St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

On the Sunday of the Canaanite

Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, February 6, 2011

Matthew 15:21-28

At that time, Jesus went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and cried, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon." But Jesus did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, "Send her away, for she is crying after us." Jesus answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." And Jesus answered, "It is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Then Jesus answered her, "O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire." And her daughter was healed at that very hour.

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

Often when I read stories from Scripture like this one a bout the Canaanite Woman I wish we knew more about the characters. Who was this woman? We know that she was not Jewish. She was Syrian-Phoenician, a Canaanite. This, in fact, was the only time Jesus went outside of Jewish lands north of the Sea of Galilee into the Gentile district of Tyre and Sidon.

The Canaanite Woman was resilient and persistent. Her reply to Jesus shows that she was quick-witted and wise. But no matter how tough she was, she was humble. She knew who she was talking to, at least, she knew He was the one who had the power to heal her daughter. So her reply, “But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the Master's table,” was not arrogant. It was perfect! She accepted completely the evaluation Jesus made of the situation.

“It is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.” Had the Woman been prideful this would have been the time to lash out at the Lord and demand her rights, or something like that. She was not offended! Amazing! This reveals something important about her. To not be offended in the face of insult and disappointment is a sign of a high degree of selflessness, perhaps even enlightenment. There is more to this Woman than the Gospel reveals. I would dearly love to know more about her.

We have seen in the past few weeks some strong and persistent people. The blind man on the road to Jericho who would not be silenced by the crowd. Zaccheus who did not allow the scorn of his neighbors to stop him from climbing that sycamore tree. And now the Canaanite Woman. All of them demonstrate qualities that drew the Lord's attention, qualities that produced amazing results. Persistence, fearlessness, humility, and faith.

In each story there are voices that attempt to stop each one from reaching out to the Lord and in each one Jesus vetoes those voices. The blind man battled a crowd of people who either saw him as insignificant or in the way. Zaccheus had to humiliate himself in front of people who clearly saw him as the thief and a traitor he actually was. The Canaanite Woman had to run the gauntlet of annoyed Jewish disciples to reach Jesus and then she demonstrated even more resolve in her dialogue with Him. Clearly Jesus loved them all and was not about to let anyone get in the way of demonstrating it.

In the most recent issue of The Word I am quoted in an article by Fr. Michael Nasser from a sermon I preached one year during fourth session at the Village. I did not remember the sermon or the statement, but Fr. Michael did. It fits the theme of the last few Sundays so well I want to repeat it. It isn't what we normally hear. When the questions is asked in the catechisms, “Why did God create man?” The answer usually give is, “To love and serve Him forever.” But I think this is not quite right.

God did not create us so that we could love and serve Him. He created us so that He could love and serve us.

St. Paul tells us that we love Him “because He first loved us.” We speak of God constantly as the “lover of mankind.”

I am convinced of this more now even than I was then. God needs no servants. He does not feel lonely and in need of love. The pagan gods were needy creatures demanding fealty and sacrifices to be appeased. But God needs nothing from us. We are the ones who are lonely, sick, and in need. We are the ones who need someone to love us. So God steps in to fill the breach, reaching out in the most intimate of ways. He becomes one of us and then sets out to love and serve us and invites us to enjoy His lovingkindness demanding nothing in return.  Our acceptance of His gifts creates even greater joy and leads us to union with the Giver Himself.

Did He not say, “I did not come to be served, but to serve?” Did He not wash the disciples feet and refuse to let Peter wash his? Did He not suffer torture and death so that he could carry all our sins, our illnesses, and our sorrows?

Take the Divine Liturgy for example. In the Liturgy we are changed and creation is changed. The Liturgy is directed to God, but designed entirely for us. Look! We bring our gifts of bread and wine and ourselves. The Holy Spirit changes us and the elements into Christ's Body and then (see how selfless He is) He turns around and gives it all back. Praise changes us. Meditation changes us. Prayer changes us. Charity changes us. And when we change, the whole world changes because everything is connected, everything is one. When we pray the whole world prays.

In each of the three Gospels we see Christ at work healing, forgiving, serving, and loving showing us the true nature of God. God is not self-serving, He is utterly selfless. In the Scriptures we see the truth. God created us in order that He might love us and care for us forever. Even when we do not love Him He still loves us. Whether we are like the one grateful leper or the nine ungrateful ones God does not change. He is the Giver who keeps on giving.

It is as if the Lord chose these three unique people not so that he could say to us, “Look how very cool I am,” but rather, “Look how special each one of them is! Look how much I love them!”