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)

The Canaanite Woman is My Sister

The Gospel reading of Matthew 15:21-21 presents a hard lesson both because Jesus appears to treat the woman harshly and because we are challenged to think about people like this woman who might appeal to the parish for help but whom for various reasons we feel justified in just wanting to be rid of them.

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 knelt before Him, saying, “Lord, help me!”

In the Gospel text, the word rendered in English as “knelt before” or in some versions, “worshipped”, is the Greek word prosekunei which has the implication of humbly submitting like a dog before its master by being down on the ground on all fours and waitinganxiously for the master’s command.

It is the way she submissively kneels before Jesus, on all four, like a dog, that apparently elicits the response from Jesus reported in the Gospel.  (see also my blog You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks)

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.

The Children’s Bread

The woman asks from Christ, like so many other people in the Gospel, for mercy – not for herself but for her daughter.  Jesus appears to either mock her by comparing her to a little puppy that follows its master around hoping to get some crumbs of food dropped by the master, or Jesus out and out is comparing her and her daughter to nothing more than dogs.

In the desert fathers, there is a very interesting comment about this Gospel lesson.  Abba Poemen reminds us that such unwanted nuisances such as the Canaanite woman are actually our brothers and sisters who we are commanded to care for.  The Canaanites were no friends of the Jews and often were hostile to them.  The Jews forbade intermarriage with the Canaanites.  Whatever the Canaanites represented, even as a religious threat to each Israelite, the Lord Jesus responds favorably to her, seeing in her something the Twelves Disciples cannot see.

 “Abba Poeman said:

‘We are in such trouble because we are not taking care of our brother who the Scripture stipulated we are to take in. Or do we not see the Canaanite woman who followed the Savior, crying and beseeching for her daughter to be healed – and that the Savior looked with favor on her and healed [her daughter]?’”

(Poeman in Give Me A Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p 260)

Today, many Syrian, Mideastern and Muslim refugees are very much like the Canaanite woman to us.   But it is not only them, for many of us have a distrust and dislike for any migrants, any poor, any people of different culture or color.  We want them to go away, or maybe we, like the apostles, hope God will make them go away.  But He might, instead, mercifully answer their prayers.  And He might expect us, His servants, to do the same.

You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

Today I did learn again that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

I read a line from the Desert Fathers in which  Abba Poemen, making a reference to Matthew 15:27, says:

“Do we not see the Savior granted repose to the Canaanite woman who acknowledged her name?”   (GIVE ME A WORD, p 239)

So I began to wonder exactly how did this woman acknowledge her name was “dog”?

Looking at Matthew 15:21-28, the pericope in which we find the encounter of Christ with the Canaanite woman, I realized for the first time today the homonym word play in the Greek text.

The Canaanite woman who comes to Jesus seeking a healing miracle for her daughter and He says to her in response, seemingly refusing her request,  that  it is not right to give the children’s food to the dogs.   In the Greek text, you hear a homonym: the Xananaia woman and the kunariois/dogs.   The Latin cognate, caninus, also works as a homonym  in this case. .  So perhaps Jews found it a humorous homonym when they used either Greek or Latin referring to the Canaanites whom they despised.  In using Greek and Latin the Jews could easily make Canaanite sound like the Greek or Latin word for dogs.

Admittedly I usually just read the texts in English or use an interlinear text, so am not strictly paying attention to the Greek.   Today, however the homonym because obvious to me for the first time.   I will say that even in the commentaries I’ve read they usually only argue as to whether Jesus was being outright offensive in calling the woman a dog, or if he is using some more endearing term like ‘little dog’  or puppy. I don’t ever remember anyone commenting on the homonym nature of Canaanite and kunaria or caninus.

Additionally the woman prostrates herself before Jesus.   The Greek verb is prosekunei. It’s etymology 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.  She lived in a world in which masters and servants were very distinct classes and the subservient knew how to behave in the presence of the superior masters.  [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 is acknowledging that the Jews are her or her people’s (the Canaanites’) masters. She understands the insult, but in accepting the homonyn she wisely banters with Christ when she says, “even dogs aren’t stupid, they know a good thing when they see it. ”  Dogs don’t bite the hand that feeds them.

Though all of this may have been obvious to all who read this Gospel passage in Greek, it was news to me.

So,  maybe it is true that all dogs go to heaven?

Christ Responds to A Barking Dog

In Matthew 15:21-28, we read the following Gospel Lesson:

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.

