17th Sunday after Pentecost.
Matthew 15:21-28: Then Jesus went thence, and departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs. And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table. 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.
cf. Mark 7:24-30: And from thence he arose, and went into the borders of Tyre and Sidon, and entered into an house, and would have no man know it: but he could not be hid. For a certain woman, whose young daughter had an unclean spirit, heard of him, and came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, a Syrophenician by nation; and she besought him that he would cast forth the devil out of her daughter. But Jesus said unto her, Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it unto the dogs. And she answered and said unto him, Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children's crumbs. And he said unto her, For this saying go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter. And when she was come to her house, she found the devil gone out, and her daughter laid upon the bed.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In today’s lesson, Matthew [cf. 15:21-28] tells us that Jesus left Magadan [otherwise, Magdala—the home of Mary Magdalene], and ‘departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon’—an area in which gentiles [in Hebrew, goyim and Greek, éthne] dwelled. According to Joshua [cf. 5:12], this coastland was the ‘land of Canaan’ or otherwise, the ‘land of the Phœnicians’. It was the land of foreigners and heathens—the descendants of the worshippers of Baal.
Commandments of God or commandments of men?
Before His departure to the region of Tyre and Sidon—the conflict between Jesus and the deputation of scribes and Pharisees [which had come from Jerusalem] had escalated. These scribes and Pharisees [who had been commissioned by the Sanhedrin] had come to challenge Jesus publicly, saying: "Why do Your disciples transgress the ‘tradition of the elders’? For they do not wash their hands [or perform the ceremonial ablutions] when they eat bread” [cf. Matthew 15:1-2]. Jesus responded: “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?” [cf. Matthew 15:3]. He then rebuked them further, saying: “Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition. Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” [cf. Matthew 15:7-9; Mark 7:1-23].
It should be noted that the Law of Moses prescribed numerous ceremonial rituals intended to remind the Jews that they were God’s chosen people; and moreover, that they were set apart and consecrated unto Him. As God’s people, they were also set apart from the Gentiles [that is, the goyim—the nations]—and moreover, from all uncleanliness and sin. The ceremonial laws constituted the sacrament—or outward sign, symbol, and reminder of the inward grace—of their separation from the world and consecration unto God.
The ceremonial rituals of the Law were never intended to be an end in themselves, but rather a reflection of the inward spiritual reality of their relationship with God. Even circumcision, which is—at the most visceral and embodied levels—the ultimate sign that marks the boundary between the Jews and the goyim—was intended to be the reflection of inner spiritual reality, purification, and religious sacrifice.
This is clearly stated in Deuteronomy [cf. 10:12-16]:
“Now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require from you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the Lord’s commandments and His statutes which I am commanding you today for your good? Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the highest heavens, the earth and all that is in it. Yet on your fathers did the Lord set His affection to love them, and He chose their descendants after them, even you above all peoples, as it is this day. So circumcise your heart, and stiffen your neck no longer”.
God’s desire for His chosen people was proclaimed by the Prophet Ezekiel:
“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. Then you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; you shall be My people, and I will be your God” [cf. 36:26-28].
And again, in Jeremiah:
“But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” [cf. 31:33].
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. Ezekiel 36:26
God intended the Law of Moses to constitute a religion of the heart—but the ‘tradition of the elders’ transformed the Law into an external and shallow religious system that could be practiced [with great zeal] regardless of the inner condition of man’s heart. The most hardened unbeliever could follow the ‘tradition of the elders’ because said tradition had become a system designed to cover up sin rather than a means of exposing, uprooting, and cleansing sin.
The ‘tradition of the elders’ allowed the Jews to “have a form of godliness but denying its power” [cf. II Timothy 3:5]. Said ‘tradition’ allowed the Jews to have the outward appearance of righteousness without being righteous. Jesus therefore said to them: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness” [cf. Matthew 23:27].
Jesus applies the condemnation in Isaiah [cf. 29:13] directly to the scribes and Pharisees, saying: “Therefore the Lord said: Inasmuch as these people draw near with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but have removed their hearts far from Me, and their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men.”
In other words, they were ‘hypocrites’—a transliterated classical Greek term for a stage actor that wore a mask to play his character.
