January 29, 2023

Sermon – The Seventeenth Sunday of Matthew (The Canaanite Woman)

The Seventeenth Sunday of Matthew
(The Canaanite Woman)
By V. Rev. Timothy Baclig
January 29, 2023

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 a person to be motivated by faith or it can lead one to despair. No one likes or enjoys being desperate.

Faith is triggered by hope. It reaches out. For the Christian, faith is based in one’s relationship with Christ and trust in God. And as we see in today’s lesson, faith, hope and reaching out is also 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 was in being concerned for her daughter. Her love prompted, and is demonstrated by her faith. It caused her to take action. “You are a woman of great faith!” Jesus said (Matthew 15:28). We are told that the woman’s daughter was suffering greatly from demonic possession.

Interestingly, the Canaanite woman was not considered to be religious. She was not 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 of Canaanite stock. The Canaanites were old enemies of the Jews. Yet, in desperation she was not afraid to approach Jesus.

Last week we heard of Zacchaeus who being a tax collector was labeled a “crook,” because tax collectors had a bad reputation as masters of distortion. The lesson last week demonstrated that with such a disadvantage, Zacchaeus was not prevented from seeking the truth and did not avoid facing the truth within himself. It led to his confession and the transformation of his life.

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 repented, and second a mother, who was not considered religious, who Christ recognized for her great faith.

There are times when something may not seem “religiously correct.” We have bishops and priests who must discern and judge each circumstance as Pastors. We also understand that God’s ways may require us to sometimes “think outside of the box.” This is because our faith is not a faith that is tied to legalism and fundamentalism. Rules and laws are important. While some of us may think that they are “man made,” the Church and her overseers not only speak from the foundation of our faith: Holy Scripture, Patristic writings, Canon Law (Holy Tradition), they speak from centuries of experience in addressing the weaknesses of our sinful condition. They provide us the record of understanding how to make the right application with prayer and spiritual discernment; like doctors whose expertise is in providing the appropriate prescription for an ailment.

Often when you or I become desperate, it may be due to procrastination. However in today’s Gospel lesson the voice of desperation was heard of a mother who had no control of her daughter’s condition who strongly believed that Jesus could help her. And so we learn that the Canaanite woman was numbered among 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 that faith in Christ transcends all barriers. Moreover, her determination shows us that faith is also a matter of human resolve that any person can freely exercise. This is not new. The Church has understood this through the centuries, and has also addressed how misguided faith can lead to unintended consequences.

A person’s character is built on faith. Faith establishes a home, a good relationship, a ministry, a parish, and a society. Faith also unlocks the treasures of God’s wisdom. It releases God’s power into our lives, at times, with astonishing results. However, faith acts upon a decision of one’s free will. As a deliberate choice and a commitment of one’s conscience, faith thrives positively in things that are “true, noble, right, pure, lovely and honorable” (Phil. 4:8), as St. Paul describes it.

Now, while faith can be a choice, faith is also a gift of the Spirit. There are also degrees of faith. We hear this in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans (12:3). He says: “To each have been given a measure of faith.”

From God’s perspective faith also empowers. God sees our hearts hears and knows which way our free will inclines. As we exercise the gift of faith, however feeble our resolve may be, God honors our sincere decision, strengthens, sanctifies and perfects it. The warmth, joy and love of God becomes clearer and stronger in us.

Finally, the example of the Canaanite woman also teaches us about persistent faith. Very often a person makes a commitment of faith but when facing difficulties or challenging circumstances faith diminishes. This was not the case with the Canaanite woman who remained persistent. Discerning her sincerity, Jesus decided to test the Canaanite woman. What sounds astonishing is Jesus’ response to the woman’s cry for help. He said: “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Now 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. It is heard in the lesson of today’s epistle where St. Paul quotes a whole slew of Old Testament passages from: Leviticus, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah and 2nd Samuel.

Jesus, however, 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 and fears.

Today we still struggle in overcoming many barriers. It will take the kind of faith of the Canaanite woman who was prompted by love to overcome these barriers.

Today’s lesson is among the pre-Lenten reminders of what we are to 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.