The Canaanite Woman

canaanite woman orthodox iconThe reading of the encounter between Jesus Christ and the Canaanite woman can raise more questions than many other passages.  In summary, we see a Gentile woman from a pagan culture coming before Christ on behalf of her demon possessed daughter.

At first, Christ ignores her; then he calls her a dog before finally healing her daughter.  What are we to make of this?  Why would God, who so readily healed the multitudes in passages before and after this one, appear to be so difficult and insulting?

As unlearned as I am, I will attempt to answer those questions, relying mostly on the assistance of Saints John Chrysostom and Theophylact.

THE SCRIPTURAL COMMENTARY

Matthew 15:21-28, RSV

And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon.

First of all, we see Jesus leaving the region of the Jews to hide (Mark 7) among the Gentiles.  He had recently infuriated the Jewish leaders and because it was not his time to die, and because he loved even the cruel Jewish leaders and did not want to aggravate them further, he allows time to cool their anger.

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 he did not answer her a word.

Somehow, this woman from an ungodly region heard of Christ and beseeches him on behalf of her daughter.  From what I have learned from the saints, sometimes young children become possessed by demons due to some sin in their parents’ life.  Whether or not this Canaanite woman committed a great sin, we do not know for certain.  But her opening words are, “Have mercy on me…”

The Lord’s initial reaction to her plea: silence.  It reminds me of the many times I have petitioned God for something in prayer and felt no answer, even though what I ask for seems to be good.

And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying after us.”  He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

Here, it is implied that the woman, seeing no response from Jesus, begins to petition his closest friends.  We do the same when we pray to the saints, knowing that they are truly in a place much closer to God than ourselves.  A modern day example of such intercession would be a person attempting to obtain a job at a company and petitioning a friend, who already works there and is on good terms with the boss, to put in a good word.

Some people misunderstand the disciples, assuming that they are irritated with the woman and want to be rid of her.  But I do not think that is the case.  If that had been their request, he might have said, “There are twelve of you and one of her, certainly you have the capacity to remove this woman from among us.”

Instead, they were saying, “Please, Lord, give her what she wants so that she may go along her way; otherwise she will wear us down with her continual petitions.”

Our Lord explains that he, in order to fulfill the scriptures, was sent first to the Jews.  Later would come the time of the Gentiles.

Rather than be discouraged by the continual rejection, the woman perseveres.

But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”  And he answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

It was not uncommon for Jews to refer to Gentiles as dogs.  In their eyes, the Jews kept the Law of Moses and set themselves apart from the ways of the world.  Through the Law, God taught them the concept of holiness: to be set apart.

All who did not conform to such a life appeared as wild, savage dogs to the Jewish people.  Such was the term they therefore employed.  However, there is a distinction here.  The Greek word for “dog” used here is kunarion, which means “little dog” or “house dog,” and not “wild dog” as the Gentiles were frequently called.  We’ll touch on this more in a little bit.

Our Lord was not at all indifferent to the plight of this woman.  If understood properly, we can see that he is subtly drawing her toward himself.  He is “difficult” only to the degree to which he knows she can handle it.  And the purpose is to exemplify her faith to the world.

We see the Lord’s desire to reveal the faith of others on a few occasions in the Gospels including the woman with the issue of blood and the centurion’s sick servant.  Each of these could have been healed quietly, but instead, Jesus allows a small scene to play out in order to strengthen the faith of his disciples by allowing them to see the greater faith of others.

Moreover, Jesus truly was called to the Jewish people at this point in his ministry.  To give of himself (the children’s bread) to pagan Gentiles could be seen as unseemly.  He is therefore teaching the woman humility.  Understanding his lesson to her…

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 instantly.

The woman accepts her low place, seeing that she is from a pagan culture and is not fit to eat from the table.  Yet, she perseveres with complete diligence and humility, never wavering in her faith and hope in Christ and in her love for her child.

What is the result?  The Creator of the universe, the Alpha and Omega praises her faith.  She has humbled herself, she has persevered through the trial, and has now received her request.

Going back to the word “dogs,” we see that she has accepted this word from our Lord.  Much can be said about it.  Firstly, some Protestant commentaries argue that a dog is a dog, it makes no difference whether he said “little dog” or “savage dog.”  But I think it does.