They were men who pretended to be something that they were not. Their worship of God was vain because it was only ‘lip service’. They had made worship into a liturgy in which they said the right things but their hearts were far from God—a fact that was demonstrated by their replacement of the doctrines of God with the precepts of men.
Unfortunately, this is still a common problem today among many who claim to be Orthodox Christians.
The Canaanite Woman
Following the confrontation with the Scribes and Pharisees, “Jesus got up and went away from there to the region of Tyre, and when He had entered a house, He wanted no one to know of it; yet He could not escape notice” [cf. Mark 7:24]. Jesus was trying to find a quiet place where He could be alone with His disciples. By going to an area inhabited by Gentiles [or goyim], Jesus and His disciples could escape the crowds in Galilee.
Most Jews were hesitant to travel to the lands occupied by the goyim—whom they considered as beasts and sub-humans—only fit to serve the Jews as slaves. According to the ‘tradition of the elders’, the idolatrous goyim are not men, but are comparable to the beasts of the field—that is, to oxen, rams, goats, and asses—and the foetus in the bowels of a Canaanitish woman is liken unto the foetus in the bowels of a beast. Such hesitancy to travel among the goyim was even greater among the scribes and Pharisees.
Then, a Canaanite woman from that region came forth, and began to cry out, saying: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is cruelly demon possessed” [cf. Matthew 15:22; Mark 7:25-26]. Mark refers to her as a Syrophœnician and Matthew states that she was a Canaanite woman—but both terms equally refer to her country of origin. Mark uses a term familiar to the Romans and Matthew uses a term familiar to the Jews.
The terms indicate that she was a descendant of one of the nations [or goyim] that God had commanded Israel to ‘utterly destroy’ [cf. Deuteronomy 7:1-2]. Her ancestors had worshipped Baal, Dagon, Asherah, Astarte and the pantheon of the Canaanite deities—although the Greek and Roman pantheon would have replaced many of those gods later. Notwithstanding, because of Tyre’s proximity to Galilee she would have had knowledge of the customs of the Jews. She is a Syrophœnician.
According to the Jews, she was a shiksa [from Hebrew, sheketz—meaning the flesh of an animal]. She was a pagan, a woman, and her daughter had an unclean spirit. She knew that in every way—according to the standards of the day—she was unclean and therefore disqualified to approach any devout Jew—let alone a rabbi. This woman was pagan [that is, ellinís—Greek in religion] from birth—yet now there was a new faith emerging from within her—which brought her to Jesus in order to seek His great and boundless mercy [cf. Mark 7:26].
This woman came to Jesus because she had saving faith—of which repentance is the primary and first step. Repentance is a change of man’s mind, heart, and nous that results in a change of direction. A repentant man recognizes that he is going in the wrong direction, [does an about-face], and turns to follow Truth. This woman had been so concerned over her demonized daughter that she sought the help of her people’s deities and in agony confronted the reality that no help would be forthcoming from them. Idols of wood and stone—or any man-made material—have no life and the demonic power behind these images rejoiced over the girl possessed by one of their comrades [cf. Isaiah 44:9-17; I Corinthians 10:20]. There would be no help from the pagan gods.
The woman undergoes a change of mind, heart, and nous; she repents of her old ways, turns her back on the idols of her people, and turns to the Lord Jesus Christ. There is an important point about this woman’s faith.
Faith must have an object [that is, to who or to what faith looks] and she has now cast her cares on the true object of faith—the Lord Jesus Christ [I Peter 5:7; Spurgeon—Sermon 361]. Faith is of little to no value—and can even be destructive—if it is placed in an unsound object. This woman had faith in her pagan gods—but ultimately—they left her hopeless. For her faith to be of value, it had to be transferred to a trustworthy object, who is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ.
She enters the house without an invitation, falls down, and begins begging Jesus to exorcise the demon from her daughter. She pleads. Jesus’ response is perhaps the most perplexing piece of this narrative. At first, He does not say a word to her, but He refuses to send her away. Only after her persistence does He converse with her. Twice, Jesus explains to her that His mission is first to the “lost sheep of the House of Israel.” Indeed, the narrative implies that the “House of Israel” requires more work than one laborer could feasibly handle [cf. Matthew 9:35-10:6]. The need in Israel is indeed great. The disciples, too, seem to think that Jesus should stay focused on the needs of Israel. They repeatedly tell Jesus to send her away because they are tired of hearing her cries for help [cf. Matthew 15:23].
