The Canaanite woman - Exactly how to pray

17th Sunday of Pentecost

Matthew 15:21-28




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


Christ and the Canaanite woman. and sisters, today we have a perfect example of how to pray.  Several things that this woman of Canaan did that we must do if we are to pray, even though she was not of the children of Israel, being from a pagan land, but she knew something about Jesus.  That means that she cared, and that means she thought about things. 


Many of us Orthodox know very little about our faith.  Here a pagan rebukes some of us, because she was not of the household of God, and she yet had enough intelligence to call Him "Son of David."  That is a term for Messiah, and although He was not her Messiah yet, since she was not of the household of Israel. 


This is one of the things that we must have when we pray.  We must know who God is.  And that's not something simple.  We can say, oh, yes, I know who God is:  Father, Son and Holy Spirit; I say it in the Creed.  No, we don't know Who God is.  We know Who God is when we become like Him.  That's when someone truly knows someone, when they become like them, when they emulate them. 


Since God is love and we do not love with completeness, we cannot say that we know God.  Since the Son of God became Man and humbled Himself, even to death on the Cross, we can't say that we know humility.  So we cannot say that we truly know the Son of God. 


If your prayers are to be fruitful, brothers and sisters, they must be joined with morality; they must be joined with becoming something, becoming what God has intended us to be and that is: perfected.  We cannot know Him, or bear to be in His presence unless we struggle for perfection.  So that is the first and foremost thing. 


If you don't try to live a moral life, your prayers will not be fruitful.  I'm not saying to stop praying.  Sure, keep praying.  But don't expect God to reach out to you and answer your prayers if you are not struggling to reach out to Him.  And not through prayer, I mean, but through your living your life in a Christian way. 


So this is the first thing we must do.  We must know God.  And we can't pretend that we know God.  We know that we don't fully know Him because of our sins.  So any good prayer is proceeded by and accompanied with and followed by the struggle against sin.


Now, this woman came to Jesus with her daughter having a demon.  I think a lot of people have demons today but we don't know it. The demons are a little more subtle or we're just much more foolish, and we ascribe all kinds of scientific reasons for people's behavior.  In the past, people knew when people had demons.  Now, I guess, we're a little smarter, or so we think. 


So the woman's daughter had the demon, and she wanted the daughter to be healed.  She was from a benighted land, a land of paganism.  A lot of demons there and a lot of people are demonized in those lands.  Of course we shouldn't consider that our land is really much different than a pagan land.  Look at the things that our society considers important[1].  They're things the pagans considered important too. 


So this woman goes to Jesus and she prays simply.  She just says, "Lord, have mercy."  That's all.  She explains very, very briefly:  "My daughter is grievously vexed with a devil."  That's all. 


That is all you need to do. 


You don't have to come up with any kind of extremely creative prayer. 

You don't have to be eloquent. 

You don't have to cover everything. 


If you're going to surgery, you don't have to pray for the nurses and the doctors and the instruments and the autoclave all to be in good working order.  All you need to do is pray for God to have mercy.  That's all.  And that's what this woman did. 


The simpler your prayer is, the more powerful it will be, because pure prayer is not from words.  Pure prayer is from the soul communicating with God, and that is always done without words.  That is done in a language that we do not know, in words that cannot be uttered.  So keep your prayer simple and intense[2].


So what did she do?  She asked for mercy.  He completely ignored her.  And here we see another very important part of prayer that we fail in continually.  And that is:  Be persistent.  Be persistent even in the face of rejection. 


I'm sure that she knew He heard her.  She was close enough, but He didn't even respond.  So we must be persistent even when it seems as if God does not hear, or when it takes a long time for that which we are praying for.  In fact, some of the things that you pray for will take a long time, even a lifetime, because you should be praying for perfection; you should be praying for complete change in your soul, and that is happening moment by moment and will not happen all at once.


So the woman is following after Jesus, calling out, "Lord, have mercy.  My daughter is grievously vexed with a devil."  And finally the apostles are tired of it, so they say to the Lord, "Send her away for she keeps crying after us."  The Lord was waiting for this.


And then He stopped and then He said to her ‑‑ or said to them, but in her hearing, "I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of Israel."  He goes on and says, "It is not meet to take the children's bread and cast it to the dogs."  The dogs, meaning the unwashed, the unbelievers, the pagans, in this context, all that were not Jews.


And what does she say?  This gives us another way that we must pray.  When you pray, you might be answered in a way that you don't like. or sometimes will you not hear any answer at all.  So she heard herself called a dog.  It appeared that He was not going to listen to her.  So she told Him something very profound:  "Truth, Lord, yet the dogs eat of the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."


So she heard God's words and mixed them with humility, and God responded to her and said, "O, woman, great is thy faith.  Be it done to thee even as thou wilt."  And then her daughter was healed immediately.


Her daughter was healed because of:  Her persistence, her knowledge, her humility and her simplicity.


This is the way we should pray, and this is why our prayers are so fruitless for us many times.  Because we don't do one of these things. 


We must know God.  To know God we must live like Him.  The God‑Man showed us how to do it.  It's all in front of us, but we have to make the effort.  To know God is not only struggling and doing the Commandments but learning of the Commandments.  They're all in the Scripture.  Every page is about Jesus Christ.  Every page is about the sweet Commandments of God.  So we are without excuse if we do not know them.  And we are without excuse if we do not struggle to follow them.  This is foremost the thing that we must do if we expect the Lord to hear our prayers. 


We also must be persistent in our prayers, to continually ask the Lord for help, and we must pray simply.  Part of the reason why we must be simple is because it's very difficult to be persistent and to be eloquent.  How are you going to do that?  Over and over, come up with some new way to ask the Lord for all you need is mercy?  No.  It is better just to pray with simplicity and persistence AND in the context of struggling to live a Christian life. 


This woman is a great example of faith to us and should be a rebuke to us because we don't live this way. 


We are of the household of God, so by that context, by extension, we're of that household of Israel.  We are the children that should have the Master's food, and yet we live in such a way that we have very little of this food.  Not that it's not given to us.  It's all available.  But because we don't take it, because of the way we live and our distractions and our false priorities and our laziness and our lack of knowledge and all the rest of it. 


Every single one of us, right now, in this room, every single one of us has something we really need, that we know we need, things that we really care about and are vexing to us.  Loved ones that need help or something in our life that is amiss, or perhaps just a burning in our heart to know God more intimately.  The only way this is achieved is by prayer such as this:  Simple, persistent, knowledgeable and humble. 


May God help us to pray like the woman of Canaan.  Amen.



Priest Seraphim Holland 2010    


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[1] for instance, pagans were known for gross sexual immorality of all kinds, mistreatment of women and children, abortion and infanticide,  lust for power and pleasure. How can we in the civilized nations dare say that our society is different than this with a straight face?

[2] Of course, besides "Lord have mercy", the quintessential simple prayer to pray with intensity is the Jesus prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me" (or a variation similar to this).