A wild dog has no place in a home.  Its place is outside in the wilderness or even roaming the streets at night.  Here, it is as if Christ is calling her a “little dog” with a subtle smile and a winking eye.  A pet is part of the household; while it certainly does not have the rights of a child, it has entered into the realm and under the care of the master’s dwelling.

This woman was confessing Christ to be master even of the Gentiles, and she had humble boldness before him, seeing her lowly state, but also his goodness in bringing her into the home by calling her a “little dog” rather than a savage one as most Jews would have done.  In faith, she sees that Jesus is compassionate and that she may receive crumbs from the master’s table.

THE SPIRITUAL APPLICATIONS

Persistent Prayer

St. Theophylact explains this scene plays out in this way, in order to show the steadfast faith of the woman, and how she persevered despite being rejected.  He does this so that we also might learn not to spin away on our heels when we do not immediately obtain what we have asked for in prayer.  Instead we should persevere in prayer!

It is a similar lesson to the parable about the unjust judge (Luke 18).  When asking God for anything good, we should petition him without ceasing.  We should also petition his friends (the saints), but not allow ourselves to stop there.

Additionally, we should read the scriptures and the fathers so that we know that what we are requesting is God’s will.  There are times we petition God for things we do not need or that would be harmful to us.  It can seem like God does not hear our petition, when in reality, he does and he is answering our prayer by saying, “No, this would not be good for you at this time.”

When petitioning God for what we know is good — our spiritual healing and salvation — we must persevere.  Some of the saints would petition God only to have mercy on them.  They would then leave it up to God to decide how to fulfill that request.  It may seem like God is silent as we continually struggle with sin, but coming before him with constant intercession is part of the healing process.  Few people are delivered from passions and storms overnight.

Dogs and Humility

As mentioned previously, the Law of God set the children of Abraham apart, revealing a hint of the concept of holiness.  The Gentiles were like savage dogs in their wild, sinful ways.

We too, in corrupting our human nature through sinful thoughts, words, and deeds, have become wild dogs.  Those of us who have turned toward God for our healing and salvation in the church are like wild dogs who have been tamed.  We still struggle with our sinful impulses, which means we are “little dogs” abiding in the Master’s house.

Our Lord states, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”  Christ is the Bread from heaven (John 6:51) and it is improper to throw what is precious even to domesticated dogs.

The children’s bread is the Eucharistic banquet of which only true children of God are worthy to partake.  We as “little dogs” who still struggle with sin are unworthy of receiving it.

However, if we approach with humility and repentance then we will be like the woman who says, “Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  With humility and faith, we approach the Eucharistic banquet to receive heavenly crumbs that come from the master’s table (the altar).

A Metaphor

My last point: the mother represents our spirit while the demon-possessed daughter represents our bodies and souls. [1]  When we have decided to live a life pleasing to God, then our spirit intercedes before the Lord, petitioning him for the healing of our body and soul (signifying our thoughts, words, and deeds), plagued by the influence of demons.

One who has turned to Christ will find that they have a desire to follow Christ but rarely have the will power to pull their thoughts and actions into agreement with God’s standards.  Such a person falls down before Christ beseeching him for relief from the demons that plague their minds with sinful ideas and fantasies, which results in sinful actions with the body.

If we persevere in petitioning God for our salvation, then he will heal us according to our faith.  Our minds will be raised above worldly ways, reaching heaven, and contemplating God himself.  Our actions will follow and we will glorify God in all that we do.

The spiritual road ahead of us is filled with difficulties, but if we persevere in prayer to God, partaking of the precious Eucharistic crumbs that fall from his table, we will find that, through faith and grace, every facet of our human nature will be healed completely in Christ.


END NOTES:

[1] I realize this may not be the most precise language.  The internal battle that rages within us is expressed in different ways by the fathers.  I followed St. Theophan’s example in the Spiritual Life of the spirit being the highest faculty of the soul; the part of us that, once born into the Light, desires the good.

Sources: the commentaries of Blessed Theophylact on Matthew and Mark as well as the homilies on Matthew by St. John Chrysostom.

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Jeremiah

Growing up in non-denominational churches, I became weary of many practices in the church. I decided it was time to find a church that enabled me to grow in my faith and talents, but that was also theologically deep. I was drawn to the Eastern Orthodox Church for several reasons. Check out my blog which details my journey into this ancient faith.

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