Joy of All Who Sorrow

36th Sunday after Pentecost / The Translation of the Relics of The Hieromartyr Ignatius the God-Bearer

Gospel [Matt. 15:21-28 (§62); Mark 9:33-41 (§41)]

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Dear father, brothers and sisters

If you remember, in last week’s reading we were meditating on the healing of the blind man sitting by the wayside on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem in St Luke’s Gospel. Today, we are in a different Gospel – St Matthew’s – and in an entirely different location – not Jericho but the coasts of Tyre and Sidon way up in the North. And it is here that we suddenly come across this bold, yet humble Canaanite woman in what is one of the most striking encounters of the whole Gospel. Despite their differences in sex, in background and in location, both of the protagonists of these two Gospel readings address our Lord by the same title – son of David, have mercy on me! Moreover, in both the disciples seek to dismiss the blind man and the Canaanite woman away. Just as in last week’s Gospel, however, our Lord’s engagement with the Canaanite woman draws out so much for us to learn and benefit from. To help us interpret this story of this singular and  beautiful encounter between this humble Canaanite woman and our Merciful Saviour let us turn this time to a Commentary from St Jerome of Studion. 

So our Gospel reading starts with these words –

Then Jesus went thence, and departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon.

As we read at the end of chapter 14 of St Matthew’s Gospel, our Lord had been in the land of Gennesaret or in its Hebrew name, Kinneret, on the north western shores of the Sea of Galilee. In chapter 15 we then read that he is once again harassed and pursued by the ‘scribes and Pharisees of Jerusalem’ who were accusing him yet again of transgressing the Law, this time of the need of ritual cleansing before eating food. After comprehensively answering this accusation of the Jewish elite, we then can well imagine how much He was perhaps in need of getting away from these hypocritical Jewish leaders and so our Lord travels further to the north west to the coastal strip between the towns of Tyre and Sidon. It is here by the coast, with the waves of the Mediterranean Sea lapping against the cliffs that our Lord is accosted by –

a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts

This mysterious ‘woman of Canaan’ was not a daughter of Israel, but a Gentile, or to use the singular term that is only used in this story, a ‘Chananaia’ a Caananite woman from the Northern region of Phoenicia, somewhere between the coastal towns of Tyre and Sidon. Historically, this area had a small Jewish population that had arisen from the time Soloman had sent Jewish men to gather wood for the construction of the Temple, but it  was predominantly a pagan Romanised province. Our Lord in coming here, except to perhaps escape for a moment the pursuing Scribes and Pharisees, may also have been initially targeting the small Jewish community that would have still resided here.

and [she] cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil.

How striking it is that despite being a gentile, a Canaanite or as St Mark identifies, a Syrophronecian, she addresses Jesus as Lord and ‘son of David’. How ironic it is that the Scribes and Pharisees, those who were the religious leaders of the people of Israel could only condemn Him, blaspheme Him and ask empty and cynical questions, yet this gentile, from a pagan background, could immediately identify Him as the Lord and the Messianic Son of David. In his commentary, St Jerome says

She knew to call him “son of David” because she had already come forth from her land and had left the error of the Tyrians and Sidonians by a change of place and of faith.

Indeed, it is likely that this woman was a Gentile proslyte to Judaism, who after perhaps reading the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures had left the idolatry of paganism for the Jewish Faith in One God. However, unlike the blind man who we heard about last week who also addressed our Saviour as son of David, this mysterious woman does not come to our Lord for herself, but on behalf of her daughter who is possessed of a demon. St Jerome sees in this a deeper spiritual meaning beneath the surface of the text –

I believe that the daughter of the Church refers to the souls of believers, which were badly vexed by a demon. They did not know the Creator and were worshipping a stone.

Not only was her daughter possessed of a demon, but so many of her countrymen were benighted by paganism and had become so confused, blinded and benighted that they were led by the demons to worship idols.

But he answered her not a word.

Our Lord’s initial response to the lady’s heartfelt petition is curious and rather unexpected. The Word is silent. What is He waiting for? Why does he not answer her or respond to this remarkable confession of faith, especially after all the disappointment he had faced with the Scribes and Pharisees in Gennesaret? St Jerome answers –

His silence was due not to some sort of pharisaical arrogance or superciliousness of the scribes, but that He might not seem to be opposed to his own statement by which he had commanded: “Do not go into the way of the Gentiles and do not enter into the cities of the Samaritans” For he was unwilling to give an occasion to his false accusers, and he was reserving the perfected salvation of the Gentiles for the time of his Passion and Resurrection.

And His disciples came and besought Him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us.