St. Gregory Palamas (d. 1359AD)  comments on the above Gospel Lesson, offering some hard comments on the harsh words found in the Gospel itself.

“ ‘Then came the woman, it says, ‘and worshipped him, saying Lord help me’ (Matt. 15:25). While at a distance she sought to gain the Lord’s forgiveness by her cries, but since this achieved nothing and  He did not even turn towards her, she drew near, fell at His feet and called again for His help. All the same, she was sent away with insults. Nevertheless, this valiant woman with a courageous soul did not give up, and when she was treated with contempt and heard herself called not just an irrational animal, but a dirty 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.

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 our sins, let us learn not to turn back, but to keep humbly asking from our soul. We shall receive our requests from God.” (St. Gregory Palamas, Homilies, pps. 340-341)

Crumbs and the Kingdom

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)

In the Gospel lessons we are given glimpses in the Kingdom of God, that “up-side-down” kingdom in which human values, priorities and sense of justice is turned on its head.  These glimpses into the Kingdom show us that human logic or justice is not the reigning morality in that place where the first are last, and the greatest are the ones who serve not those being served.

Just prior to this Gospel lesson in Matthew 15:21-28, Jesus had been chided by His own disciples for having said things that are offensive to the Pharisees (15:12) regarding their hand washing and food traditions.   So now, Jesus heads to what probably was the furthest north that He traveled in His lifetime to a region that had a non-Jewish population.

Here, strangely enough Jesus is called both Lord and Son of David – titles the Pharisees certainly did not give to Jesus – by a non-Jew. Obviously this woman knows something of the Jewish religion, and has also heard about Jesus. She has no interest in whether Jesus keeps the Pharisaic tradition, but she believes He has the power to heal her daughter.  Like the woman with the flow of blood who wants only to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment, this woman too wants only one thing from the Kingdom – that her daughter be freed of demon possession.  She is seeking from Him that power from God which the Pharisees have ignored in their obsession with keeping their tradition.

It is here in this foreign territory that Jesus utters the phrase, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He may have been sent to the lost sheep of Israel, but it is not Israel which has welcomed Him in faith.   However, here a stranger seeks out this itinerant healer and Lord. She is not of the house of Israel and she is not lost, for she has found the very person she was seeking. She has found Him and she will not let Him get away.

The woman not only calls Jesus Lord but gets on her knees before him in an act of reverence – again something that few Jews did in the Gospel.

Though Jesus clearly states His mission is to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, this story shows His being welcomed and professed by those not of the house of Israel. The lost are not seeking to be found, but someone not of Israel’s house and faith is looking for what God is offering to His people.

Jesus responds to the woman using imagery of the heavenly banquet of God’s Kingdom: namely that of food. If indeed this woman knows something of the Messiah and of Jewish beliefs, which she seems to know, then she should also be aware that Jewish food restrictions will not allow her to eat of the same foods as the Jews.

Jesus tosses out to her that He cannot share with her the food that is given to God’s people. He can’t throw the bread from the children’s table to the dogs.

The woman is not deterred or offended by His comment. Like the poor man Lazarus, she longs for the crumbs from the master’s table. Her faith is such that she is willing to accept whatever she can get from Master’s banquet in the Kingdom. She is willing even to be a dog accepting the crumbs that fall from her Master’s table. She is not demanding to sit at the Master’s right and left as some of the disciples did, but her hope is to be allowed to receive what falls from the table on to the floor. Even that will be a blessing from heaven. Being a dog at the Master’s banquet table in heaven is still a blessing. Her faith and priorities are straight.  She has no claims to sitting at the head table, but she values completely the smallest blessing that might fall her way – even if it is discarded from the Master’s table.

Jesus marvels that those not of the house of Israel, those not even being sought by Him, are so eager to benefit from even the crumbs of the Master’s table. The Gentile woman recognizes the value of what Jesus is offering and like Lazarus longs for it, even if only a crumb.   She cares nothing for being recognized as somebody, she cares nothing for show, she understands a crumb from the Kingdom is more important than where she might be sitting when it is given to her.

Indeed the woman’s prayer is heard, all for the sake of a crumb!

Pharisees are obsessing over tradition and rules about washing hands before eating, this woman understands the value of the food being offered. She is not worried about keeping tradition in its minutia, she is willing to receive crumbs from the master’s table no matter how they come her way.  It is not keeping herself clean that is important, it is receiving what is God’s grace that matters.

The Pharisees were majoring on the minors, while this one woman far removed from the faith shaped by Pharisaic obsession with the Law and with being seen by others to be rule abiding, knew the true importance of the tiniest things of God’s grace.

