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 Jordan River: Giving Birth to Christ

Thoughts about the Feast of Theophany from St. Ephrem the Syrian:

Ephrem’s second standpoint shows a more specific concern to associate Christ’s baptism with Christian baptism. In a remarkable hymn on Christ in the river Jordan and in the womb of Mary Ephrem links these two aspects: Christ’s baptism in ‘the womb’ of the Jordan looks back in time to His conception in Mary’s womb. Both wombs, Mary’s and the Jordan’s, by bearing Christ the Light, are clothed with light from His presence within them; Mary’s womb thus becomes the source of her own baptism, the Jordan’s womb becomes the fountainhead of Christian baptism:

The river in which Christ was baptized

conceived Him again symbolically;

the moist womb of the water

conceived Him in purity,

bore him in chastity,

made Him go up in glory.

In the pure womb of the river

you should recognize Mary, the daughter of humanity,

who conceived having known no man,

who gave birth without intercourse,

who brought up, through a gift,

The Lord of that gift.

 

As the Daystar in the river,

the Bright One in the tomb,

He shone forth on the mountain top

and gave brightness too in the womb;

He dazzled as He went up from the river,

gave illumination at His ascent.

The brightness which Moses put on

was wrapped on him from without.

whereas the river in which Christ was baptized

was clothed in light from within;

so too did Mary’s body, in which he resided,

gleam from within.

(Sebastian Brock, The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, pp. 91-92)

A Prayer for Those Who are Suffering or in Anguish

Going through old papers which I saved over the last 40 years,  I rediscovered this prayer attributed to St. Ephrem the Syrian in a folder.  Unfortunately, I don’t remember where the prayer came from, but share it for all who may be in need of just such a prayer – those being crushed by their own failures, mistakes, sins and sense of sinfulness.    The prayer makes several references to the Gospel parable of the Prodigal Son  from Luke 15:11-32, the text of which I have included at the bottom of this post just for reference.

I find this prayer a good balance or alternative to those prayers and piety which make us into nothing but a dung worm deserving being squashed by God before being tossed into hell.  It is a prayer intending to comfort and give hope like we find in the Akathist: Glory to God for All Things:   “No one can put together what has crumbled into dust, but You, Lord, can restore a conscience turned to ashes. You can restore to its former beauty a soul lost and without hope. With You, there is nothing that cannot be redeemed. You are love; You are Creator and Redeemer. We praise You, singing: Alleluia!”

St Ephrem’s Prayer for Those Who are Suffering or in Anguish

Do not lose heart, O soul, do not grieve.  Pronounce not over yourself a final judgement for the multitude of your sins.  Do not commit yourself to fire.  Do not say the Lord has cast me from His face.  Such words are not pleasing to God.  Can it be that one who is fallen cannot get up?  Can it be that he who is turned away cannot turn back again?  Do you not hear how kind the father is to a prodigal?  Do not be ashamed to turn back and say boldly, “I will arise and go to my father.”  Arise, and go!   He will accept you and not reproach you but rather rejoice at your return.  He awaits you, just do not be ashamed and do not hide from the face of God as Adam did. 

It was for your sake that Christ was crucified.  So will he cast you aside?  He knows who oppresses us.  He knows that we have no other help but him alone.  Christ knows that man is miserable.  Do not give yourself up in despair and apathy assuming that you have been prepared for the fire.  Christ derives no consolation from thrusting us into the fire.  He gains nothing if He sends us into the abyss to be tormented.  Imitate the prodigal son – leave the city that starves you.  Come and beseech Him and you shall behold the glory of God.  Your face shall be enlightened and you will rejoice in the sweetness of Paradise.  Glory to the Lord and lover of mankind who saves us!   Amen.

Then the Lord told this parable:

A certain man had two sons.  And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood.  And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living.  But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want.  Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.  And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything.  But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!  I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son.  Make me like one of your hired servants.’  And he arose and came to his father.  But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 

But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet.  And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.  Now his older son was in the field.  And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing.  So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant.  And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.’  But he was angry and would not go in.

Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him.  So he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends.  ‘But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’  And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours.  It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.’ “   (Luke 15:11-32)

Christ with Everyone

I shall not be jealous, my Son, that You are both with me

and with everyone. Be God

to the one who confesses You, and be Lord

to the one who serves You, and be brother

to the one who loves You so that You might save all.

(Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns, p. 149)

St Ephrem writes that God the Father recognize that Christ is with every human being.  The Father wishes His Son to save all.   St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:22
that he has “become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”   It isn’t God’s wish that only some be saved (see for example Ezekiel 18:23, 33:11).
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people”  (Titus 2:11).

The Scriptures: A Wealth Beyond the Needs of All

 

“As for Ephraem’s own attitude to the scriptures and their interpretation, there is a passage in the commentary on the Diatessaron which, even if it may not have come from his pen, is nevertheless an apt expression of his point of view. The text says,

 

Many are the perspectives of his word, just as many are the perspectives of those who study it. [God] has fashioned his word with many beautiful forms, so that each one who studies it may consider what he likes. He has hidden in his word all kinds of treasures so that each one of us, wherever we meditate, may be enriched by it. His utterance is a tree of life, which offers you blessed fruit from every side. It is like that rock which burst forth in the desert, becoming spiritual drink to everyone from all places. [They ate] spiritual food and drank spiritual drink. (1 Cor. 10:3-4)

Therefore, whoever encounters one of its riches must not think that that alone which he has found is all that is in it, but [rather] that it is this alone that he is capable of finding from the many things in it. Enriched by it, let him not think that he has impoverished it. But rather let him give thanks for its greatness, he that is unequal to it. Rejoice that you have been satiated, and do not be upset that it is richer than you…Give thanks for what you have taken away, and do not murmur over what remains and is in excess. That which you have taken and gone away with is your portion and that which is left over is also your heritage.”

