29 March 2011

'Let Us Cry Out to Christ Like the Canaanite Woman' - A Homily


At last, I have a new homily to post. This was based on the BCP readings for the second Sunday in Lent: I Thessalonians 4:1-8 and St Matthew 15:21-28. I was a little worried about frightening some of the kids with the talk about child sacrifice, but I think it was the best received so far.

‘Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.’

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In today’s Epistle, St Paul writes, ‘[E]very one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour’ (I Thess. 4:4). This is something that the people of Tyre and Sidon, the country of the ‘Canaanite woman’ in today’s Gospel historically failed to do. Indeed, the pagan worship of the Phoenician cities is still well known for its ‘licentiousness’. [1]

But it is worse than that. Actually, it surprises me little that the ‘woman of Canaan’ would complain of a daughter ‘grievously vexed with a devil’ (St Matt. 15:23). Ps. 96:5 says ‘all the gods of the nations’—or Gentiles, like the Phoenicians—‘are mere idols’: but according to both the Greek and Latin translations of the Old Testament, ‘all the gods of the nations are demons’ (Ps. 96:5 LXX). Next week’s Gospel mentions ‘Beelzebub’, or ‘Lord of Flies’, the demonic god of the Philistine city of Ekron, who is referred to there as ‘the chief of devils’ (St Luke 11:14-28).

The latter passage reminds us that Ps. 96:5 is true par excellence of the Phoenicians of Tyre and Sidon, whose deities are variously known as Baal or Moloch, and who were known to sacrifice their children in the fiery mouths of their great bronze idols. Such sacrifices are mentioned in Lev. 18:21, and there are terrifying, vivid descriptions of them in a scholium to Plato’s Republic as well as in Plutarch.

Thus, it seems a fitting punishment for people known in the Mediterranean world for sacrificing children to demons for their children to be ‘badly demonized’, according to a literal translation of the woman’s words. Surely the burners of human beings to demonic gods fall under St Paul’s condemnation when he writes in today’s Epistle, ‘He therefore that despiseth, despiseth not man, but God’ (I Thess. 4:8). Confronted with the same Moloch-worshipping Phoenicians in their colony of Carthage, G.K. Chesterton tells us the Romans saw ‘faces of sneering men; and hated the hateful soul of Carthage’. [2]

But, as St Augustine happily observes in The City of God, ‘[M]en, though erring, incredulous, and averse from the worship and service of the gods, are nevertheless beyond doubt better than the demons whom they themselves have evoked’ (De civ. Dei 8.24). [3] This is wonderfully demonstrated by the woman in today’s Gospel. She recognised her error, repented, and came to Christ in humble supplication, and this humility is the dominant note of today’s lesson. It begins with a simple plea for mercy, like the prayer of the Publican, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner’ (Lk 18:13). Then, we see the recognition that the Messiah of the Hebrews is the true ‘Baal’, or ‘Lord’, when the woman says ‘O Lord’.

St Gregory Palamas, the Archbishop of Thessalonica in the 14th c., preached a beautiful homily on today’s Gospel in the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Thessalonica (not the big famous Hagia Sophia, but a smaller one). [4] I will be quoting frequently from St Gregory through the rest of this homily. Commenting on the Canaanite woman’s address to Christ, St Gregory points out that ‘no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost’ (I Cor. 12:3). Thus, in his words, ‘In fact the Canaanite woman did not merely come out from those heathen coasts, but sprang up from the valleys like a sacred lily, exhaling with her words the fragrance of the divine Spirit from her mouth.’ [5]

So, we have already a model of enormous self-abasement, but our Lord ‘wanted her faith and virtue to be demonstrated even more clearly’. First, He ‘answered her not a word’ (15:23), then, when the disciples pleaded with Him to send her away, He said, ‘I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (15:24).

Now, we might think that the humble response to such a rebuff would be to accept it and withdraw—but this would be pride, not humility. When she needs help, the humble woman begs for it. Thus, woman of Canaan worships Christ, that is, she falls down before Him in prostration, and supplicates Him in even simpler words: ‘Lord, help me’ (15:25).