Faith is of little to no value—and can even be destructive—if it is placed in an unsound object.
Perhaps Jesus’ refusal to listen to the disciples gave the woman hope that her request would be heard. She then does something significant—she kneels before Him in a manner befitting a King.
The magi—who were Gentiles—are the first to worship Jesus on their knees [cf. Matthew 2:2-11], and the mother of James and John kneels before Jesus as a King of a Kingdom [cf. Matthew 20:20].
For the woman to treat Jesus in this manner is in keeping with her earlier pleas: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David” [cf. Matthew 15:22]. Kneeling, however, is not only a sign of submission to kingship, but also a sign of recognition of power. There is a connection between those who kneel before Jesus and the healings that Jesus performs. A leper kneels before Jesus and asks to be made clean [cf. Matthew 8:2]. A ruler kneels and asks for his daughter’s healing [cf. Matthew 9:18].
This woman kneels before the ONE whom she recognizes as having authority not only to sit on the throne of David—but also to exercise power over evil.
Jesus’ response to her second cry for help includes a reiteration of His mission to the “lost sheep of the House of Israel’. Because she is a gentile [a shiksa], He likens her status to that of a domesticated dog [in the service of its master] who longs to be fed from the table [cf. Matthew 15:26]. “First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs” [cf. Mark 7:26-27].
To call someone a ‘dog’ was a terrible insult
Today, we are a canine-friendly society—but in New Testament times dogs were hated. Dogs were scavengers—they were wild, dirty, ‘unclean’, and uncouth in every way. To call someone a ‘dog’ was a terrible insult. The Jews often referred to the Gentiles [or goyim] as ‘dogs’ because they considered the goyim to be ‘unclean’.
“Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces” [cf. Matthew 7:6].
“As a dog returns to his own vomit, so a fool repeats his folly” [cf. Proverbs 26:11].
“But it has happened to them according to the true proverb: “A dog returns to his own vomit” and “a sow, having washed, to her wallowing in the mire” [cf. II Peter 2:22].
“Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the mutilation!” [cf. Philippians 3:2].
“But outside are dogs and sorcerers and sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and whoever loves and practices a lie” [cf. Revelations 22:15].
The word ‘dog’ is the second-most common pejorative in the Holy Scriptures, after the word ‘harlot’.
Are Jesus’s words then an insult? No! He uses a metaphor—and employs terms in common usage. Jesus uses a diminutive form of the word ‘dogs’—that is, tis kinaríis or ‘to the little dogs’. The word—as such—pointed not to the wild, unclean beasts that haunt the streets of Eastern cities [cf. Psalms 59:6], but to the tamer animals that were kept in households as service animals or ‘pets’ [if that word can be correctly applied to the keeping of domesticated animals during that time in history].
The history of Tobias and his dog, furnishes the one example in Biblical literature of this ‘semi-friendly’ relation between a dog and his master [cf. Tobit 5:16].
In Mark [cf. 7:27], Jesus said: “But Jesus said unto her: Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it unto the dogs”. In summary, the ‘children’ are the Jews—the Children of Israel [cf. Exodus 1:1]. The ‘bread’ is the publication or preaching of the New Testament [or Covenant in His Blood], that is, the Good News, and the miracles by which the Truth of the Gospel’s doctrine was confirmed. The ‘dogs’ are the Gentiles [or goyim], whom the Jews contemptuously counted as ‘dogs’—and unworthy of a covenant with God [cf. II Samuel 3:8; 16:9; II Kings 8:13].
In paraphrase then, ‘Jesus said to the Syrophoenician woman: Let the Jews [the Children of Israel] first be filled—for it is not proper [or in accord with God’s established order and promises] to take the New Testament [or Covenant] of the firstborn [cf. Exodus 4:22] to “whom pertains the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises” [cf. Romans 9:4]—and to cast it unto the Gentiles. Nevertheless, these very Jews—“the children of the kingdom” were destined to “be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” [cf. Matthew 8:12].
