Malankara World Journal - Christian Spirituality from an Orthodox Perspective
Malankara World Journal
Great Lent Week 4, Fasting and Abstinence
Volume 6 No. 333 February 26 2016
 
II. Lectionary Reflections on
4th Sunday of Great Lent

The Canaanite Woman -
A Lesson on Faith and Humility
In chapters 14 through 18, St. Matthew focuses on important instruction Jesus gives to Peter and the apostles, and through them to us. One particular incident that captures my attention is the story of the Canaanite woman (Mt 15:21-28).

As the narrative unfolds, a pagan, a Canaanite woman, a non-Jew, a goy, shouts to Jesus with the urgent plea: Kyrie, eleison - "Lord, have mercy on me." Then she adds, "my daughter is severely possessed by a demon" (15:22). But Jesus responds with ominous silence!

When the apostles asked Jesus to send her away because she kept crying after them, he replied coolly: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (15:24). Then the Canaanite woman knelt before Jesus pleading, "Lord, help me" (15:25). Jesus answered in words that seem degrading, "It is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs" (15:26). The Greek word, kunarion, rendered in our text as "dogs," refers to little housedogs. Let's interject ourselves into the story. How would you feel if someone implied that you and your little girl were worthless pagan dogs?

However, notice the remarkable response of this amazingly humble woman. She agreed with Jesus' assessment without defensiveness while continuing her plea. "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table" (15:27). She fully accepted the reality of their situation. She was not in covenant with God as part of his chosen people. Earlier she identified Jesus as the "Son of David," (15:24) thereby expressing her faith in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. Therefore, she and her daughter are aptly called little dogs in relationship to the creator of heaven and earth. She will gladly accept a role for herself and her daughter as house pets in the palace of the King of Kings. She will be delighted and grateful if they can eat the crumbs from his table.

When I reflect on the response of this surprising woman, I think of our little dog, Georgia. Georgia came to us unexpectedly one day with her head down and her tail wagging. She was so docile and humble that she captured every heart in the family. This is how Jesus responds when He is approached with humility.

The exclamation "O" only occurred five times in all four Gospels. They always come from the mouth of Jesus. In one instance Jesus gave a mild rebuke to the disciples on the way to Emmaus: "O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe" (Lk 14:25). On three other occasions they punctuated strong condemnations (Mt 17:17; Mk 9:19; Lk 9:41). However, in the case of this Canaanite women, "O" was exclusively used to introduce Jesus' admiration. "O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire" (15:28). Two thousand years later we remember her as the woman of great faith and admirable humility.

Additional insight is gained by reflecting on Jesus' use of the word, "woman" (15:28). Jesus twice identified his own mother as "woman," first at Cana when he began his formal assault on the kingdom of Satan, and finally on Calvary where he consummated his victory. By so doing Jesus identified his mother with the "woman" of Genesis 3:15, and with the queen mother (Revelation 12:1-2, 4-5,17) whose seed will crush the serpent's head. Jesus' address of the Canaanite mother as "woman" connected her with Mary, the prophecy of Genesis and the revelation of the Apocalypse. This may seem surprising until one recalls another familiar incident.

Matthew reported that someone told Jesus, "'Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, asking to speak with you.' But Jesus said in reply: 'Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?' And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, 'Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother'" (Mt 12:47-50). The humble surrender of this pagan woman to the "obedience of faith" (Rom 1:5; 16:26) incorporated her into Jesus' covenant family. She was no longer a dog eating the scraps from the Master's table. She was now the Father's daughter who was invited to dine at the wedding banquet of the Lamb.

How do we view ourselves? Are we someone of importance? Do we crave approval and recognition? Or do we admit that we are "little dogs" who God has elevated to the awesome destiny of being his sons and daughters, a vocation that we could never deserve.

