The 17th Sunday after Pentecost

The Canaanite woman

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen. [1]

Today is the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost and also the Sunday after the Exaltation of the Precious and life-giving cross. Therefore, we have as one of the gospel readings the passage about taking up the cross and denying oneself, which is always read on the Sunday after the Exaltation of the Cross. We also have before us the spectacle of the Canaanite woman. Indeed at that time, when she begged for and received the healing of her daughter, she was surely quite a spectacle. She was crying after our Lord, crying after his disciples, and trying to get his attention, because of her extreme need. We can learn many things from this woman. Of course, we can learn about humility, but there is something even more profound about this woman. Our Lord names it himself -- her faith. Out of her faith came her humility.

Our Lord is going along the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. This was the land of the Gentiles. He was actually escaping from the Jews, who could not His testimony concerning Himself, recorded only in the Gospel of St. John. He called Himself the bread of life, and told that we must eat this bread in order to have salvation. The Jews (those who did not believe of course) could not stand that. They could not understand it, because they were carnal and temporal people. After His discourse, many who had been following Him left. There was a tumult concerning him, and much anger. At this time, and even before then, there was a conspiracy among some who wanted to kill our Lord. He died at the time he wanted to die, and escaped from the conspirators many times. He would go into hiding for periods of time, in order and teach his disciples privately, and also to make available to us important incidents for our benefit, such as when he met the woman at the well, St. Photini, or when this woman of Canaan shows such great faith.

Our Lord is in the land of the Gentiles, and he is just passing through. He is not on a mission of ministry there at all, since he said he was sent to the lost sheep of Israel. The vast majority of what He said and did was to the Jews. Later, the floodgates were opened, when it was the right time, and all men were made aware of the salvation of God. This would be a task for the Apostles, and indeed, the whole church to do.

This woman comes and begs Him to heal her daughter, many many times. I think also of the blind men, who also entreated Him, saying, "Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou son of David. And the multitude rebuked them, because they should hold their peace: but they cried the more, saying, Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou son of David.". So also did blind Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus entreat our Lord with great persistence: "Jesus, thou son of David, have mercy on me. And many charged him that he should hold his peace: but he cried the more a great deal, Thou son of David, have mercy on me." Jesus rewarded this man with object of his desire, and also commended him about his great faith. These few also were very persistent, as this Canaanite woman was. In this society, it would have been a spectacle for a woman to do this, and even a Gentile woman at that.

She says "Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil..". Notice that she says "Have mercy on me." Our Lord does not rebuke her for this. The desires of our heart God will give, if we ask with a pure heart, and with a persistence that shows we believe. If we ask for mercy upon ourselves, aren't we also asking for mercy for those we love and care about? When we pray for mercy, we certainly will be thinking of our family, our brothers and sisters, and those we love, because their well being is certainly the desire of our hea God will grant our desires, and we do not have to be so precise - "Lord have mercy on George because of this problem, or John because of that problem"-- all we need do is ask God for mercy, and in a simple way make our need known, to the One who already knows.

When the blessed woman finally got his attention, she said what her problem was: "my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil.". And he did not say anything. He ignored her, and the indication from the text is that this went on for quite some time. She was imprecating him over and over as he walked on the road, ignoring her. Even the Apostles were asking Him to send her away. The Fathers think that the Apostles had tried to be her advocate, but at length they had tired of her. This woman has no friends in the world. She is completely alone, and she is crying out to the only one she thinks can help her, and He is not listening. But she keeps trying. she comes and worships Him: "Lord help me."

He answers her in a way that seems to our pampered egos to be very harsh. "It is not meet to take the children's bread, and cast it to dogs." The children are the Jews, the bread is Him, and the dog -- is her. He called her a dog! In that time, to be called a dog was considered one of the greatest insults. This woman does not recoil from this insult. And our Lord knew this, and that he reaction would show her great faith and humility, born of faith. Or shall I say, the application of her faith. If you believe something and do not act upon it, it is completely useless to you. This woman answers wondrously: "Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table."