The Canaanite Woman: Diligent Perseverence in Prayer

Women seeking Christ's mercy

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)

Orthodox Biblical scholar Fr. Stanley Harakas comments:

What precisely was the Canaanite woman’s inner spiritual virtue that Jesus wanted to reveal so that she would be blessed with the healing of her daughter and so that the disciples (and we) could profit spiritually?  In his explanation, St John Chrysostom uses the word “assiduity” in his translation.  This older English word is a characteristic of a person who is diligent, energetic, industrious, persevering, persistent resolute, and zealous.  No wonder Jesus said to her, O woman, great is your faith!  Be it done for you as you desire”!

Chrysostom explains:  “Never mind,” he says, “that you are unworthy.  Become worthy by your assiduity.  For it is possible both that the unworthy should become worthy from his assiduity, and that God assents more when called on by ourselves than by others.”      (Harakas, Stanley Samuel, Archbishop Iakovos, Of Life and Salvation:  Reflections on Living the Christian Life, pg 124)

God’s Longsuffering Love for Sinners

Sermon notes from  5 February 1989   The Canaanite Woman

Scripture Lessons:  1 Timothy 1:15-17,   Matthew 15:21-28

Christ saving the first among sinners: Adam & Eve

The Gospel Lesson of the Canaanite Woman is a story of hope for sinners, outcasts, non-believers and rejects. Even though we sometimes get stuck on the fact that Jesus behaves down right rudely to this woman, calling her “a dog!”, if we look closely at the story we can see wherein is the Good News.

The Jew expected the Messiah to save Jews and thus to reject the Canaanite women as Jesus appears to do. The Canaanites (Gentiles) expect the Jewish God not to help them and Jesus appears to fulfill this expectation. But Jesus breaks through the expectations, prejudices, limitations and beliefs of both Jew and Gentile, and shows His Power stretches to all, His salvation is for all, His Authority is over all. Therefore no one on earth should believe that God cannot or will not help/save them. There is hope even for the sinner and the unbeliever.

John 3:17  –  “For God did not send His Son to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

St. Paul told us in his letter to Timothy: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.” Despite the fact the Paul sees himself as the foremost of sinners, he knows he has been both saved by the Lord Jesus Christ and called to preach the Gospel of salvation to the nations. He knows acceptance by the Church, forgiveness, healing, support, patience, encouragement and love from the Church.   It was the members of the church who Paul so violently persecuted, but it was through the same church membership that Paul was healed, baptized, evangelized, forgiven, supported and encouraged.

St. Paul did not try to hide the fact that he violently sinned against God. He publicly acknowledged it, and he did find acceptance by the Church. Brothers and Sisters, the same should be true for each of us today. Thousands of people, including thousands of Christian people, turn to Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous and such groups to help themselves acknowledge and confess their sins. But as God’s chosen people, as a group of sinners who have been accepted by Christ, it is our duty to help, support, encourage, love and accept each other, even with our sinful faults. We all face temptations, all struggle against the flesh, against evil desires, and here is one place we should be able to safely admit our faults and receive the healing and strengthening forgiveness of God’s community.

As your priest, I am in the sermons to exhort you, to challenge you, to encourage you, to strengthen you, to comfort you and to lead you. But, I am not set above you because of my personal holiness. Like St. Paul, I am a sinner. Like St. Paul, in my youth I opposed the Church and tried to get people to leave the Church. I wasted much of my younger days in drunken parties. So I know the enticement of sin. I am not here to be your judge, even though my message may make you feel God’s judgement. But I have a position in the Church to fulfill, as one whom Christ has come to save.

I too need your prayers and support, so that I can continue in my own struggle against temptation, selfishness, sinfulness, and the enticement of this world. I too need your support, encouragement and forgiveness so that I can teach you, guide you, preach to you, and be spiritual father to you. You are my family, my consolation, my strength and my joy.

The Parish Community

Therefore, I ask you to encourage one another in the fight against sin. Ask for each others prayers and pray for one another. Acknowledge your faults, trusting that the community will support you and accept you. Call each other during the week to offer a word of prayer, encouragement, love and hope, and also to seek the prayers of your Church community, to seek counsel, comfort and strength. Break the bonds of isolation and loneliness, call someone from the parish this week and see if you can meet a need of theirs or if they can meet a need that you have. Each of us should be able to find within this little community all of the support, love, healing, patience, acceptance, encouragement, strength and nourishment that we need to continue our life as Christians.