(Sidney H. Griffith, ‘Faith Adoring the Mystery’ Reading the Bible with St. Ephraem the Syrian, pp. 16-17)

The Resurrection: Christ Renews Creation

“We have an eloquent testimony to the ultimate restoration of the world from the great Syrian poet-theologian St. Ephrem:

At our resurrection, both earth and heaven will God renew,

liberating all creatures, granting them paschal joy, along with us.

Upon our mother Earth, along with us, did he lay disgrace

when he placed on her, with the sinner, the curse;

so, together with the just, he will bless her too;

this nursing mother, along with her children, shall he who is Good renew. “ 

(from Elizabeth Theokritoff, Living in God’s Creation, p. 38)

St Ephrem of Syria On Paradise

A person who has acquired

good health in himself

and is aware in his mind

of what sickness is,

has gained something beneficial,

and he knows something profitable;

but the person who lies

in sickness;

and knows in his mind

what good health is like,

is vexed by his sickness

and tormented in his mind.

Had Adam conquered,

he would have acquired

glory upon his limbs,

and discernment of what suffering is,

so that he might be radiant in his limbs

and grow in discernment.

But the serpent reversed all this

and made him taste

abasement in reality,

and glory in recollection only,

so that he might feel shame at what he had found

and weep at what he had lost.

The tree was to him

like a gate;

its fruit was the veil

covering that hidden Tabernacle.

Adam snached the fruit,

casting aside the commandment.

When he beheld that Glory

within,

shining forth with its rays,

he fled outside;

he ran off and took refuge

amongst the modest fig trees.

In the midst of Paradise God had planted

the Tree of Knowledge

to separate off, above and below,

Sanctuary from Holy of Holies.

Adam made bold to touch,

and he was smitten like Uzziah:

the king became leprous;

Adam was stripped.

Being struck like Uzziah

he hastened to leave:

both kings fled and hid,

in shame at their bodies.

Even though all the trees

of Paradise

are clothed each in its own glory,

yet each veils itself at the Glory:

the Seraphs with their wings,

the trees with their branches,

all cover their faces so as not to behold

their Lord.

They all blushed at Adam

who was suddenly found naked;

the serpent had stolen his garments,

for which it was deprived of its feet.

God did not permit

Adam to enter

that innermost Tabernacle:

this was withheld,

so that he might first prove pleasing

in his service of that outer Tabernacle.

Like a priest

with fragrant incense,

Adam’s keeping of the commandment

was to be his censer;

then he might enter before the Hidden One

into that hidden Tabernacle.

The symbol of Paradise

was depicted by Moses

who made the two sanctuaries,

the sanctuary and the Holy of Holies;

into the outer one,

entrance was permitted

but into the inner,

only once a year.

So too with Paradise,

God closed off the inner part

but He opened up the outer,

wherein Adam might graze.

(Ephrem the Syrian, Treasure-house of Mysteries, pp. 48-50)

Christ Died that We Would Live

Bright Wednesday

But [the Lord] in his turn vanquished death through his great cry when he had gone up on the cross. Whereas death was binding one person on the cross, all those who had been bound in Sheol were being delivered because of the chains of one person…his hands, which delivered us from the bonds of death, were transfixed by nails, his hands which broke our chains and tied those which were binding us.

It was an amazing thing that the dead were killing the living one, [whereas] the slain one was raising the dead to life. The directed their fury more intensely towards heaven, whereas he humbled his greatness even further down into the depths…

[Death] stole him, took him away and put him in the tomb while he was asleep, but, on awaking and standing up, he stole his stealer. This is the cross which crucifies those who crucified [the Lord], and this is the captive who leads into captivity those who had led him into captivity. The cross, through your death, has become a fountain of life for our mortal life…death used his body to takest and devour the life hidden in mortal bodies What it had hastened to gulp down while famished it was forced to restore very quickly…he commanded the stones and they were split in two. [He commanded] death and it did not prevent the just from going forth at his voice. He trained the lower regions to his voice to prepare them for hearing it on the last day, when this voice will empty [the lower regions].  

(Ephrem the Syrian, from Hilarion Alfeyev’s Christ the Conqueror of Hell, p. 71)

Death: Sojourn to Life

St. Ephrem the Syrian in one of his poems takes us on a tour from Paradise to earth.  Paradise is superlatively better than earth, and yet humans cling to the earth and don’t want to leave it.   He compares our attitude to death to that of the infant in the mother’s womb – both the dying person  and the unborn infant are reluctant to leave the world they know, even if they are entering into an even greater experience or life.  

I was in wonder as I crossed

the borders of Paradise

at how well-being, as though a companion

turned round and remained behind.

And when I reached the shore of earth,

the mother of thorns,

I encountered all kinds

of pain and suffering.

I learned how, compared to Paradise,

our abode is but a dungeon;

yet the prisoners within it

weep when they leave it!

I was amazed at how even infants

weep as they leave the womb–

weeping because they come out

from darkness into light

and from suffocation they issue forth

into this world!

Likewise death, too,

is for the world

a symbol of birth,

and yet people weep because they are born

out of this world, the mother of suffering,

into the garden of splendors.

Have pity on me,

O Lord of Paradise,

and if it is not possible for me

to enter your Paradise,

grant that I may graze

outside, by its enclosure;

within, let there be spread

the table for the “diligent,”

but may the fruits within its enclosure

drop outside like the “crumbs”

for sinners, so that, through Your grace,

they may live!

(Hymns on Paradise, pp. 106-108)