall into everlasting darkness. To be in his presence, even if he is ignoring you or saying you are a “dog” is to be in the light of his all-consuming love.

 I think it is also significant that this woman has come out of her own city to seek out Jesus to plead with him to save her daughter from the dark spirits that her culture worshipped with their sordid religious practices. Her coming to the Savior and prostrating herself before him looks very much like the beginning of the baptismal service, when the sponsors together with the candidate for baptism turn to the west to repudiate Satan – for that, in effect, is what this woman was doing by leaving her city to seek deliverance from the gods, or rather from the demons masquerading as gods of her own religion from this God-man Jesus who, as Lord of all, has power over the demons.

The holy fathers tell us that prayer must be persistent and hardened with resolve, like this Phoenician woman’s pleading. The Lord ignoring her at first reminds us that we should expect sooner or later to hit a wall in our prayer life, when it feels that the Lord is ignoring us, that we are just talking to the air. This is the first test to see if we are really serious about denying ourselves for the sake of Christ: will we continue to seek after him in prayer even when prayer ceases to be fun or comfortable any more? Will we deny Christ to follow after bodily comforts and entertaining diversions that please us instead of keeping to a discipline of prayer, or will we choose to deny ourselves to follow after Christ by choosing the hard work of an ascetic discipline of prayer in order to crucify our vanity that we may learn to love Christ and his commandments above all else?

The Phoenician woman passed this first test. Denying herself in her resolve to gain the ear of the Master, she persisted even when the Lord seemed to ignore her; even when the disciples shamed her and sought to send her away. She showed her humility even in this, for she showed that her mind was fixed not on defending her own reputation but on Christ. But then she comes to the second test.

Finally, the Lord turns and speaks to her. But when he does, he in effect calls her a dog; and he tells her that she isn’t good enough to sit at table with his chosen ones. This is the point of the story that we find hard to understand. It offends us. It does not conform to our ideas of a warm and fuzzy God who is in the business of affirming us and making us feel good about ourselves and saving us, at all costs, from shame, from feeling like we’re bad persons. But it is the critical point of the story. Everything hinges on the woman’s answer. How she answers will reveal whether or not she truly renounced Satan when she came to the Savior, and whether or not she has truly united herself to Christ. For, to unite yourself to Christ means that you submit to his judgment of you. There is no argument, for he is your Lord. You are not his Lord. If he tells you that you are a dog, a sinner, then you are a dog, a sinner, for Christ is Truth and his Word is Truth.

But, beloved faithful; the Lord has spoken to us, first through his prophets, and then he himself in the mystery of his Incarnation, and now through his holy apostles in the mystery of his holy Church, which is his body, the continuation of his incarnation. And how does he speak to us? He tells us plainly that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; we all like sheep have gone astray. There is none righteous, no not one. Do you hear? He is telling us that we are dogs, that we are not worthy to sit at his table, just like this Phoenician woman. We may not have sacrificed our fellow humans as her religious society did, but have we not slain our fellow human beings in our hatred of those we don’t like, in the malicious things we say about them, in the angry thoughts we entertain in our mind, the grudges we nurse against them in our soul? Have we indulged in sexual activity outside of marriage? Even if we haven’t, have we not indulged in the immoral pleasures of fornication and adultery in the fantasies we allow our minds to dwell on, in the websites we allow our fingers to find for our eyes on our computer keyboards, or on the remote control of our cable TV’s? Are we not proud, conceited, deceitful, unfaithful, lovers of money more than lovers of God, selfish, ungrateful, small, petty and mean?

Look to yourself, and say in all honesty that you are not a dog, that you are not a sinner, and that you deserve a seat at the table of the Lord’s chosen ones. Look to yourself and see if you don’t find yourself talking like the Pharisee, or as the rich young ruler, telling the Master, as they did, how good you are, how you have kept all his commandments from your youth up, and how much he should be impressed with you. Hear the words of the Master. He is addressing you just as he did this Phoenician woman, perhaps with more justice. For if she was perverse, she at least was so because she thought it was the religious thing to do. What’s your excuse?

Now you (and I) have come to the second test. What is your reaction? Is it the reaction of the Pharisee? He went away angry and began plotting how to destroy Jesus. Is it the reaction of the rich young ruler? He went away sorrowful because the Lord wasn’t as impressed with him as he was with himself. Or is it the reaction of the pundits of modern-day popular religion? They go off in their smug conceit and from the filaments cast off by his own ego they spin a Christ God who is affirming, who winks at our sins as though he’s more bemused than offended at what he dismisses as silly peccadilloes, as though they’re just mistakes, “missings-of-the-mark” made by well-meaning people who tried the best they could but just didn’t make it, a Christ who coddles you sweetly and tells you how wonderful you are. Your reaction to the Lord addressing you as he did the Phoenician woman is your answer that reveals whom you really love: yourself or this Jesus Christ of the bible, the one who calls you a “dog” and tells you that you don’t belong at his table because of the sins that you cannot deny.

