Bible Reading: Gateway to the Spiritual Life

“Constant pondering on the holy scriptures will always fill the soul with incomprehensible wonder and joy in God.

We should consider the labor of reading the Scriptures to be something extremely elevated, whose importance cannot be exaggerated. For it serves as the gate by which the intellect enters into the divine mysteries, and takes on strength for attaining to luminosity in prayer.

The reading of Scripture is manifestly the fountainhead which gives birth to prayer.”

(St. Isaac of Nineveh, The Wisdom of St. Isaac of Nineveh, p.. 8, 36, 38)

Christ-like Mercy

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”   (Matthew 5:7)

“He is merciful who shows compassion to his neighbor not only with gifts, but also when he hears or sees anything that causes suffering to someone, he does not prevent his heart from burning. And even if he is struck a blow by his brother, he does not presume to retaliate against him with so much as a word and cause him mental suffering.”

(St. Isaac of Nineveh, On Ascetical Life, p. 66)

The Good Will Factor

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.   (Matthew 7:12)

“There is nothing we can offer to God more precious than good will. But what good is will? To have good will is to experience concern for someone else’s adversities as if they were our own; to give thanks for our neighbor’s prosperity as for our own; to believe that another person’s loss is our own, and also that another’s gain is ours;

to love a friend in God, and bear with an enemy out of love; to do to no one what we do not want to suffer ourselves, and to refuse to no one what we rightly want for ourselves; to choose to help a neighbor who is in need not only to the whole extent of our ability, but even beyond our means. What offering is richer, what offering is more substantial than this one? What we are offering to God on the altar of our hearts is the sacrifice of ourselves!”

(St Gregory the Great, Be Friends of God, p. 65)

Zacchaeus: A Sinner Transformed

The Lord had said to the Pharisees, “But rather give alms of such things as ye have; and behold, all things are clean unto you” (Luke 11:41). So now, showing His approval of such actions and finding in them a defense against those who murmured against Him, He says, “This day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as Zacchaeus also is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9), as he has now become faithful, righteous, hospitable and a lover of the poor. “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).

He was actually saying to the fault-finders, “I went in to be the guest of a sinner, but in order to transform and save him, showing him to be a lover of God instead of a lover of money, just instead of unjust, welcoming instead of inhospitable, and merciful instead of unsympathetic, such as you can see him becoming even now.” Do you see how Zacchaeus loved and sought, and was loved, summoned and made Christ’s own?

(St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, p. 58).

Replacing Vices with Virtues

 

“As the other passions come to birth, we must curb them and make our minds tranquil; we must banish anger, passion, grudges, enmity, malice, evil desires, all licentiousness, all the works of the flesh, which, according to St. Paul, are adultery, fornication, uncleanness, licentiousness, idolatry, witchcrafts, enmities, contentions, jealousies, drunkenness and carousingings.

It is fitting, therefore, to force out of our souls all these vices and to be eager to acquire the fruit of the Spirit: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, modesty and continence. If we shall thus purify our minds by constantly chanting the lessons of piety, we shall henceforth be able, by preparing ourselves beforehand, to make ourselves worthy to receive His gift, great as it is, and to guard the good things which are given.

(St. John Chrysostom, Baptismal Instructions, p. 36)

Christ, the Canaanite and Crossing Borders

To help us understand the Gospel lesson of the Canaanite Woman (Matthew 15:21-28), it is good to consider the context in which the pericope appears, so we can look at some of the verses (Matthew 15:1-20) which lead up to the Gospel of the Canaanite woman:

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die.’   . . . Hear and understand: not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.   . . .  whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and so passes on? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man.”

This Gospel chapter begins with Jesus finding His followers under verbal attack by the Jewish Pharisees and scribes for not keeping Jewish tradition regarding rituals before eating.  Jesus counter attacks by criticizing how the Pharisees have clever ways to get around even the most basic of God’s commandment to love your mother and father.   Jesus goes on to criticize their obsessing over external rituals and rules while ignoring the centrality of one’s heart to the spiritual life.   Jesus clearly tells them its from within the heart that evil comes it is this evil within which defiles a person – failing to keep Jewish ritual regarding hand washing cannot defile a person.  “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).

