A Journey, a Mother, and a Healing

The account of the Canaanite Woman is found in the Gospels of both St. Matthew (15: 21 – 28) and St. Mark (7:24 – 30).  The Gospel of St. Matthew’s account will be the primary focus of this posting.

St. Matthew’s account unofficially begins the pre-Lenten period according to the system of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese (For other Orthodox Christians it is St. Luke’s Gospel narrative of Zacchaeus the tax collector found in St. Luke 19: 1 – 10).  Whatever system is followed, these weeks are given to the Orthodox Church to begin the process for her entry into the 40 days of Lent.  This pericope from St. Matthew’s gospel can be seen to have two portions, and it truly prepares the mind of the faithful for the Lenten period.

Jesus and the Canaanite Woman

This account begins with a journey Jesus made with his disciples to the cities of Tyre and Sidon.  The distance from both Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee to Tyre is about 50 miles, and more than 80 miles from Jerusalem (which was the point of departure for this trip).  Though these seem  inconsequential distances for us today, it would have been rather formidable for our Lord and his disciples.  They would have taken several days to move to the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea into this Gentile area of Syria.  Perhaps this would have been the first time that the disciples, including four fishermen who knew only fresh water, set eyes on the Mediterranean Sea.  Perhaps it was the first time they set foot into primarily Gentile territory.  Whether or not this was the first time they smelled sea air or not, or felt uncomfortable in a foreign land with strange, even offensive customs, they were with Jesus.  Their journey was made with God Incarnate as their guide.

Though the Church enters into Lent every year, it can and should be a challenging time.  If we approach it with an attitude of familiarity and comfort we have not approached it with the proper attitude.  If Lent is seen only as a time of vegetarianism and dietary restrictions, then this season will be wasted.  Rather, we are to see the preparatory weeks prior to Lent, and the 40 days of Lent, as a time with Christ as his disciples as he guides through the season into the joyful day of Pascha (Easter).  Further, we should welcome challenges as we travel with Christ through the season.

Now let’s begin to examine the text.  They all embark to the Mediterranean coast after challenging interactions with Pharisees in Jerusalem:  “And after he went out from there [Jerusalem] he withdrew into the region of Tyre and Sidon” (St Matthew 15:21).  St. Mark adds more information:  “…he entered into a house wanting no one to know it” (St. Mark 7: 24).  This was a “retreat.”

However, as with so many getaways, there was an unexpected interruption:

Behold, a Canaanite woman came from those regions and was crying out saying, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David:  my daughter is terribly demon possessed” (St Matthew 15: 22).

St. Mark identifies her as Greek, yet this Gentile woman acknowledges Jesus as the Messiah by her use of the Hebrew term Son of David.  This demonstrates that she  somehow possessed some knowledge of Jesus, and had some degree of faith in him.

In the text we have a mother who is in distress over the horrifying condition of her daughter, perhaps her only child (in the Scriptures, when a child is in peril, the child is either an only child, or the only child mentioned in the account).  In her distress, she enters into a dialogue very similar to the dialogue between Jesus and his mother, Mary, in the second chapter of St. John’s Gospel — the Wedding at Cana (St. John 2: 1 – 12).  In both cases there is this construction:  1) petition / problem, 2) objection to the petition, and 3) resolution of the problem.

1) Petition of the mother:

There is Mary’s petition regarding the lack of wine following the wedding:  “And the mother of Jesus says to him, ‘they have no wine (St John 2: 3).  In like manner the Canaanite woman presents her petition to Jesus:“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David:  my daughter is terribly demon possessed” (St Matthew 15: 22).

2) Objections made by Christ:

To Mary’s petition we have this response:  “What is this between you and me, woman, my hour has not yet come (St. John 2: 4).  The Canaanite mother receives this first objection:  “…I was not sent except for the lost sheep of the house of Israel (St Matthew 15: 24).  The Canaanite mother responds, “But after she approached him, she fell at his feet [also an act of worship] say, ‘Lord, help me!’” (St Matthew 15: 25).  She then receives a second objection:  “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs [Gentiles]” (St Matthew 15: 26).  This Gentile mother then, famously replies (with more than a bit of pluck):  “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat from the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (St Matthew 15: 27).

3) Resolution of the problem:

Regarding the Wedding at Cana, Jesus instructs servants to fill six large stone containers with water.  They miraculously become fine wine (St John 2: 6 – 11).  The Canaanite mother also receives her resolution:  “…O woman, your faith is great:  let it be for you as you will.  And her daughter was healed at that very hour” (St Matthew 15: 28).

Let’s bring this all together regarding this day and the journey with our Lord that we will soon begin.  We will be journeying into and through Lent to come to the wonder of Pascha:  Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.  These weeks before Lent are to be a time for assessment and even a gathering together of provisions for the journey.  We are to make this journey purposeful, and not one that is random.  We are even to expect  the unexpected, and to pray for it to be challenging.

The journey that the disciples made to Tyre and Sidon was one with Jesus.  Our Lord will be with us as well.  But in this journey we travel with Christ and with entirety of  the Church.  As such, accompanying us are the saints — especially the Mother of God, Mary.  Again, this journey is to challenge us and to change us.  Perhaps we do not know what is to be changed in us that will form Christ in us more fully.  So, we are to pray for an increase in faith and holiness.  Be sure that if we ask Christ to perfect us and purify us more fully, we may also ask his saints and his Mother to intercede with us and for us that his healing touch will come upon us to his glory.

In Christ,

Fr. Irenaeus