St. Augustine gave a powerful instruction on the importance of humility. "I wish you to prepare for yourself no other way of seizing and holding the truth than that which has been prepared by Him who, as God, saw the weaknesses of our goings. In that way the first part is humility; the second, humility; the third, humility: and this I continue to repeat as often as you might ask direction, not that there are no other instructions which may be given, but because, unless humility proceed, accompany and follow every good action which we perform being at once the object which we keep before our eyes, the support to which we cling, and the monitor by which we are restrained, pride wrests wholly from our hand any good work on which we are congratulating ourselves."

The great Spanish mystic and director of souls, St. John of the Cross also wrote about humility: "God falls in love with the soul not because his eyes are attracted to her greatness, but to the greatness of her humility."

Humility is based on truth. It begins with the recognition of God's infinite grandeur and holiness on the one hand, and our weakness, ineptitude, and sinfulness on the other. No matter how lofty the creature, the abyss between that person and God is infinite. Humility is the recognition of that infinite chasm. Then when we reflect of Jesus' humility, we quickly discover how far we are from being truly humble. The greatest of the saints are the most humble, but Jesus is more humble than all the saints. So it is that Jesus instructed us: "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart" (Mt 11:29).

Saint Charles Borromeo Catholic Church, Picayune, MS. Reposted with permission of James Seghers and Totus Tuus Ministries.
All Rights Reserved

A Mother's Cry

by The Rev. Dr. Janet H. Hunt, Dancing with the Word

Gospel: Matthew 15:21-28

"Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David, my daughter is tormented by a demon." - Matthew 15:22

Now I know that you all know this. Mental illness carries all kinds of stigma today.

I have known this since I was a child and we experienced it in our own family. Back then it was something whose name you whispered. I'm not sure it is so very different now. When I was young during that time during the prayers of the church where we stood in silence and remembered people in need, I would close my eyes shut tight and silently plead for Aunt Donna's healing.

It didn't come.

And now we go to visit and we find a woman who has somehow 'survived' but whose life and world is narrow. Over-medicated when she was younger and suffering who knows what sorts of abuse or neglect in all sorts of ways and places, she can still be delusional. Indeed, her daily treats of Pepsi and cigarettes may be her only joy. And yet, she scrawls across the pages of composition books her prayers... raising her own voice in the only way she seems able in behalf of family members and neighbors and friends --- many of whom have long since died. Along with the occasional prayer for a favorite food --- or beer. Something she has not enjoyed in a very long time.

It is a terrible thing to witness. It is all the worse when it is someone you have loved. Indeed, although it happened half my lifetime ago, I remember like it was yesterday sitting in my folks' living room listening to my own mother's utterly anguished cry as we tried to digest the news of my young cousin's death by his own hand. He had the same debilitating illness his mother had. We had no words.

It is surely heartbreaking.

And for all the time and effort and resources poured into it, we don't understand it still. The brain is complex and multi-faceted, and while it can be miraculous in its healing powers, it is also marked by such mystery that healing too often eludes us.

And if we don't understand it now, imagine how it must have been in the time of Jesus. It made perfect sense to attribute this daughter's torment to a demon. For this is how it must have seemed --- as though some outside force was taking over and making her life and the lives of all those around her, simply miserable. And if it's bad today, just imagine what that daughter's prospects were then. It is unimaginable, really.

So it is no wonder that the Canaanite woman in this story would go to any means necessary to secure her daughter help. She risked ridicule and rejection --- speaking out in a time and place when women certainly did not do so. Indeed, she would go anywhere, approach anyone --- even Jesus who was not part of her own tradition or culture -- she raised her voice to high heaven to get the attention of the one who, in 'casting aside a few crumbs,' might fulfill the hope she hardly dared hope. For her daughter's sake and for the sake of everyone who ever loved her.

Now I know there is a great deal to stand still in as we read the story before us now:

We wonder how Jesus could have ignored her at first. Even if he had wanted to, it had to be hard to shut her out. For this is the cry of a desperate woman. In fact, we hear that both the narrator and the disciples described her as 'shouting.'

We wonder at Jesus' initial response --- even while we understand that he had understood his mission differently: that it did not, at first, include such as her.

We wonder at her brilliance. It is a rare thing to 'win' a theological argument with Jesus and this one: a woman, an outsider, and one whose life was as hard as it could be --- does so.

