Faith of the Canaanite Woman
In 1924, the Englishman George Mallory and a group of men tried to be the first people to climb to the top of Mt. Everest, the tallest mountain in the world. After enduring unbelievable hardships, they reached the 25,000 feet mark. From this point Mallory and his partner set out for the summit, but their heroic attempt failed. They were buried in the snows of the Himalayan peak. When their colleagues returned to England to tell their story, one of them gave a report before a large audience in London. At the end of his talk, after describing the difficulties and tragedies of their expedition, he turned before a picture of Mt. Everest projected on a screen, and spoke to the mountain, “Everest, we tried to conquer you once, but you overpowered us. We tried to conquer you a second time, but again you were too great for us. But Everest, I want you to know that we are going to conquer you, for you can’t grow any bigger, but we can!”
The Bible teaches us, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can move mountains.” Christ encourages us to “Ask and you shall receive; seek and you shall find; knock and the door will be open to you.” A central element of our understanding of Orthodox Christianity has to do with FAITH. If we believe, not in ourselves, but in God, than nothing can limit or hinder us. St. Paul says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
I can’t move a mountain, or overcome an obstacle, but no hindrance is greater than God. I can’t, but He can. And He is waiting for us to discover what it means to trust in Him – this great gift of FAITH.
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We hear a story in the Gospel today that exemplifies such FAITH. “Have mercy on me Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon,” a desperate woman cries. As she continues to call out, Jesus surprisingly answers her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” The woman, not discouraged by Christ’s answer, kneels before him and says, “Lord, help me.” Jesus continues to test her faith by responding, “But it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She in return answers, “Yes, Lord, but even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” And at that response Jesus marvels at her faith and exclaims, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And the daughter was healed instantly.
This Gospel story confuses many of its readers, because our Lord’s words seem so unusual. Can He be so harsh and offensive to a woman in need? His words seem so contrary to the general spirit we see throughout His life. What message does this story hold for us?
Well, Christ is trying to teach an important lesson about authentic faith. “Faith that moves mountains” is NOT simply a belief in the existence of a supernatural power. “Faith that moves mountains” is not simply belief in a god fashioned after our own desires and pleasures.
Authentic faith, from an Orthodox Christian perspective, is a faith in the one true God as revealed to us in history through Holy Scriptures. Authentic faith is a belief in an all-loving, yet mysterious God. Authentic faith is believing in an all-powerful God who accepts to be humiliated and crucified. And such authentic faith comes from a deep spiritual life of sacrificial love, extreme humility, persistence struggle, and undying hope. We can glimpse some of these virtues in today’s Gospel lesson.
A Canaanite woman approaches Jesus and asks him to heal her daughter. Now, for us to properly understand this story, we must realize that a Canaanite was a foreigner, a religious idolater, considered an enemy of the Jews. Most Jewish Rabbis would not even speak with such a woman, no less answer her appeal for help. Yet, this woman shows courage and boldness to approach Jesus because of her LOVE for her daughter. Her child suffered from some illness, and she must have heard about this miracle-working Jewish rabbi who healed the sick, cleansed the lepers, and even raised the dead. Most likely, she wasn’t sure how this Jewish teacher would accept her, but she knew that he did have the ability to help her. So she approaches Jesus with hope!
She allowed nothing to suffocate her faith. Her love for her daughter overcame fear of Jewish-Canaanite problems. Her HOPE in Christ’s reputation overcame her uncertainty of his ethnic background. And this love and hope instilled within her the courage and boldness which nourished and strengthened her faith.
So, the woman approaches Jesus and kneels before him, simply asking, “Lord, help me.” These three words, “Lord, help me,” combined with her action of kneeling, display clearly the humility needed to enrich our faith. The woman doesn’t demand Christ to help her, as if she deserves it. She does not allow her pride to poison her faith. Instead, she kneels in front of Christ as a sign of humility and admits that she is helpless. Her one and only HOPE is Jesus.
How often do we allow our arrogance and pride to minimize and corrupt our faith? We don’t want to admit our weaknesses, and admit that our One and oNLY hope is in God. Instead of kneeling before God, we proudly hold our head high and half-heartedly ask for God’s help, as if we’re doing Him a favor by turning to Him. It is difficult for many of us to admit that we cannot help ourselves, and place our ONLY hope in Christ. Yet, this is an important element of authentic faith. A truly humble cry, “Lord, help me,” pierces the heart of God.
In the Gospel, Jesus tests the woman’s cry, to see if she offers it in true humility. So often people act humble, even saying appropriate words, yet their reaction to anyone hindering their desire reveals a dangerous, hidden pride. Thus, Jesus tests the woman by saying “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Jews knew that they held a special position as the chosen people of God. They were God’s children. Thus, a Jew often viewed a foreigner as anything but children, even calling them “dogs.” Jesus follows this line of thinking as a test to the woman.
Imagine how you would respond if someone called you such a derogatory name. How many of us would become furious and walk away from that person? Even if we had a desperate need, such as the woman’s, our pride might control our actions and make us refuse any help offered because of the offense.
St John Chrysostom explained this passage by saying, “Christ’s words were not spoken as an insult. Instead, they were spoken for the purpose of calling forth her virtue and revealing the great treasure of faith that she had within.”
In fact, the woman shows the greatness of her humility and faith, together with her wittiness, by answering, “Yes, Lord, but even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” She accepts to be called a dog, and takes no offense. She will not allow her pride to overcome her faith. In true humility, she accepted the fact that she didn’t deserve any better than a dog. Such humility makes her faith shine forth in an even greater way.
Jesus acknowledges this amazing faith by saying, “O woman, great is your faith. Let your daughter be healed as you wish.”
Jesus realized that the amazing faith of the woman was nourished by INVINCIBLE love and sincere humility. In addition, her faith reveals an unconquerable persistence. The woman did not allow anything to defeat her resolve. When Jesus ignored her in the beginning, she persisted. When he told her that she was not from the house of Israel and he couldn’t help her, she persisted. When Christ said it was not proper to give bread to the dogs, she persisted. She let nothing defeat her, but continued to persevere until her prayer was answered.
Authentic faith grows when we nourish it with such love, humility, and persistence. Faith means believing despite the obstacles standing in our way. St. Paul says, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Jesus himself gave plenty of examples throughout the Gospels of how we must persevere in our prayers and believe, even when all logic tells us otherwise. When we seek something for the glory of God, don’t ever give up, but persevere and believe.
So Faith, to be true, is not about words. Anyone can say “I believe.” Few, however, combine faith with love, humility, hope and persistence.
Today, may we all seek to cultivate such faith, as that of the Canaanite woman, in our prayers, in our actions, and in our lives.
“O woman, great is your faith. Let your daughter be healed as you wish.”
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