Sermon – The Seventeenth Sunday of Matthew 2021
The Seventeenth Sunday of Matthew
(The Canaanite Woman)
By V. Rev. Timothy Baclig
February 14, 2021
Reaching a point of desperation such as we hear in the account of the Canaanite woman can do one of two things: It can cause one to have faith or being the reason to fall into despair. No one likes or enjoys being desperate, except for some who may be an actor, a trickster, or a robber - who cannot be trusted.
Faith is triggered by hope. It reaches out. For the Christian, faith is based in one’s relationship with Christ and trust in God. However, as we see in today’s lesson, faith, hope and reaching out is a very human experience and is not exclusive to Christians, just as it was not exclusive to being Jewish in Jesus’ day.
The Canaanite woman had hope. She not only had hope she was motivated by love – a mother’s love. Her desperation regarded her daughter who greatly suffered from demon possession. The woman’s love was what motivated her and she acted upon it. It demonstrated her faith: “You are a woman of great faith!” Jesus said (Matthew 15:28).
Interestingly, the Canaanite woman was not considered religious. She had not been brought up by pious Jewish parents to practice the customs of the Jews and to believe in the living God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. She was a Gentile; a Canaanite. The Canaanites were old enemies of the Jews. Yet, in desperation she was unafraid to approach Jesus. And lo and behold, we hear in the Gospel that, once again, the disciples begged the Lord, “Send her away, for she is crying after us.” In other words: “she’s a pest.” [Sound familiar? Remember the blind man in the Gospel a few weeks ago?]
Last week we heard of Zacchaeus who being a tax collector was labeled a “crook,” because tax collectors had a bad reputation. They were regarded by many to be masters of distortion. Last week’s lesson demonstrated how that even Zacchaeus was not prevented from seeking the truth and, more importantly, did not avoid facing the truth within himself. After Jesus encountered him, Zacchaeus was a changed man.
And so with these two lessons we have been shown two ironies: first a man who being dishonest in his profession faced the truth of his personal life, and second a mother, who was not considered religious, was recognized by Christ for her great faith.
You know, there will be times when something may not seem “religiously correct.” We have been discussing this in our Tuesday evening Bible Study on the Book of Romans. As pious Jews the Apostles repeatedly faced the difficult question about the Law; specifically the “rites of purification.” And we Orthodox Christians also have in our Tradition “Canon Law;” which many have rejected as a product of “man’s religion.” While we have bishops and priests who must discern and judge each circumstance as Pastors, you and I must also understand that God’s ways may require us to sometimes “think outside of the box.” Our faith is not tied to juridical legalism and fundamentalism. Rules and laws are important because it is founded upon truth and cannot be ignored. Truth requires accepting responsibility. Our difficulty today is that people do not want to be held accountable. While some of us may think the “rules” of the Church are “man made,” the Church and her overseers not only speak from the foundation of our faith: Holy Scripture, Patristic writings, Canon Law (what we call “Holy Tradition”), they speak from centuries of experience by the witness of the lives of the saints who by addressing the flaws of our sinful condition all point to the need for repentance.
Today’s lesson addresses the circumstances of a mother who had no control of her daughter’s condition. She strongly believed that Jesus could help her. And so we learn that the Canaanite woman became one of the first of countless Gentiles (non-Jews) who believed the Gospel and joined the Christian community. Her witness in this lesson is an excellent example that demonstrates the fact how faith in Christ transcends all barriers. Moreover, the Canaanite woman’s determination shows us how faith is also a matter of human resolve that any person can exercise. However, notice how a mother’s love was the motivation of her desperation. That kind of love, I believe are not exclusive to mothers. Why would a father not have that kind of love? Men might act differently, behave differently, but it is the same love.
Faith builds up a person, a home, a relationship, a ministry, a parish, a society. Faith also unlocks the treasures of God’s wisdom and releases His power into our lives with often astonishing results. From a purely human perspective faith is a decision of one’s free will, a conscious choice, a deliberate commitment to all things that are “true, noble, right, pure, lovely and honorable” (Phil. 4:8), as St. Paul describes it.
But while faith can be a choice, faith is also a gift of the Spirit. There are also degrees of faith. [To each have been given a “measure of faith” (Romans 12:3)] From God’s perspective: faith also empowers. God knows our hearts. He also knows which way our free will inclines—what we tend to do—just as you and I, do the degree that we know ourselves. As we exercise the gift of faith, however feeble our resolve may be, God honors our sincere decision, He lifts up our faith, strengthens, sanctifies and perfects it. The warmth, joy and love of God become clearer and clearer, stronger and stronger in us. Quote from St. Theophan: “Have you fallen? Get up and say bravely: “Now I have begun.” Fall down before your merciful Master and confess your sins. But before you say anything, He will already know what you [plan] to say. Before you open your lips, He will see what is in your heart. You will not be able to say, “I have sinned,” before you see Him stretch forth His hands to receive and embrace you."
The example of the Canaanite woman also teaches us about persistence faith. Very often a person makes a commitment of faith but when facing difficulties or challenging circumstances faith diminishes.
Discerning the sincerity of the Canaanite woman, Jesus’ words were a test in the presence of His disciples. He initially responded to the woman’s cry for help by saying: “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Now one would think, “Why in the world would the lord have said this to the poor woman?” Her response is also remarkable. She replied: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” St. John Chrysostom puts it this way: Christ’s words to the woman were not an insult or abuse, but for the purpose of calling forth her virtue and revealing the treasure in her.
Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman lastly, also provides for us another powerful lesson. For the Jews, the Gentiles were ritually unclean. [Now let’s ask ourselves an honest question: Are there people who you and I might consider “unclean;” perhaps some who we would rather not be associated with? Sure, there are. But why? Is it because they think differently or look different from how we know and see ourselves; or might be having great difficulty in overcoming an addiction? Would you and I, as the Lord Himself declared to Zacchaeus, be able to say: “This too is a son [or a daughter] of Abraham?”
Jesus taught that only the things which come out of the heart can make a person unclean (Matthew 15:17-20). By crossing over into Gentile territory and speaking with the Canaanite woman Jesus gave us an example of breaking down religious barriers – just as he did in choosing to visit Zacchaeus in his home. The gift of faith illumined by the Holy Spirit is a powerful instrument in breaking down all kinds of barriers.
If we are honest: Today, you and I struggle in overcoming many barriers, sadly enough, even within the church. It will take the kind of faith of the Canaanite woman who was prompted by love to overcome these barriers. Today’s lesson is the first among the pre-Lenten reminders of what we must begin practicing. May God help us to have open hearts with eyes to see and ears to hear a message so clear and simple. May He help us to manifest faith like the Canaanite woman.