Furthermore, the Savior deigned to test the woman’s faith in the strongest manner—that she might understand that it did not comport with the design of His personal ministry to apply the benefits intended for the Jews to others. Evidently, He did not justify or sanction the use of the terms.
He meant to try her faith. As if He had said: ‘You are a Gentile; I am a Jew. The Jews call themselves ‘Children of God’. They vilify and abuse you—calling you a dog. Are you willing to receive of a Jew, then, a favor and aid? Are you willing to submit to these cruel appellations and epithets in order to receive a favor of one of that nation, and to acknowledge your dependence on a people that so despise you?’
The exchange was, therefore, a trial of her faith, and was not a lending of His sanction to the propriety of the abusive term. He regarded her with a different sentiment—one of love, kindness, and tender mercy.
Another aspect of this woman’s faith is revealed in what occurs next. Mark gives a slightly fuller account of the exchange: “And He was saying to her: Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. But she answered and said to Him: Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table feed on the children’s crumbs” [cf. Mark 7:27-28]. In complete humility, the woman agrees with the truth of what Jesus had said. She was not worthy of the blessings—which were meant for the ‘Children of Israel’.
However, she came to plead for mercy—and not for something that she had earned or deserved. She therefore continues to seek a crumb of God’s mercy that had spilled over from the abundance of mercy that He had granted to Israel.
She was persistent. She was not deterred. She claims a place in the household—but it is not a position of privilege or even the position of an insider. She accepts the status of a family service dog by claiming that even the dog enjoys crumbs from the table. She just wants a crumb—recognizing that even a crumb is powerful enough to defeat the malicious demon that has possessed her daughter.
Jesus praises her faith. This woman understands that which the ‘Household of Israel’ has yet to grasp. Jesus is not just the hope of Israel—He is the hope of the world. Jesus then said to her: “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire” [cf. Matthew 15:28]. “For this saying go your way; the demon has gone out of your daughter. And when she had come to her house, she found the demon gone out, and her daughter lying on the bed” [cf. Mark 7:29-30].
This Canaanite woman—an unclean outsider—unsettles boundaries and calls into question the definitions of ‘cleanness’ and ‘uncleanness’ established in the ‘tradition of the elders’.
In the verses that immediately precede this story, “Jesus called the people to Him and said to them: Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person. Then the disciples came and said to Him: Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying? He answered: Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit. But Peter said to Him: Explain the parable to us. And He said: Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone” [cf. Matthew 15:10-20].
What came out of the Canaanite woman’s heart was faith—the certainty that Jesus had power enough for Israel and power enough to save her non-Israelite daughter. Her words demonstrate that the boundary separating her from the ‘House of Israel’ had to be reconsidered. With a faith so pure, how can she be deemed unclean? The encounter with the Canaanite woman prepares us for Jesus’ Great Commission and “to go and to make disciples of all the nations” [cf. Matthew 28:20].
The account of the Syrophœnician woman teaches us that before approaching the Lord Jesus Christ in faith, each and every one of us must repent of our worship of the false and useless gods that we have created. The act of repentance cleanses us—“but nothing unclean will ever enter [the New Jerusalem], neither anyone who does what is detestable nor anyone who lies, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life” [cf. Revelation 21:27]. The unclean cannot worship God or become adopted children of God. [cf. John 1:9-13]. “He who covers his sins will not prosper, but whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy” [cf. Proverbs 28:13], and “For I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies, says the Lord God. Therefore, repent and live” [cf. Ezekiel 18:32]. “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time: Casting all your care upon Him; for He cares for you” [cf. I Peter 5:6-7].
If you have a need—follow the example of the Syrophoenician woman.
Repentance is easy and simple.
The qualities of repentance, can be summarized with four R’s:
(1) Responsibility—we must recognize that we have done wrong and moreover, that we are accountable for our wrongdoing before God
(2) Regret—we must have true remorse for doing wrong and for the pain and problems that we have caused
(3) Resolve—we must be committed never to repeat the act regardless of the temptations or situation;
and probably the most difficult of all,
(4) Repair—the damage that we have done, or at least do what we can to directly ask forgiveness of the injured party.
Now, together with the Syrophoenician woman, let us repeat the words:
“Lord, help me!” [cf. Matthew 15:25].
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.