We wonder at the faith that is already working within her. Even though she is a Gentile, somehow she sees Jesus as having come for her as well.

And we wonder at her persistence. And yet, we don't. For it is surely no surprise to anyone who has ever loved and lived through what she has lived through, that she would dig down deep for what she needed and risk it all for the sake of that love.

I don't know exactly how I will approach this when I preach it. But this is what keeps coming to mind. This is one of those remarkable instances where the woman in the story reminds me a lot of God. And if not actually God, then certainly one created in God's image: Her willingness to risk it all --- to go to any means necessary for the sake of her suffering child. It does sound an awful lot like what God did for us in Jesus, don't you think? And I find myself wondering if we all did this, wouldn't the world look a whole lot different than it does? Even when it comes to the fates of those suffering from mental illness...

I get glimmers of this from time to time:

I listen, for instance, to the woman who lost her son to a heroin overdose. She raised her voice continually while he was still alive. And the day after she found him dead, she was vowing to make his death mean something -- to do what she could to keep another family from suffering as they were. And she has devoted every day since to reaching out to other mothers who find themselves where she was.

I think of another mother who is weeping over her son's battle to another addiction... and her pleading with me to help find him some help.

Oh, yes I find myself thinking now of all those I know who suffer because of this sort of illness of a loved one and who don't speak or only dare to whisper it aloud because of their fear of our misunderstanding, our judgment: eating disorders and addictions, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, or just a deep, deep sadness that has the world closing in and renders it impossible, even, to get out of bed in the morning. The stories are countless and from what I can tell, touch most if not all of our families and I find, even now, that I am compelled to raise my own voice of pleading for forgiveness for my own too-long silence and wisdom to find a new way. Because if this week's Gospel means anything, it tells us that even the 'leftover crumbs' of what Jesus offered would be enough to change everything. And these are mine to give and to share. These are ours to share with those who suffer so.

And it all started with a mother's willingness not only to speak, but to shout. For the sake of love. Oh yes, I do wonder what would happen if we all were to do this. Maybe at least these 'demons' would come out of the shadows and become something we can better address as communities of those who follow Jesus. And I expect if that were so, almost anything would be possible, don't you?

It is clear that I see this story as being about Jesus' responding to mental illness. While this may not have been the case, it surely seems to speak today. What do you think?

What is your own experience with mental illness or disorders or addiction? How is that like being 'tormented by a demon?' How does this mother's encounter with Jesus speak to your own experience?

What do you make of Jesus' initial response to the woman? How does that square with your understanding of who Jesus was and is?

I know I am probably venturing into new territory when I compare this woman to God. What do you think? Does that comparison work? Why or why not?

Gifts are for Sharing

by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm, The Waking Dreamer

Scripture: Gen 45:1-15, Rom. 11:31; Mt. 15:21-28

A few years ago, I wrote a Bible Study on sharing, and I asked the students to identify their most prized possession, and then begin to look for ways to give it away. At that time, mine was a classical guitar. It was a particularly nice guitar. I must confess that at the time, I wasn't sure I could ever give that guitar away.

But gifts are for sharing.

Our granddaughter Avery and our nephew Eli - who are both three years old - are learning the concept of sharing. And of course, for them sharing is a matter of learning "mine" and "yours." As you can imagine, they do a lot better with "mine" than they do with "yours." The other day, however, as we were having breakfast with Eli's family, we witnessed a blessed event - three-year-olds sharing toys. He had brought some of his sister Tyler's rings with him, and of course Avery wanted to play with them too. When he offered to share a couple of them with her, she gave him a kiss!

Gifts are for sharing.

When we receive a gift, it's always more enjoyable if we can "share" it with someone. How many times have you found yourself in that position, just dying to tell someone? There is something to that - perhaps it points us in the direction of literally sharing our gifts, not just telling someone about it. That pattern of sharing gifts is built into the way God relates to us, and the way God calls us to relate to each other. When we truly know ourselves to be people who have been given grace and mercy, we will share it with those around us, extending grace and mercy even to those who are hard to like.