But now, let’s note very well what the Lord said to the Phoenician woman when she passed the second test, when she did not demur at all but even as much as agreed with him that she was, in fact, a “dog” and that, in fact, she did not belong at the table with God’s chosen ones. He said to her, and now his tone has changed altogether. Indeed, he addresses her directly and with respect, even endearment, as “dear woman,” and he says: “Great is your faith. Let it be done to you as you desire.” How did she speak that the Lord now speaks to her like this? She spoke in humility, out of a broken and contrite heart. She acknowledged that she was, as the Lord said she was, a dog, i.e. a sinner, who is not worthy of Heaven – and in that confession when she acknowledged the truth about herself as the Lord himself had revealed it to her, she discovered his infinite mercy. She discovered the truth of the prophetic word: that the Lord sets himself hard against us when we are proud and self-righteous; but when we humble ourselves, we discover that he is greatly compassionate and that his mercy endures forever. When we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness, all immorality, all impurity – and to make us worthy, even though we are unworthy, to sit at his table in the Kingdom of Heaven.

So, if you are offended when the Lord calls you a dog; if you feel that the Church is condemning you as a bad person when she tells you that you are a sinner, then, take the lesson of this Phoenician woman to heart. Don’t argue; don’t go off in a huff because you’ve been insulted. The Lord has called you a sinner. He has said you are not worthy to sit at his table. But, he has not told you to depart from him; so for God’s sake stay in his presence and submit humbly to everything he tells you, in the faith that his purpose is to give you the same kind of deep healing of your soul that he gave to the daughter of this Phoenician woman when by his word he expelled the unclean demons from her soul. He calls you a sinner, and his word is truth. So, get off your high horse, crawl out of your self-pity, which is but another form of vanity, and acknowledge from your heart that you’re a sinner; that you are not worthy that he should enter under your roof, into the house of your soul. Look to yourself and figure out exactly why you feel like a bad person when the Lord says you are a sinner. What have you done that makes you feel like a bad person? Then do as this woman. Come to where the Lord makes his presence incarnate in a physical way: the sacrament of confession; and there, with a humble heart, tell the Lord exactly why you feel like a bad person, a dog. You can’t deceive the Lord, so don’t try. Don’t try to cover up what you really feel, what you’re really afraid of. You’re hiding it only from yourself and you’re setting up a wall between you and God, preventing him from coming into your soul to give you the deep healing you need and truly desire. Don’t stand before God as someone or something you aren’t. You’re no saint, and you can’t make yourself a saint, so don’t even try to present yourself to the Lord as one. You fool only yourself. And, take heart. It’s not the sinner that the Lord despises; it’s his self-righteousness, his vanity, his arrogance and conceit. For, the Lord resists the proud, but he loves the humble of heart: those who don’t put on airs and play games, but who acknowledge that they are sinners when they are sinners. He came into the world not to save the righteous but to call sinners to repentance. He desires not our death but that we turn from our sin and live. So stand before the Lord as did this woman, in humility, confessing your sin; and note very well that the Lord did not tell her, as perverse and sordid as her past no doubt was, to depart from him, but that he said to her: “Let it be done to you as you desire.” So also he speaks to you; so also he heals you in the heart of your soul when you acknowledge that you are a sinner and confess your sin to him in sincerity and humility.

With the ascetic disciplines the Church gives us to do during Great Lent, we have the blessed opportunity to go inside our souls under the special guidance of the Church, in order to look in the mirror, to take off the fig leaves of vanity and pride and to stand before the Lord as did this Phoenician woman: in the honesty and humility of a broken and contrite heart, in order to find the same deep healing that she found. If we will humble ourselves before him, and obey his commandment to repent, and call on him to save us, we can be sure that he will heal us and save us, for he saved this humble woman’s daughter. I pray that Great Lent will be a time when we discover those gates of joy that open onto the Lord’s forgiveness and the cleansing of sins that he grants in the ineffable glory of his holy Pascha to those who, like this Phoenician woman, do not cease calling on the name of the Lord and who confess their sins to him in the humility of a sincere and contrite heart. Amen.