So when the Canaanite mother approaches Him, Jesus recognizes her as a foreigner, and a hated foreigner at that, a Canaanite.  But He is also going to honor her as a mother as He had taught His disciples to do.  A mother who loves and cares about her daughter.  Jesus recognizes what is in her heart even though her ethnic identity and her religion are abhorrent to Jews.   Keep in mind, the Jews had the same reaction to Canaanites that some Americans today have to Mexican or Hispanic immigrants at our border.   The Jews would have loved to put up a border wall to keep the Canaanites out of their territory.

To give us a sense of the Jewish attitude toward Canaanites, look at Deuteronomy 20:16-18 –

But in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God gives you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall utterly destroy them  …  the Canaanites  …  as the LORD your God has commanded; that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices which they have done in the service of their gods, and so to sin against the LORD your God.

The Jews were commanded to utterly destroy the Canaanites which they are not able to do obviously because in the Gospel they still exist, more than one thousand years after God commanded their decimation.   Worse than building a border wall, the Jews are supposed to annihilate the Canaanites, wipe them out, engage in ethnic cleansing.

But, in our Gospel lesson we see Jesus leaving the land of Israel immediately after debating with the Jews about how they are not in fact keeping Torah or interpreting it correctly (Matthew 15:1-20).  In Israel the Pharisees see the disciples as nothing but lawbreakers.  Outside of Israel’s borders, people are seeking Christ for what He can give them – freedom from demonic oppression.   And not only does Jesus not destroy the Canaanites, our Gospel lesson today opens with Jesus going to these foreign lands.  Jesus is breaking the boundaries which God had established.  It is in these foreign lands that the woman of Canaan approaches Jesus.  She is on home territory and Jesus is the foreigner here!

Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.” But He answered her not a word. And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.”  (Matthew 15:21-28)

Here they are walking through Canaanite territory and the disciples are telling Jesus to send the woman away.  Yet, she belongs here, they don’t!  They are the foreigners.  They have crossed the boundary set by God.  Jesus can hardly send her away since he is the one invading her land – He came to her and since we think Jesus did everything for our salvation, His presence with the Canaanite woman is also for salvation.

And I’m pretty sure that the disciples when they hear the woman say her daughter is possessed by a demon, they are thinking “all your children are possessed by the devil” for all the people of Canaan are possessed by the devil.  They wouldn’t think the woman is asking for something personal, but asking for the impossible – remove the demon from a Canaanite.

Not only this but when Jesus first called the 12 disciples he told them:  “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And preach as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ (Matthew 10:5-7)   Jesus told them not to go to the very lands to which He had now led them!

But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Then she came and worshiped (Greek:   prosekenei) Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs (Greek: kenariois).” And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs (Greek: kenapria) eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.

Looking at Matthew 15:21-28, there is a homonym word play in the Greek text. This is something I mentioned several years ago (See my blog You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks).   The homonym works in Latin as well and probably is more recognizable to us in the Latin variation:   Canaan and canine sound similar enough.  Not too hard to imagine that Jews were willing to hear canine when Canaanite was meant.  These people are dogs for the Jews.  This is humorous to the Jew and derogatory at the same time.

Additionally the woman prostrates (Gree: prosekunei – bows like a dog) herself before Jesus.   The etymology of the word prosekunei (which in English translations is often rendered as ‘worshiped’)  implies that she behaves like a dog crouching  at the feet of her master.   She physically shows she accepts from the mouth of Jesus the label of being a dog.  She is humbling herself, or even humiliating herself before Christ.  She as a mom will do what it takes to get mercy from the master for her daughter.  [In the Orthodox Church, we do  for a proskenesis, full prostration during the services of Great Lent – we bow completely getting down on our knees, elbows and touching our head to the ground.  This in the Greek implies we are imitating a dog.]

In the woman’s answer, that even the dogs (kunaria) eat the crumbs from their masters’ table, she understands the insult, but in accepting the homonym she wisely banters with Christ when she says, “even dogs aren’t stupid, they know a good thing when they see it. ”

And while Jesus had referred to the Canaanite woman as a dog, He said he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  I think if you ask those in the know to name one clear trait about sheep, it would be that they are just plain dumb, maybe one of the dumbest animals on earth with no common sense whatsoever.  They need to be protected because they are so stupid – they need a shepherd.  One dog on the other hand can help shepherd an entire flock of sheep.   So while the disciples may have enjoyed Jesus calling the Canaanite woman a dog, in the end, the joke is on them – they are the dumb sheep who need a shepherd to lead them, and this woman has just shepherded them into a new understanding of the world and of the Word of God.

