The seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost is the last of consecutive Sunday Gospel readings after Pentecost from St. Matthew. The prescribed Gospel reading for this Sunday is from St. Matthew, chapter 15, verses 21 through 28, where-in we read and hear of an encounter between our Lord and a woman of Canaan. Within this brief Gospel passage, the faith of a Gentile and Jesus’ ultimate gracious response is revealed to us.
While this passage is sufficient on its own to reveal to us and re-enforce in one’s mind the Lord’s mercy, goodness, and love of mankind, for the purpose of expounding on those qualities, it may be worthwhile to frame this passage within the context of what occurs just before, and after, this encounter with the nameless woman of Canaan.
Chapter 15 begins with a confrontational encounter between Jesus and some scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem. We know that these types of encounters are entered into with the evil motive to ensnare Jesus and to expose Him as false -- always a game of words and wits against the One, Who, in wisdom, mercifully orders all things. Jesus is asked “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread” (Mt 15:2) Jesus answers them with a question “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?” (Mt 15:4) and reveals them for what they are with this: “Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition. Hypocrites! “(Mt 15:7). Here, and in other places, the established religious order has as its aim not to meet and listen to Jesus, rather, perceiving a threat, they confront and challenge Him with the aim to diminish and destroy. The encounters end with the challengers shut out and abandoned to their own hard-heartedness.
Before encountering the woman of Canaan, Our Lord says,
... understand that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and is eliminated... But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man (Mt 15:17-20).
The heart then, is the place from which springs desire and intent, good and evil.
Interestingly, October 9th is the commemoration of the repose of the Holy Apostle John, from whom we hear in the Gospel passage for Pascha “He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him” (Jn 1:11). Those scribes and Pharisees mentioned earlier demonstrate this perfectly. The Canaanite woman, in contrast to them, demonstrates her heart’s rightful intent of faith and humility, as she exclaims, upon seeing Jesus, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David!” (Mt 15:22). The woman desires to do good, for her “... daughter (who) is severely demon-possessed” (Mt 15:22). Where Jesus responded immediately to the hypocritical question of the scribes and Pharisees, to the woman, “He answered not a word” (Mt 15:23) notes the Holy Apostle and Evangelist Matthew. Jesus responds to her only after His disciples beg him to send her away (apparently they had had enough of encounters for the day).
Accommodating His disciples, Jesus informs the woman that it would not be right to extend the gift of His healing to foreigners. An interesting give and take follows. She persists, falls at Jesus’ feet, pleading for help. Jesus apparently declines the plea saying that it would be akin to taking
“ … the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs” (Mt 15:26). She offers a challenge to Him with her response “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table” (Mt 15:27). Our Lord responds to the woman’s humility and says “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire” (Mt 15:28). St Matthew reassures us that her daughter was healed from that very hour.
It appears that it is not so much that Jesus dislikes challenges, for He offers challenges also. Rather it is the evil intent which lurks at the heart of the challenge that is rejected and condemned. The intent of a pure heart is not so much challenged as it is encouraged for the sake of the Lord’s blessings at the end of the exchange. Those scribes and Pharisees at the beginning of this 15th chapter of Matthew sought to ensnare, expose, diminish and destroy Jesus. Their reward was their exposure as hypocrites and isolation from the Lord. The woman of Canaan, on the other hand, recognized Jesus’ authority and sought to expose, magnify and glorify Him as the merciful Healer and Lover of mankind. Her humility and persistence are rewarded by His graceful mercy.
St. Matthew concludes the chapter telling us of Jesus’ healing of the lame, the blind, the mute, the maimed and many others along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, all marveling and glorifying the God of Israel. The chapter ends with the telling of Jesus’ miracle of the feeding of the multitude, His last marvelous act of mercy for the day. Jesus provides for their daily bread, not allowing them to be defiled, even if they ate with unwashed hands!
There is much to be said about persistence in faith and humility; God rewards it. In our Moleben Service, we read from St. Matthew’s Gospel these words of the Lord ‘“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” (Mt 7:7-8). The woman of Canaan, in all humility, sought and found, knocked on the door of mercy and it was opened to her. May each one of us have her faith, humility and persistence!
Fr. Oleh Hucul