Homily 32nd Sunday after Pentecost

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.  Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!

How many of us when asking a great favor of someone, would persist if the person we asked insulted us?  Yet this is precisely what happens to the woman of Canaan we meet in today’s Gospel reading.  She is basically called a dog.  What is perhaps the hardest blow to bear is that it is the very Lord Jesus Christ Himself who calls her a dog!  His disciples want nothing to do with her, they want the Lord to send her away.  She’s noisy, she’s making a nuisance of herself.  And she is a gentile, and worse . . . she is a Canaanite gentile.  St. John Chrysostom would have us know, “When you hear ‘a Canaanite woman,’ you should call to mind those wicked nations who overturned from their foundations the very laws of nature.”  This Canaanite woman begs the Lord, worships Him, and asks Him to heal her daughter who is severely demon-possessed.   And she is rebuffed with the words, “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel... It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs.”

          How many of us would persist when someone insults us and calls us dogs...or other names?  The Scribes and Pharisees would not.  Immediately before this reading, in the same chapter, Christ calls the Pharisees “hypocrites” and “the blind leading the blind.”  Were they brought to humility?  Did they, the established religious authorities, accept these truthful labels and repent and follow Christ?  No.  Would we?  The woman, however, persisted.  She even went one further than the Lord’s words and elevated the “children” to be masters.  “And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table.”  And for that she heard the words, “O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt.”  The woman went from being called a “dog” to being addressed in the same way that the Theotokos was addressed at our Lord’s first miracle, “O woman.” 

How many “unworthy” people have we met who go from “dogs” to “O Woman great is thy faith be it unto thee even as thou wilt.”?  The disciples wanted to send her away.  The Venerable Bede tells us that the Lord did what he did in order to show the disciples how to have mercy.  He also let the woman show the Israelites the fruits of true faith and repentance.  Our Lord did not want his healing of the woman to be an excuse for the Israelites not to accept Him, but to show how her perseverance, not unlike the widow in the parable who pesters the judge, was rewarded.  St. Bede writes about this, quoting , actually, the other Gospel reading from today:

And this is what he said; “I have not been sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  He alone, by himself, was teaching the Jews; through his disciples he called the gentiles also to the grace of faith.  Concerning them he said elsewhere, “And other sheep I have which are not of this fold and them also I must bring, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one fold and one shepherd.”  This is why when in his own person he was going to heal the body of a gentile girl, he did not carry this out before the mother’s incomparable faith had been proven to everyone.”

          The Canaanite woman’s faith is an example to us. It is not unlike the faith of the Centurion that asked the Lord to heal his child by Christ’s word alone.  The Canaanite woman did the same as he.  She sought Christ out and asked for a healing simply by His word.  Christ rewarded her faith by calling her woman.  He could have said as he did to the centurion, “I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel.”

          There is another similarity between the two gentiles who teach the Israelites about faith.  It is their humility.  The woman accepted the label of dog, and the Centurion said, “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed.”  We find his words echoed in the pre-communion prayer, “Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldest come under the roof of my soul.”  We say it, but do we really mean it the way that the centurion did and for which he was greatly rewarded?  Would we accept the name of dog as the woman of Canaan did?  Their humility brought about not just healings for their children, but also the love of our Lord (which they always had) but also His praise. 

          In looking closely at today’s reading, it is interesting to note that Christ had left the borders of Israel and Judea.  He was on the coasts of Tyre and Sidon in what we would today call Lebanon.  St. John Chrysostom sees in this something significant.  He writes, “Christ went out of His borders and the woman also went out of her borders, and so it became possible for them to fall in with each other.”  In other words when the two of them were not hemmed in by the ethnic and social niceties and conventions of their day they could face each other in a new and fresh way.  The woman from Canaan would have been a pagan and a gentile, but she stepped away from her past and became one of the people of God.  We too must go outside our borders, we must leave our “comfort zones” and embrace true humility and persist in seeking spiritual healing through self-knowledge, and meekness.

          We too can learn from the Lord’s example as the Disciples did.  We can learn that outside of our Church we can find people who can teach us about faith, humility and perseverance.  We are not called to let ourselves grow complaisant like the Pharisees or Saducees; instead, we can let this story spur us on to a genuine encounter with the Lord.  It can spur us on as well to look outside ourselves and our regular circle of friends and acquaintances, our “borders” and see the faith and hunger of others and learn from them and hopefully bring them in to the Church…just as the Canaanite woman was.

          I have a priest friend who told me about a man on the streets of Atlanta during a blistering heat wave who asked him if he was a priest.  He said yes, and the man then said, “I’ve run into some hard times and just got into town.  I don’t have a place to live, but can you tell me where I can find a good church around here?”  My friend gave him the name of a good Orthodox Church that ministers to the homeless, teaches job skills, feeds them, gets them able to go to a job interview, that was not far from where they were. The man thanked him, and then said, “Can you help me get just some cold water, sir?”  My priest friend said he instantly thought of the Scripture, “And who ever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, assuredly, I say to you, he shall by no means lose his reward.”  My friend invited him in to have lunch with him.  The two of them went into a little Chinese restaurant and salad buffet and sat down.  The man got his food to go, “I don’t need to stay inside here, sir.” he said in all humility.  Before he left, though, he spoke with my friend a bit.  The priest told me that the man had lost everything he had in Alabama and was coming to Atlanta to try to make a fresh start.  He didn’t know anybody.  He didn’t have money, but he had a strong faith in the Lord.  He said, “The devil wants to see me down, but I can’t give up on the Lord.  I can never give up on the Lord Jesus.”  My friend told me this story for two reasons, 1) to keep praying for this man and that when I was ordained as a priest (I was a deacon then) I should remember this man on the paten and pray for him, which I do at every liturgy, and 2) to remember that those we help may be helping us more than we are helping them.  “I learned more,” my friend the priest told me, “I learned more about faith and real trust in the Lord in sitting down to a meal with that man, that social outcast, Charles, than I learned from many of the books that I have read.  The Gospels were distilled into his smile and humility.  I sometimes wonder if that was not an angel I had lunch with.” 

And so I charge all of us, myself included, to go out and find those Canannites who are hungry for the Lord (or just hungry period)…whatever their appearance or manners or background.  When we feed them spiritually or just physically, we might just be surprised to find out that they are feeding us in return.

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.  Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!




2009 Fr. Philip Kontos