St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

On the Sunday of the Canaanite Woman

Sermon Preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Reading is from Matthew 15:21-28

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The Gospel always gives us a glimpse into Christ's Great Good Heart.  The Lord reveals to us His Father’s gracious will to heal and save all of creation by living among us an incarnate life and demonstrating in living color what it is that the Holy Trinity  desires.  

The disciples reveal their impurity of heart by condemning the Syro-Phoenician Woman.  They did as their upbringing taught them.  The woman was not only acting improperly by approaching the Lord as she did, she was a Gentile and doubly to be avoided.  Jesus at first was silent which probably pleased them, but obviously they hoped for a stern rebuke since they asked for it by name saying, “Send her away”. And when Jesus made his famous reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel the disciples must have been overjoyed!  At last Jesus was standing up for his heritage!  His next remark I am sure sent them into paroxysms of delight. “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

In this Jesus sought to reveal two things: one tragic and one divine. He made an example of both the disciples and the Woman; the disciples for their cruelty and lack of faith and the Woman for her humility and spiritual beauty.  Her reply echoes forever as an example of pure love, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”  “Then Jesus answered her, ‘O woman, great is your faith!  Be it done for you as you desire.’”  You see, the only thing that matters is humility. It doesn’t matter who or what you are, or what you have done, humility opens the floodgates of divine grace.

What does this say of us?  What lesson is here for us?  This Gospel points to the way of life that pleases God.  Not the way of the disciples dictated by fear, bigotry and hatred.  These are indicators of sin, sure signs that self-interest is the motive. The way of the Syro-Phoenician Woman pleases Jesus, the way of extreme humility and love.  In her there is not one ounce of self-interest. Her ego has been destroyed. The great enemies of ego are faith and love. She approaches the Lord without regard for social convention, begs him for help, accepts his rebuke with a display of unprecedented faith, calls herself a dog (a great insult in Middle Eastern culture) and this Jewish man she names “Master”.  

How can we know we are on the right track? Humility and love. It is simple, “They will know we are Christians by our love.”  But it must be humility and love in its most radical form extending even to our enemies, to those who abuse us and wish us harm, which is no small task. Olivier Clement explains it like this:

“The key to spiritual progress is, therefore, evangelical love for one’s enemies. This is first of all – something very simple, but very difficult – the refusal to judge, the refusal to assert oneself in despising or condemning others. Only such an attitude of mind brings detachment and peace. The rest is secondary.”

All that our Lord did and said was for love.  His Great Good Heart was always open. Is it not obvious that everything we do must be for the love of God and our neighbor?  Without humility of heart we cannot love.  We must  first realize that our neighbor is “Christ with us” and then our actions will take on a holy character.  We will seek all means possible to lift up the other, to bring joy, peace and comfort to the other, to humble ourselves before the other as before the Lord Himself. Anything other than that is born of pride and self-interest, the two progenitors of all evil.

It has been said recently by some that our community is, perhaps, a little too welcoming, a little too friendly. But how can a community following the example of Christ be too friendly?  We could not possibly  “out -friendly” Jesus who died for all of us “while we were yet sinners” and the Father who makes the sun to shine on the good and the bad alike.  I reject the idea of exclusion just as Jesus did who broke down those walls every time he spoke to a woman, or ate in the house of sinners, or saved an adulterous woman from death, or reached out his hand to heal on the Sabbath Day, or told a parable featuring a Gentile, or touched an unclean leper, or drank water from Jacob’s well from the hand of a Samaritan who was also a woman and a sex addict, who healed the favorite servant of the Centurion, who spoke out against the pride of the self-righteous religious, who challenged the Pharisees and stood up for those they condemned. He was the One who lifted Zaccheus, cared for this Syro-Phoenician Woman, healed the woman with the issue of blood and the Blind Man on the road to Jericho, forgave Peter after he betrayed Him, restored the Apostles who forsook Him in the garden, encouraged the sorrowing Thomas who was honest enough to express his doubts, elevated Paul the murderer of Christians and asked God’s forgiveness for all those who contributed to His crucifixion and those of us who still do.  The truth, the bottom line, is that if we are not people-friendly to a fault then we are not God-friendly to a fault.

We are to lift one another up, not tear one another down.  The Lord warns us not to try and separate the wheat from the tares. He tells us not to extinguish a smoldering reed.  We must be very careful that in our zeal we do not place barriers between ourselves and God by causing others to suffer.

The truth is that we have little time in this life to spare.  The call to purity of heart demands that we concentrate our spiritual efforts daily, even, as St. Paul writes, “incessantly”.  It is so easy to get trapped in personal delusion and get side-tracked into counterfeit forms of spirituality.

Elder Sophrony writes, “Do not let the things of this world disperse your energy. Concentrate all your attention on, devote all your energy to, a life which corresponds to the spirit of the Gospel commandments. Let us keep control over our mind in the face of the distractions of the exterior world. Without ascetic effort, our mind will never be able to remain constantly in God. It is from now, in this life, that we must learn to dwell in God, just as our spirit will dwell in God after our death.”

Holy Orthodoxy is the repository of the most amazing treasures.  I sincerely wish I had time to share with you the things I have learned in just the past few days, surprising and utterly transformational things, but it will have to wait for another time, but let me end here saying that love, true, evangelical, radical, Christ-like love is the only sure sign that God is present with us and is the greatest form of ascetical labor.  We cannot abandon this path at St. Mary’s, chosen long before I ever came here, without betraying Christ. This way was chosen by the good-hearted people who founded this parish and the godly priests who served her.  It was chosen long before I came here and will last long after I am gone.