What a spectacle we have here, of incredible humility! However, take note, brothers and sisters, this humility is founded on knowledge, and he acting upon this knowledge. She was bold. She went to our Lord, and thrust herself in front of him, and she begged mercy of him, because She knew WHO HE WAS. She also knew who she was. When He said she was a dog, she accepted that, because she knew it was true. But she also knew that He was the Lord, and that he could heal her daughter, and indeed would heal her daughter. That is why she spent so much time pursuing Him, and surmounted so many obstacles that would stop those of less faith.

The Lord said to her: "Woman, great is thy faith", and then he healed her daughter. How can there be such a miracle? The key is to know Christ. If we know Christ, then He will teach us all things. How in the world can we do this?

The Epistle from the Sunday after the Exaltation gives us a clue. The Apostle says, "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God." The sentence has seeming contradictions -- "I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me." To know Christ, and to have Him live within you, that is the source of all of our knowledge, and our humility. A man who begins to know Christ will also begin to know himself, and he will know that he is a dog, or a worm, or any of the other epithets by which the fathers refer to themselves in their prayers. If you look at the way the Fathers view themselves in all of their holy prayers -- it is amazing -- they were saints, and yet they thought of themselves as the lowest of humanity, and yet, in the midst of their low opinion of themselves, they had boldness before Christ. How can this be?

It can only be -- when Christ lives within you. It is the only way that a man can have boldness before God -- to have God living in him. As God lives within you, you change in your life, because our life is full of change. We either change by going away from God, or going towards Him. The Christian life is the amendment of ourselves. It is the gradual acquisition of the Holy Spirit. It is becoming holy. As we become more holy, we acquire more knowledge, and the application of that knowledge will truly be pleasing to God..

A key to obtaining Christ, and having this knowledge of God, and therefore the boldness and humility, which are side by side with one another is to deny ourselves. Our society is full of self indulgence. It is never really been significantly different, but nowadays, we have the technology to indulge ourselves almost any time we want and in any way we want. Before, it was a little harder, because if you did not scratch a living out of the earth, you would not eat. So you had to do some work, and work very diligently just to take care of the necessities of life. Now, in our industrial society, we have more free time, but so many of us are not free, because we are captive to our passions, and do not deny ourselves. So, the church, in her wisdom, knows that she must teach us this important truth -- built into our character -- that if we do not deny ourselves in a pursuit, we will not be successful in it. If you do not deny yourself when you wish to learn something that is difficult by studying it when you would rather be playing basketball or watching television, or some other indulgence, then you will not learn that which you say you want to know. If you do not deny yourself by fasting, and by attending the services even when they are difficult, and by praying even when you are tired, and by forgiving when you do not want to forgive, and by swallowing your anger when you are angry, and by looking away when you have trouble with a lustful thought -- if you do not deny yourself in these ways, and the myriad other things that your conscience convicts you of, and you know God wants you to do, then you will not grow. If you do not grow, then you will shrivel, and you will die.

The Christian life is growing towards God, it is becoming more like Him. We either become more like Him, or we lose the likeness of Him in ourselves. If this happens, when we are judged, God will say I don't know who you are. I don't know you because you are not like me. You had the opportunity to be like Me. I gave you every bit of knowledge that was necessary, but you squandered it. You wanted to do things your own way.

This woman of Canaan, a pagan woman, a gentile, and outcast, she shows us the real truth of the matter. She, who not had Christ revealed to her in writing, or speech, knew Him. She was humble and bold in her humility. Again, I say, in the Christian life, the two are the same. In secular life, they are not at all the same, but in the Christian life, some one who is humble is bold before God, because he knows Who God IS, and he knows who he is, and he lives in a constant effort to be more like God in holiness and knowledge. That's what we should try to obtain -- this knowledge, and then we will obtain the things we wish from God. God help us to be humble and to be bold before Christ. Amen.

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[1] This homily was transcribed from one given On August 29, 1996 according to the church calendar, being the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost. The Gospel appointed for this day is Matthew 15:21-28. There are some stylistic changes and minor corrections made and several footnotes have been added, but otherwise, it is essentially in a colloquial, "spoken" style. It is hoped that something in these words will help and edify the reader, but a sermon read from a page cannot enlighten a soul as much as attendance and reverent worship at the Vigil service, which prepares the soul for the Holy Liturgy, and the hearing of the scriptures and the preaching of them in the context of the Holy Divine Liturgy. In such circumstances the soul is enlightened much more than when words are read on a page.