I think that's what happened to Joseph - sold into slavery by brothers who hated him. Later elevated to the position of Pharaoh's Prime Minister. And when famine struck their world and his brothers came to Egypt to buy grain for their families, Joseph recognized them! There they were, those brothers who hated him so, and he had the power of life or death over them and their wives and their children! And he extended to them kindness, and love, and generosity. I think Joseph had received the gift of God's grace and mercy in his life, and so he shared that grace and mercy with his brothers by letting them off the hook for their past deeds.

We, like students of Scripture throughout the generations, have ample evidence that mercy is a gift that is meant to be shared.[2] And yet we, like Jesus' own disciples, constantly have to re-learn the lesson that we who have received mercy must in turn extend that mercy to others. To some extent, I think that's what is going on in our Gospel lesson. It has often been said that Jesus' strange interaction with the Canaanite woman was a test of her faith.[3] But I would say that it was not the woman Jesus was testing, but rather the disciples. After showing them they could be channels of divine grace and mercy at the miraculous feeding of a vast multitude, when Jesus' disciples encountered a person in need, they once again wanted to send her away.

I think that's why Jesus utters the sentiments about being sent only to "the lost sheep of Israel" and not giving the children's bread to dogs, sentiments that seem offensive to us because they are so out of character with what we see of Jesus elsewhere. I think it's likely they were the very thoughts Jesus' disciples were thinking as good reason for sending her away. Because she was a despised Gentile, she was beneath their mercy! But I think Jesus wants to teach them that no one is beneath their mercy.!

That situation is reversed in our lesson from St. Paul. One of the problems he was dealing with was the fact that a Jewish Messiah was largely rejected by his own people, while Gentiles were responding to him in faith. In a very real sense, that meant that Gentile believers faced the temptation to look down on people of Jewish faith. Still do, in fact. But Paul insisted that it was all a part of God's plan to extend mercy to all people - as improbable and unimaginable as that is. St. Paul says it this way, "by the mercy shown to you they too may receive mercy" (Rom. 11:31).[4] Isn't that always the way it is with God's mercy? We receive it not to boast about it, or to show the world that we are God's special favorites. We receive God's mercy as a gift so that we will in turn share that mercy with others - all others.[5]

Sharing is something that doesn't come easy to me. Especially sharing a gift as dear to me as my classical guitar. I had played that guitar for hours during my seven-month severance from the Seminary. And I had played it again for hours when I adjusted to life on my own after my divorce. To me it was like an old friend, a faithful companion. At the time I wrote that Bible Study, the thought of giving it away was something I couldn't fathom. At the time I had no idea to whom I would even give it. But I did give that guitar away - to my son Zach when he went off to school and needed a classical guitar. I enjoyed the gift of that guitar in some particularly difficult times of my life. And now Zach enjoys the gift of that guitar - and he plays it better than I ever did!

Gifts are for sharing - especially the gift of mercy. We receive God's mercy as a gift so that we will, in turn, share that mercy with others - all others.
No ifs ands or buts.
No discriminating.
No exceptions.
No exclusions.
Gifts are for sharing, and so is mercy.

References:

[2] Cf. Paul J. Achtemeier, Romans, 189, where he points to the theme that "God responds to disobedience with mercy" as a thread that runs throughout Scripture.

[3] In fact, many suggest that the episode was actually a test for Jesus, one that convinced him to extend God's salvation to Gentiles. Cf. Judith Gundry-Volf, "Spirit, Mercy and the Other," Theology Today 51 (Jan 1995): 519-22.

[4] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2:303-4: he sums up Paul's logic by saying, "God's mercy would not be the present of the Gentiles if it were not the future of the Jews also." The end result of this bewildering plan of God is that "everywhere we begin with human disobedience and everywhere we end with divine mercy - everywhere and for all."

[5] Cf. Cynthia Jarvis, "Siding with Grace," The Christian Century (July 31 2002) 20.

2011 Alan Brehm

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