Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Woman of "Canine"

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

As we continue our pre-lenten preparation, today’s gospel lesson focuses on the faith of the Canaanite woman as described in Matthew 15, verses 21-28. This is a story that some people find rather disturbing because they have a hard time understanding why our Lord made such a harsh statement to the woman who came to Him seeking the healing of her severely demon-possessed daughter. As we heard, Christ actually referred to the woman as a “dog” in saying that it was not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. The “children” of which He spoke were of course the children of Israel, to whom He had come to bring the “bread” of salvation and the mercy of God. But why would He be so rude as to call this woman of Canaan a dog?

It is a sad truth that the Jews of Christ’s time customarily referred to the Gentile pagans as “dogs” because they had come to view them as unworthy of the grace and calling of God that had historically been bestowed upon themselves. This is of course a very common human problem. People of any given race or nationality or religion or even political affiliation may regard themselves as superior in one way or another to all others, and thus can readily justify mean, outrageous, or even cruel treatment of all who are seen as inferior.

I don’t believe that Jesus was simply perpetuating ancient Jewish bigotry here, but was in fact making a strong and necessary move to end it. Remember that it was His own disciples who had been asking Him to send this woman away because of her race, and the fact that she had been pestering them for help. Our Lord was possibly saddened by their closed-mindedness and lack of compassion, and so responded to the woman with exactly the same rude attitude that they were demonstrating. It makes me wonder if He didn’t actually embarrass them by doing this.

By calling this woman a dog right to her face and in front of all His disciples--a woman that He was just seconds away from praising for her great and exemplary faith--Christ was exposing the shameful, triumphalistic attitude they held in their hearts. It is a fact that Christ’s disciples would one day finally learn that the gospel is for all peoples, and not just for the Jews alone. But this was a tough concept for them to get their minds around, and needed a tough cure. We see perhaps the very beginning of that cure being applied here.

Strangely enough, the woman did not seem fazed by this insult. I imagine there are at least three reasons for this. First, it’s quite possible she had expected this sort of treatment from the Jews and had girded herself to face it. That demonstrates both remarkable humility and great determination on her part. Second, it is likely that the love of Christ was so obvious and apparent that the woman simply could not take His comment badly. Have you ever had someone who loved you very much say something that was hard to take, but because they loved you, it softened the blow? In this case, as repulsive as the words might have been, the love of Christ was so great that she was still drawn to Him in hope. She even adopted the insult, likening herself and her fellow Gentiles to the little puppies that gratefully lick up the crumbs that fall from their master’s table. I’m betting that the disciples were utterly astonished at the wisdom of her comeback, and when Christ joyously granted her request, there was not a peep of complaint out of any one of them. This woman had flat-out taken them to school and they knew it.

But I said that there were three reasons why the woman would not let herself be put off by Christ’s initial response and the third is really the main and most important reason. She desperately needed the mercy of Christ to heal her daughter, and because of this, she would not stop asking and pleading her case until she received her answer.

This is exactly the same way that Christ taught us to approach God with our needs. He told us to keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking. Everyone who asks, receives. He who seeks, shall find. And to the one who keeps knocking, the door shall be opened. In other words, perseverance and persistence is needed in our prayers and in our requests to God. But we often lack this kind of determination and stick-to-it-tiveness. We may be reluctant to bring our prayers to God at all, and when we don’t receive an immediate and gratifying answer, we tend to lose heart and give up quickly. We might lack the faith and simple obedience to Christ that even this Canaanite woman showed. Now who’s taking who to school?

In addition to this, we often create artificial barriers between ourselves and our God. The scriptures tell us that God has broken down the dividing wall between us and Him, but we have a tendency to re-stack old bricks and lay new walls between us. We tell ourselves for example that we are not worthy of God’s mercy, and therefore it’s no wonder that He doesn’t listen to our prayers or heed our requests. It’s ironic that we might be so weak and feint of heart to believe in what God will do for us, but we have more than enough brass to decide what God won’t do for us. Isn’t that strange?

If ever there was a person who had reason to believe that Jesus would deny her request it was the Canaanite woman. She was after all a pagan, whose people historically worshipped such false gods as Baal and El, together with a bewildering array of many other household gods and goddesses. These are not exactly the best religious credentials to bring to the Jewish Messiah. Yet she boldly drew near to Jesus because she had heard of His great love and compassion for all, and was willing to put her complete trust in Him.

What can this teach us?

The story of the Canaanite woman can be described as a story of faith overcoming all human obstacles to gain its reward from Jesus Christ. Can we be so bold as to say in fact that any obstacles between ourselves and God are indeed human obstacles that we ourselves have placed there? Our lack of faith, our sense of guilt over our sins, our spiritual sloth or indifference, our unwillingness to change what needs to be changed in our lives, are all walls that we have built and must take down once again.

I think the most important thing that this story tells us is that it isn’t all about us and our limitations; it’s all about Jesus and His limitless mercy and love. As we prepare ourselves for Great Lent, we must do something that may prove to be incredibly difficult and uncomfortable for us: we must turn our attention away from ourselves for a few terrible weeks and place it upon God. Had the Canaanite woman focused on herself and all the good reasons why Jesus might likely deny her, she would never have found the courage to leave home to gain salvation and the healing of her daughter. It is the same for us. We can stay locked in our own misery, counting all the reasons why God shouldn’t help us, or we can dare to place our hope on Him, believing that He is both willing and able to help us. Will we choose hope or misery?

Yes, it’s really all about Jesus. Great Lent is a spiritual journey, a sort of Orthodox “walkabout” if you will. But it is no ego-centric, “new-agey” journey of self-discovery. Most of us have already discovered ourselves, and likely did not care for what we found. Lent, by contrast, is a journey to discover Jesus, and in discovering Him, finding our True Hope and the Savior of our souls. This is a journey well worth taking, and may God direct us in following it.

+To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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