How does Christ respond to this self-abasement? We are astonished to find that He responds with an insult: ‘It is not meet to take the children’s bread [that is, the salvation belonging to Israel], and to cast it to dogs [the Phoenician Baal-worshippers]’ (15:26). But while we may be shocked by Christ calling a woman a ‘dog’, however fitting a moral description of her people it may be, He who knows all things knew her heart, saw her humility, and wanted to test her to reveal her amazing virtue before all for centuries to come.

For how does she respond? She is not insulted. According to St Gregory, ‘[W]hen she was treated with contempt and heard herself called not just an irrational animal, but a dirty and fierce one, whose voice was a dog’s bark rather than human speech worth listening to, she agreed and joined in ridiculing herself, but did not cease to entreat Christ.’ [6]

The Fathers teach us that when we are insulted, we absolutely must NOT respond with insults, but, they say, it is even better not to become angry, and best of all to admit the truth in the insult. One Father of the Egyptian desert, Abba Isaiah, says insults are good for us because they teach us humility, and that one who ‘bears insults is like a tree that is watered every day’ (Isaiah 1). [7] Another Desert Father, Abba Xanthius, points out a dog is better than we, ‘for he has love & he does not judge’ (Xanthius 3). [8]

So the Canaanite woman follows this highest path: ‘Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table’ (15:27). St Gregory writes:


Let us learn from this teacher with how much patience, humility and contrition we must persevere in our prayers. Even if we are unworthy, and even if we are sent away because we are soiled with sins, let us learn not to turn back, but to keep humbly asking from our soul. We shall receive our requests from God. [9]


The exhortation ‘not to turn back, but to keep humbly asking from our soul’ reminds us of the Parable of the Unjust Judge in Luke 18:1-8, which, incidentally, is the proper Second Lesson for Evening Prayer to follow this morning’s readings. In this parable, a widow comes to a judge ‘which feared not God, neither regarded man’ (18:2), pleading for justice against her adversary (and in interpreting this it is helpful to recall that in I Peter 5:8 the ‘adversary’ is the devil). The judge complains to himself, ‘Because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me’ (18:5), to which the Lord says, ‘Hear what the unjust judge saith. And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them? I tell you that he will avenge them speedily?’ (18:6-8)

(By the way, in this parable, Christ is drawing from an old Hebrew schoolbook called ‘The Book of Ben Sirach’, where we find the lovely line: ‘The prayer of the humble pierceth the clouds: and till it come nigh, he will not be comforted; and will not depart, till the most High shall behold to judge righteously, and execute judgment’ (Ecclesiasticus 35:17).)

Like the widow, the Canaanite woman pleads to be avenged against her adversary—who in this case is quite clearly the devil—and is rewarded for her perseverance in prayer. So we too must persevere in prayer, but while St Gregory says that in this way ‘We will receive our requests from God’, I’m afraid we often spend too much time requesting frivolities, things that we want to get from God, rather than requesting deliverance from the devil who keeps us captive through our sinful thoughts and habits.

As we see, the Canaanite woman’s words are, as St Gregory says, ‘truly wise’, but they are also beautiful imagery, they are eloquent, poetic. Indeed, St Ephraim the Syrian (4th c.), whom one scholar calls ‘the greatest poet of the patristic age and perhaps the only theologian-poet to rank beside Dante’, [10] loves the Canaanite woman’s image of dogs eating crumbs from the master’s table. In his humility, St Ephraim often speaks of himself eating ‘crumbs’ from heaven:


And if none who is defiled can enter that place, then allow me to live by its enclosure, residing in its shade. Since Paradise resembles that table, let me, through Your grace, eat of the ‘crumbs’ of its fruit which fall outside, so that I too may join those dogs who had their fill from the crumbs of their masters’ tables. (Hymns on Paradise 7.26) [11]


Humility, however, is not merely nice but absolutely necessary for our salvation. Christ says that unless we humble ourselves we ‘shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt. 18:3). Another Desert Father, Abba Longinus, said:


I reckon that just as pride is the greatest of the passions, since it was able to cast various beings down from Heaven, so also is humility the greatest of all the virtues. For it has the power to raise a man up from those dark abysses, even if he is a sinner like the Devil. This is why the Lord called the poor in spirit, that is, the humble, blessed above all others (Matt. 5:3). [12]


This is wonderfully illustrated in a beautiful passage of Crime & Punishment, by the great Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky. Semyon Zakharovich Marmeladov is a despicable man, an alcoholic who lets his family starve while he spends their money on booze, but he weeps over his own sins even while committing them. In one of my favourite passages of one of my favourite books, when the protagonist, Rodion Raskolnikov, goes to find him in a St Petersburg bar, Marmeladov describes the Last Judgement:


And when He has finished with everyone, then He will say unto us, too, ‘You, too, come forth!’ He will say. ‘Come forth, my drunk ones, my weak ones, my shameless ones!’ And we will all come forth, without being ashamed, and stand there. And He will say, ‘Swine you are! Of the image of the beast and of his seal’ but come, you, too!’ And the wise and the reasonable will say unto Him, ‘Lord, why do you receive such as these?’ And He will say, ‘I receive them, my wise and reasonable ones, forasmuch as not one of them considered himself worthy of this thing . . .’ And He will stretch out His arms to us, and we will fall at His feet . . . and weep . . . and understand everything! Then we will understand everything! . . . and everyone will understand . . . […] Lord, Thy kingdom come! [13]


I shall conclude with St Gregory Palamas’s words:


Let us humble ourselves of our own free will, brethren, that we may demonstrate our faith in Christ and also be exalted by Him. Or rather, may we acknowledge our innate lowliness, and the fact that the misleading thoughts which sometimes arise within us are from the demons. Then let us cry out to Christ like the Canaanite woman, fall down before Him and persevere in humble prayer, and we shall obtain the grace which is given to the humbleminded, and speedily ascend to divine heights. [14]



[1] See ‘Baal’, Peloubet’s Bible Dictionary, ed. F.N. Peloubet, asstd. by Alice D. Adams (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1974), p. 64.

[2] G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (SF: Ignatius, 2008), p. 150.

[3] St Augustine, The City of God, tr. Marcus Dods (NY: Modern Library, 1950), p. 275.

[4] Homily 43; in St Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, ed. & tr. Christopher Veniamin with the Monastery of St John the Baptist (Waymart, PA: Mount Thabor, 2009), pp. 339-45.

[5] St Gregory, p. 340.

[6] Ibid., p. 341.

[7] Benedicta Ward, tr., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, rev. ed. (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1984), p. 69.

[8] Ibid., p. 159.

[9] St Gregory, p. 341.

[10] Sebastian Brock, The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1987), p. 30, citing Robert Murray, Catholic Dictionary of Theology, Vol. 2, ed. J.H. Crehan (London, 1967), p. 222.

[11] St Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns On Paradise, tr. Sebastian Brock (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1990), p. 128.

[12] Archbishop Chrysostomos & Hieromonk Patapios, ed. & tr., The Evergetinos: A Complete Text—Book I (Etna, CA: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 2008), p. 384.

[13] Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime & Punishment, tr. Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky (NY: Everyman, ), p. 23.

[14] St Gregory, p. 342.

4 comments:

reader j said...

Actually, Christ did not compare the poor Canaanite woman to a dog. The actual tranlatiois more like a whelp or puppy. I found this to be something of a relief. Believe it or not, I learned this while arguing with a Jehovah's Witness on the use of this word in their own Ne World Bible translation. Turns out he was right and I was wrong. Even a blind pig finds an acorn now and then...

aaronandbrighid said...

While acknowledging that our Lord does not use merely the common word for 'dog', I'm not sure this makes a big difference. Obviously, to Greek speakers (not to mentioned wise & Spirit-inspired exegetes) like St Gregory Palamas, it is still an insult if taken at face value.

John Martin said...

Will there be any more forthcoming sermons before the end of the school year?

aaronandbrighid said...

John Martin> My apologies for the rank neglect! Obviously, I didn't get around to posting any more before the end of the school year, but I do have two more homilies to post now that the year is done. I also thought about posting my school graduation speech.