St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

Sunday of the Canaanite Woman

Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, February 1, 2009

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

Glory to Jesus Christ!

I am reminded of the prophecy of Isaiah quoted in the Gospel of St. Matthew when I read this splendid reading from Luke, "The land of Zebulon and the land of Naphtali, By the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles: The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, And those who sat in the region and shadow of death Light has dawned."  (Mt. 4:15-16)

Today Jesus goes even further than the "Galilee of the Gentiles" all the way to the district of Tyre and Sidon in present day Lebanon where the light, according to the religious tradition of first century Palestinian Judaism, was not supposed to shine!

There Jesus and his disciples meet a Canaanite Woman.  The disciples, of course, as always, were horrified.  Blinded by their social, cultural and religious beliefs, they protested loudly. "Send her away!" This woman, this Gentile, this unclean, unworthy, despicable Canaanite who dared to cry out to Jesus to heal her daughter. Unfortunately, many of us today are equally blinded.  "Send her away," they cried, "for she is crying after us!"

Jesus plays along, but only for a moment. I do not believe he is being cruel. It is not in Jesus to be cruel. Perhaps he was testing her when he said, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But I believe he framed his response more for the sake of the disciples. This is what they wanted him to say, knew he should say, and believed he must say!   After her memorable reply, "Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table," Jesus reveals his true intent.  He intended to heal her daughter from the beginning and to show his disciples that their hardness and narrowness of heart, no matter how religiously, culturally or socially justifiable had no place in his ministry.  Jesus shows us an entirely new and radical perspective.  Marcel Proust once wrote, "The voyage of discovery lies not in finding new landscapes, but in having new eyes."

If we are not motivated to change our ways of thinking and being when we read Holy Scripture we are not reading them correctly. If the Gospels do not cause a revolution of love for God and for one another to take place in our hearts, then we need some help with our interpretation.  The Scriptures should move us, as the prayer before the Gospel reading in the Liturgy says, "to enter upon a spiritual manner of living, both thinking and doing what is pleasing" to God.

Orthodoxy has an unfailingly positive view of humanity when it is not perverted by some other ideology.  Made in the image of God, called to become divine, with unlimited potential to share God's verynature, to shine with uncreated light, to do the works Jesus did in this world and, as He Himself said, even greater works, the Church looks deeply into even the worst of sinners and finds pure gold. Is that not what Jesus did with Zacchaeus last week and the Canaanite Woman this week?  We do not focus on human limits and pathology when we approach pastoral care, we focus rather on the scriptural teaching that human beings are made in God's image.  What hinders us is not truly part of us.  Sin, death and disease are not natural.  They cannot define us. It is our Maker who defines us and He has called the creation of humanity "very good."  We believe in Original Goodness rather than Original Sin. Pastoral care consists in helping to reveal to those who come to us for care the truth of who they are.

Jesus did not allow the Canaanite Woman to be defined by the social, cultural and religious mores of the time as we so often do in our dealings with one another.  He demonstrated a new and holy way.  A way of the heart.  A way for us to follow.  It is the radical way of self-denial, of unlimited compassion and unconditional love.  You see, that is our true nature.  That is who we really are.  Underneath the layers of fear and delusion lies the glorious image, the mirror that reflects the very face of God.  The spiritual life is a journey to the center of the heart.  It is a choice we make every moment:  to see as God sees or to fall into the darkness of Zebulon and Naphtali that Jesus came to dispel.  We can choose love over hate, peace over war, mercy over judgment, selflessness over selfishness any time we want, in any situation we face and in any encounter we have.  Each moment is rich with possibilities, good and bad.  It is up to us to choose the good, the narrow path, the selfless path, the path Jesus showed us.

If our principals or belief systems hinders us in our love for our neighbor there is something wrong with them! Often that is where repentance must begin, in jettisoning all those false ideals we have enshrined as sacred, but which are actually the very opposite of God's intent.

The other element is the discovery that when we choose the good in even the small things we strengthen and nurture the image within and slowly, but surely we become more and more capable of loving as God loves.  We find that our good choices produce in us stillness and peace of mind.  From stillness wisdom and discernment arise.  From wisdom and discernment arise unshakable joy. Even when we find ourselves in difficult situations we find within ourselves a quiet place to rest.  As one teacher said, "If we cannot be happy in spite of our difficulties, what good is our spiritual practice?" The benefits of following the way of Christ are innumerable and infinite.

It is really more like this:  we long to return to Eden, to our original innocence.  Our hearts are not at ease until we begin this journey.  To make it we must open ourselves to two mysteries: first the mystery of God who is above all thought, concept and word and to the mystery of our neighbor in whom we find the very same divine mystery.  

We have not been called to eat the crumbs under His table, but to sit at His side and enjoy the feast.