February 9, 2019 · Fr. Philip LeMasters
2 Timothy 2:1-10; Matthew 15:21-28
Good parents know that, while it may be easier to do things for our children, it is often best to let them learn by doing themselves. They will not do everything well the first time, but neither did we. Children whose parents make everything easy for them will not become mature, capable, or self-confident. Part of growing up is learning to handle the frustration of not getting it all right immediately.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus Christ responded to the request of the Canaanite woman for the healing of her daughter in a way that she surely found frustrating. When she, as a Gentile, called on Him as the Jewish Messiah or “Son of David” to cast out the demon, He did not answer her at all. Then the disciples made the situation even more tense by begging Him to send her away. That is when the Savior said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In response to those words, she knelt before Him and said, “Lord, help me.” Christ then truly put her to the test by saying, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” In other words, He was reminding her that she was not a descendant of Abraham and, according to the conventional assumptions of the day, had no claim on the blessings brought by the Messiah.
That is when the Canaanite woman uttered a profound theological truth: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” She acknowledged that, if those promises applied only to those of Hebrew heritage, she had no more claim on them than dogs had to the food of their owner. Those dogs would not have been beloved pets, but more like scavengers that the Jews viewed with caution. Nonetheless, even dogs could lick up the crumbs that fall from the table. In other words, she knew better than our Lord’s disciples that the ancient promises were for the benefit of all. The Lord praised her great faith and healed her daughter when she put the request in those terms.
We probably find it hard to understand why Christ responded to this woman’s pleas as He did. Had He immediately granted her request and not referred to her as a dog, we would be more comfortable with the story. In order to understand this conversation, we have to remember that He was guiding a particular person to grow in her faith. Like a good parent or teacher, He did not do all the work for her or make things too easy. Instead, He challenged her to face head-on who she was in relation to Him. He prodded her to grow into a mature understanding of how the blessings of His ministry could extend to her and her fellow Gentiles. That was not only a truth she needed to learn, but that His disciples needed to see enacted before their very eyes as He praised the faith of a despised foreigner and delivered her daughter.
The Savior put this woman to the test and she responded with humble faith. She did not take offense due to hurt pride when He seemed to ignore her and then gave the impression that she should go away and stop bothering Him. She did not deny that, as a Gentile, she had the standing of a dog, an unclean animal that was not really part of the family, in the eyes of the Jews. Indeed, her great expression of faith is based on the acceptance of that lowly designation. The Savior’s response enabled her to see clearly who she was in relation to Him and how shocking it was that His mercy extended even to the Gentiles. Christ surely spoke to her in this way because He knew she had the spiritual strength to respond as she did for her own benefit and that of her daughter and the disciples. And since we are focusing on her story today, the account of this woman’s humble faith benefits us also.
It is tempting for any group of people to forget or ignore the truth about where they stand before the Lord. The Roman Empire persecuted the early Christians because the Romans believed that they were civilization itself. They charged those who refused to worship their gods with treason and hatred of humanity, for they believed that those gods protected their realm. There was no higher good for them than to preserve their way of life. How tempting it remains for nations and other groups hypocritically to identify themselves with all that is good and to use that identification to justify hating and condemning others.
We commemorate today the Hieromartyr Charalampos the Wonder Worker, a bishop who endured terrible tortures at the hands of the Romans at the advanced age of 113 before being beheaded at the beginning of the third century. His example and miracles brought many to believe in Christ. St. Charalampos embodied the humble faith shown by the Canaanite woman, for he did not abandon the Lord when loyalty to Him resulted in horribly brutal treatment and even death. Like other martyrs, he accepted being viewed as an enemy by his own rulers for the sake of the Savior, Who Himself had been executed by the Romans as “the King of the Jews.” They carried out such executions in order to make clear what happened to people who dared to challenge their authority and unique place in the world.
Obviously, St. Charalampos and the other martyrs faced difficult trials through which they demonstrated their faith. Their path was certainly not easy and required profound patience, as well as the humility to accept being treated much worse than a dog. Through their suffering, they bore witness not only to how the Lord’s salvation extends to Gentiles with faith in Him, but also to His great victory over death in His resurrection on the third day. The Savior’s resurrection was not a mere concept to them, but the ultimate truth of their lives, which they embraced by literally taking up their crosses and following Him through the grave to the empty tomb.
While God does not call us all to become martyrs in that sense, He does call us to cultivate the humble faith which they and the Canaanite woman so clearly possessed. In order to do so, we must reject the temptation to think that we stand before God on the basis of any worldly characteristic or accomplishment, whether as particular people or as members of a group of any kind. Making power and success in this world the highest good was the basis of the idolatry of the Romans. By refusing to deny Christ even to the point of death as traitors to Rome, the martyrs obviously did not worship the false gods of this world. By accepting that she was an outsider to the people of Israel even as she begged for Christ to heal her daughter, the Canaanite woman showed that the ultimate meaning and purpose of her life was not defined by conventional distinctions between people, nations, or religions. Instead of building themselves up over against others by the corrupt standards of earthly power, these holy people embraced the selfless way of Christ, Whose Kingdom is not of this world. Their examples demonstrate that how we stack up according to human standards does not give anyone a greater or lesser claim on the Lord’s mercy than anyone else.
Like them, we must not give up when difficult circumstances test our faith. It is precisely through our disappointments, struggles, and persistent challenges that we will grow in our understanding that the life in Christ is not about getting what we want on our own terms or schedule or achieving any earthly goal. It is, instead, about finding the healing of our souls as we share more fully in the eternal life of the Savior as the particular persons He created us to be. Our paths will not be identical to those of St. Charalampos or the Canaanite woman, but we must look to them as examples of the persistent, humble faith in Christ through Whom “many will come from the East and the West to share the banquet with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 8:11)