Again, just as they had they had rebuked the blind man who had cried our for mercy, so too the disciples seek to silence and dismiss this woman of profound Faith. As St Jerome says –

Even at that time the disciples did not know the mysteries of the Lord.

The disciples had still to receive the Holy Spirit and were still themselves blinded to the Mystery of the Kingdom of God, and the topsy turvy world of the Gospel.

But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

When the Lord speaks He reiterates that He had come to this coastal region to seek out the ‘lost sheep’, perhaps referring to those marginalized Jews who were still to be found scattered amongst this pagan people, far from the city of Jerusalem. However, it is also important that we don’t misconstrue what our Lord is saying, as he certainly wasn’t denying that He had come for the Gentiles. As Jerome says –

He is not saying that he was not also sent to the Gentiles, but that he was sent first to Israel. In that way the transference to the Gentiles would be just, since Israel did not receive the Gospel.

In order to avoid yet more outrage and criticism from the Scribes and the Pharisees it was essential that He give them no further reason or opportunity to reject Him. That they could blame their lack of belief in Him, their rejection of Him on His evangelization of the Gentiles.

Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me.

Perhaps after such a direct and discouraging response from the Lord, other people with lesser faith may have despaired or left Him. However, this Canaanite woman is not disheartened. She does not despair, but she adds action to her words and falls down before Him in adoration and worship and utters three simple words: “Lord, help me.” Perhaps when we are feeling that God is not hearing our prayers, that our petitions our not being fulfilled or answered, maybe rather than becoming resentful, angry or disillusioned, maybe we too should follow in the steps of this Canaanite, and falling to our knees just exclaim with simplicity of heart – ‘Lord, help me’.  

But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.

If we were confused at our Lord’s silence, and then discouraged somewhat by His first negative response we may be rather outraged, even scandalized by this pejorative comparison between the gentiles and dogs. Yet again, our Loving-kind Lord, knew the depths of this woman’s faith and humility and in responding to her in this way, knew that this would not provoke her, but rather that in saying this it would allow her humility to be brought out and shine forth to the disciples.

And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.

Yet again this plucky Canaanite woman does not stomp off in offence and outrage nor does she weep in despair. Rather she responds with angelic humility, poise and a mix of grit and wit. In his commentary, St Jerome imagines her saying –

“I know … that I do not deserve the son’s bread. I am incapable of taking whole food or of sitting at the table with the Father. But I am content with what is left over for the puppies, so that by the humility of crumbs I might come to the greatness of the whole loaf.

Again, see what humility is here. How she meekly accepts and even embraces this seeming insult, and uses it to further persuade the Lord to act.

Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.

Again, when the Son of David came, it was not the Priests, it was not the Scribes, or the Pharisees who the Lord praised for their greatness of faith, rather it was those like the Roman, Gentile centurion or the woman with the issue of blood, or this Canaanite woman. Again in this topsy-turvy world of the Kingdom, those who are first are last and the last, first. As St Jerome exclaims, ‘what a marvellous transformation of things’ for those of pagan background who had been condemned as ‘dogs’ for their idolatry are now praised in the very highest terms by the Saviour as showing forth True Faith, the Faith of Abraham. And it is rather the so-called sons of Abraham, circumcised in the flesh, who by the end of the Gospel are turned into dogs. Recalling those haunting words of Psalm 21, St Jerome recalls that in fact –

Of Israel it is later said – ‘Many dogs have surrounded me.’

Thus, in fact: the children have become dogs and the dogs children. As St Jerome ends his commentary –

In the person of the Canaanite woman, we should admire the faith, patience, and humility of the Church: faith, by which she believed that her daughter would be healed; patience, by which she perseveres in prayer, after having been scorned; humility, by which she compares herself not with dogs but with puppies.

Dear father, brothers and sisters, today we also celebrate not the repose of St Ignatius the God-bearer, which we already celebrated together with the Feast of St John of Kronstadt last month, but the translation of his relics. His horrific martyrdom showed just how benighted, how lost the pagan world had fallen apart from the Light of Christ as the Emperor Trajan condemned him to death for refusing to worship the idols. Yet St Ignatius showed forth the courage, the wit, the wisdom as well as the awesome Faith of the Canaanite woman when upon being sentenced to death in the arena in Rome, being surrounded by ravenous lions he could say to the people:

Men of Rome, you know that I am sentenced to death, not because of any crime, but because of my love for God, by Whose love I am embraced. I long to be with Him, and offer myself to him as a pure loaf, made of fine wheat ground fine by the teeth of wild beasts.

By the prayers of St Ignatius the God-bearer may he help to increase our faith, that we who are also little, gentile dogs, may receive not merely the crumbs but the Bread that comes down from Heaven.