In the 4th Century, St Ephrem the Syrian makes an interesting comment about this Gospel lesson:

You, too, daughter of Canaan, for righteousness
conquered the Unconquerable One by boldness.
The Just One set a boundary on the land of the Gentiles
that the gospel might not cross over.
Blessed are you who broke through the obstacle fearlessly,
The Lord of boundaries praised you for the strength
of your faith. From afar He healed your daughter in your house. (Hymnsp. 379)

St. Ephrem praises this woman for courageously breaking boundaries for the sake of the Gospel.  It is for this woman that Jesus breaks his own boundary and goes to the land of the Gentiles.  It is for the salvation of this woman’s daughter that Jesus extends His mercy to this unwanted and hated immigrant massed at the border of Israel.  Jesus saw her not as enemy but as a human in need of salvation.  Christ blesses her willingness to violate the border of Israel and even rewards her for being willing to violate the Law for the sake of the Gospel.

And so we encounter St. Paul’s words in today’s epistle from 1 Timothy 1:15-17 –

This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

Jesus saw the woman of Canaan as a sinner who needs salvation.  That is how Jesus sees all Jews, all Canaanites, all Americans, all Christians, all immigrants massed at our border. None of these other people are any different than us in the eyes of Christ our God.  We are to see people with the eyes of Christ.  We all obtain mercy from God if we show mercy to others.

The Canaanite Woman: Breaking the Lord’s Boundaries

Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.” But He answered her not a word. And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.” But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.   (Matthew 15:21-28)

St Ephrem the Syrian taking the Gospel lesson writes lyrically: 

You, too, daughter of Canaan, for righteousness

conquered the Unconquerable One by boldness.

The Just One set a boundary on the land of the Gentiles

that the gospel might not cross over.

Blessed are you who broke through the obstacle fearlessly,

The Lord of boundaries praised you for the strength

of your faith. From afar He healed your daughter in your house. (Hymns, p. 379)

St Romanos: Prayer for the Meeting of the Lord

St. Romanos the Melodist (6th Century) wrote countless hymns, poems and prayers, some of which are still in use in the liturgical services and feasts of the Orthodox Church to this day.  Here is a prayer he composed as part of a longer hymn for the feast of the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple:

We implore you, O All-Holy, Long-Suffering, Life and Restoration, Source of goodness,

look down from heaven and visit all those who ever trust in you;

rescue our life, Lord, from all constraint and affliction,

and, in the faith of truth, guide us all,

at the prayers of the immaculate Mother or God and Virgin,

Save your world, and those in the world, and spare us all,

you who, for us, became man without change,

only Lover of mankind.

(On the Life of Christ, p. 34)

When Should I Abstain from Holy Communion?

Q: A certain Christ-loving man asked the same Elder: Should one be curious about the Divine Mysteries? And is a sinner who approaches them condemned as unworthy?

A: When coming into the holy temple to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, and when receiving Them, pay heed to yourself that you unfailingly believe the truth of this (Sacrament). But as to how this happens, do not be curious, as it has been said “Take, eat, This is My Body and Blood.” The Lord gave them to us for the remission of sins (Matt. 26:26; Mark 14:22). We have hope that he who believes thus will not be condemned, but he who does not believe is already condemned. And thus, do not forbid yourself to approach, condemning yourself as sinner, but recognize that a sinner who approaches the Savior is vouchsafed the remission of sins. (Saints Barsanuphius and John: Guidance toward Spiritual Life, p. 111)

Music: Harmony With God

St. John Climacus, remarked that true beauty is never profane:  ‘When we hear singing,’ he said, ‘let us be moved with love towards God; for those who love God are touched with a holy joy, a divine emotion and a tenderness which brings them to tears when they listen to beautiful harmony, whether the songs are profane or spiritual’ (The Ladder, 15th step).”  (Olivier Clement, On Human Being, p. 105-106)

As we rejoice in the “Akathist: Glory to God for All Things” –

In the wondrous blending of sounds, it is Your call we hear.

In the harmony of many voices, in the sublime beauty of music,

in the glory of the works of great composers, You lead us to the threshold of paradise to come, and to the choirs of angels.

All true beauty has the power to draw the soul towards You and make it sing in ecstasy: Alleluia!