This Homily was given by Deacon Michael Schlaack on the Gospel Account of Christ and the Canaanite Woman
A loving mother will go to great measures to get help for her severely ill child as witnessed in today’s reading from the Gospel of St. Matthew. Here we find our Lord and His disciples traveling through the region of Tyre and Sidon, along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Jesus is approached by a woman whose daughter is severally demon possessed. Being a woman of Canaan, we know that she is not a Jew but rather a Gentile; not a child of Abraham but rather a member of that race of people—the Canaanites—who were defeated by the Hebrews back in the days of conquest under Joshua. She belonged to a group of people who were considered just as much outside of the blessings of God as anyone can possibly be. But the love and concern for her daughter’s health drove her to the one Man who could, with a word, relieve her suffering. Her love provides an example of not only the value of persistent prayer, but also the extent of God’s mercy, even to those who we may consider unworthy of His blessings.
The first words out of the Canaanite woman’s mouth in our account are, “Have mercy on me, O Lord.” This same prayer is said by us throughout the Divine Liturgy. In this sense the Canaanite woman represents all of us sufferers who are in need of God’s mercy. It should be interesting to note that the women’s plea is for mercy for herself— “Have mercy on me”—not for her demon-possessed daughter. It is obvious that the mother suffers even though it is her daughter who is afflicted. Parents will understand this association with the suffering of their children: the child’s pain becomes parent’s pain; their sorrow is our sorrow. It is likewise when we see our children caught up in the sins of the world: We feel the pain that they may not know due to the gravity of their situation. It is likely that the daughter in our reading today probably did not realize the true depth of the suffering that she was experiencing. Rather, it took someone else, looking through the eyes of love, to fully assess the suffering and make the prayer for mercy to the only Physician who could heal her.
It initially appears that the woman’s prayer fell on deaf ears. St. Matthew records that Jesus did not answer her (v. 23). How many times have you felt that the same way; that your prayers never made it past the ceiling? But God hears our prayers and gives us the answers we need, even if they are not always the answers we want. I can only imagine how this mother must have felt inside to have her pleas for mercy go unanswered, but the Gospel tells us that she was undeterred. Even though she was a Gentile, she somehow understood that the answer to her prayers relied on the mercy of this Jewish teacher. So rather than sulking away, she persisted in her pleas to the point where even the disciples could no longer bear to hear her cries. She was a woman on a mission and she knew she came to the right Person to have her prayer answered.
What is most notable about this account is that all the time the woman plead with Jesus, she knew that she had no standing before the Law; no justification to make a demand on the “Son of David.” She was an outsider, a Gentile, so she continued with the only prayer she could: “Have mercy on me, O Lord.” The disciples want Jesus to send her away, and while it is often understood that the disciples simply wanted her to leave them alone, Jesus’ response indicates that they had in fact expected Jesus to grant the mother her prayer, for Jesus answers His disciples saying: “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (v. 24). This comment was made to the disciples, not to the Canaanite woman, for Christ was setting the stage for another important lesson for His followers.
We now come to the pivotal point in our Gospel reading. The woman again approached Jesus, “worshipped Him,” and again begged: “Lord, help me!” (v. 25) Jesus’ replied with what sounds like a rebuke: how could He be so cruel as to not answer the woman’s prayer and heal her daughter? It is important to first carefully consider Christ’s words in response to the woman’s plea. Jesus responded: “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw itto the little dogs’ (v. 26). What exactly does He mean? We see that He did not outright say “No,” rather He was making a very important point about His mission: First, that He was sent to save the lost sheep of Israel; and second, that the blessings of God are too precious to be wasted on those who do not have the faith to fully benefit from those blessings. In the Gospel accounts of all of Christ’s miracles we see that each had a greater purpose: to heal those in physical or spiritual torment, as well as build up faith in God, not only for those who were healed but for those who witnessed the healing. In all cases the witnesses were Christ’s disciples. Jesus did not perform these miracles to simply relieve suffering or to draw attention to Himself. All His miracles acted as road signs, pointing to God the Father and His unfathomable love for His fallen creation. St. John the Theologian refers to Christ’s miracles as “signs,” precisely because they point to a higher meaning.
In His response, Jesus was not calling the Canaanite woman a dog, but rather using a reference that was employed earlier in St. Matthew’s Gospel: "Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under foot and turn to attack you” (Matt. 7:6). According to the Fathers, the dogs were those people who were so evil that they could not change, and the swine represent those people who live immoral and unclean lives. The one will simply waste and abuse the blessing, while the other will never benefit from God’s grace. In our communion prayer we state, “I will not speak of Thy Mystery to Thine enemies.” The Mysteries of Christ are part of the treasure of our faith, and it would be useless to cast them amongst the dogs and swine.
Jesus was therefore laying a challenge before the woman: “You know that you are not entitled to the blessings reserved for the lost sheep of Israel, so show me by your faith why I should grant your petition.” Undeterred, the woman answered, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table” (v. 27). She was not asking for what she was not entitled to, only that which was not consumed by its rightful owner. As a Gentile she may not have fully understood all the intricacies of the Law of Moses, and I am sure that she did not follow the rules that govern Jewish life, but the one thing she knew was that Christ was able to heal her daughter. It is important to note that she did not proclaim Jesus to be the Son of God; it’s possible that she did not fully understand the Jewish concept of the Messiah. These facts make her story even more incredible, for it is entirely out of faith and love for her child that she persistently pursued Christ. And as a result Jesus commends her faith and heals her daughter, “from that very hour.”
The Gospel account does not record the disciples’ reaction to Christ’s praise for the faith of the Canaanite woman, but I am sure that they were probably confounded. This Gentile woman who had the audacity to beg for mercy from their Messiah was rewarded for her boldness. But this was the precise message that Jesus wanted to convey to both His disciples and to us here today. Have we ever judged someone as not being worthy of the grace of God because that person does not profess the Orthodox faith, or maybe any faith at all? Do we ever think that God is the sole possession of us and our Church? If we do then we are certainly selling God short, for as Jesus demonstrated in our Gospel reading this morning, an outsider’s faith may be just as strong—or even stronger—than our own. And is not the Canaanite woman’s plea no different than our own? Don’t we need the mercy that can only come from persistent prayer and unrelenting faith?
We learn from this morning’s Gospel lesson that no one is beyond the love and mercy of God. We, as Orthodox Christians, are direct beneficiaries of God’s boundless grace and it is a gift from our Father that we should not withhold from the rest of world. The account of the Faith of the Canaanite Woman is a living textbook for the benefit of Jesus’ disciples and for us today as well. Her cry— “Have mercy on me, O Lord”—is our cry as well, for we are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God. But through our faith in Jesus Christ and our fervent prayers we will be able to share in the eternal blessings that He has in store for us all, for even the smallest crumb of the Bread of Life which falls from the Master’s table, like faith the size of a mustard seed, is more than enough to move the “mountains” that we encounter in our lives. Therefore, let each of us strive to strengthen and perfect our faith, so that Christ can answer our own prayers with the same words He spoke to the Canaanite woman: “Great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.”