On Matthew 15:21-28: The Canaanite woman
In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
The Gospel of today is the story of a miracle. Like all miracle stories, it is there to remind us that Christ is not only the Judge but also the Physician of our souls and bodies. It is there also to increase our faith, both by giving us warranties of the Glory to come and by helping us to trust in God.
However, there is more to that text. Look at what comes in the Gospel immediately before this story: the discussion between Christ and the Scribes and Pharisees about purity. There we witness the unbelief of the Scribes and Pharisees; we witness also their love for argumentation, discussion, and quarreling; we witness their arrogance and pride as well. They neither ask, nor seek nor knock.
The Canaanite woman shows the opposite virtues. Instead of unbelief: faith. Instead of quarreling, patience; instead of arrogance, humility. St Jerome, St Hilary of Poitiers, St Bede, St John Chrysostom, to quote only a few of the Fathers, stress these three virtues in the woman of Canaan.
Faith is evident. It is out of faith, from her own free will, that she approaches Christ.
Note that she is not a Jew. Do you remember the Samaritans in the story of the Samaritan woman? They leave their village and approach Christ. In other words, they convert; they change; they leave their sins behind and approach Christ. Repentance is the foundation of faith.
The same happens here to the Canaanite woman: she leaves the territory of Tyr and Sidon. Origen tells us that Tyr in Hebrew means the nations; and Sidon means the hunters. In other words: the sinners. The Canaanite woman is in fact doing her Exodus, her Pascha: she leaves the land of sin to return to the Father through Christ. The foundation of her faith is repentance.
This is the first teaching: if our faith is not founded in the desire to change and become Christlike, it is an illusion.
The second virtue is patience. Here too, it is evident. After the first rebuke of Christ, the woman insists boldly. We are invited to do so: approach Christ with boldness, despite your unworthiness, but with a repentant heart.
The woman insists like a beggar, up to the point that she annoys the disciples. Her prayer is answered because of the patience she shows in her heart.
This is the second teaching: like her, our prayers will be answered as long as we do not pray only with our lips but also with our mind and our heart, with steadfastness. If we say the words of prayer with a mind travelling hundred miles away from what we say, this is not prayer. It is like chaff blown away by the wind.
The third virtue is humility. This is strongly emphasized. However, nowadays the text has lost some strength. The image of the puppies under the table eating the crumbs makes people to think that it is cute, and they misinterpret the story. Well, it is not cute. It is a terrible image, on the contrary.
Refer to the Old Testament. The Jews always compare the Gentiles to dogs because of their idolatry. Moreover, it seems to have been a custom to cut off the fingers and toes of the kings who had lost battles and have them, like dogs, beg for crumbs under the table of the victorious king (Judges 1:7).
When Jesus answers that the bread is for the children and not for the dogs, he means it is for the Jews, the chosen ones, and not for the Gentiles. Answering Him, the Canaanite woman uses the image to show her humility: she voluntarily behaves as a slave being punished. She says that however small the grace imparted to her might be, it will be sufficient for her salvation.
This is the third teaching: our faith must lead us to behave as beggars, seeking with humility the Love of God. If faith does not bear the fruit of humility, if your faith does not make of you a beggar, then it is not faith.
There is even more to that story. We have to move from the moral interpretation of the text to the spiritual one. Origen, and after him all the Fathers, consider the Canaanite woman as a figure of the Church of the Gentiles. Exactly like Ruth, Tamar and Rahab are also considered as figures of the Church. Our Church is not founded on birth rights: it is founded, as St John Chrysostom says, on the disposition of our mind and heart. The Church is born out of our free-choice. Ruth, alien and poor, renounces race, country, kindred to become the Bride.
If we consider the Canaanite woman as the Church, then who is the daughter? We easily forget the daughter. If the story shows the faith of the mother, it deals also with the healing of the daughter.
This here that we have to realize that the Church is both mother and child. The whole Body of Christ who makes up the Church, meaning all of us gathered in Communion: this is the mother. Each individual is a child to that mother.
Note that the mother does not say: “Have mercy on my child,” but: “Have mercy on me.” In other words, the affliction of the daughter is the affliction of the mother. The daughter is any soul in the Church. The mother, who is the Church, is a solicitous mother: she intercedes for the weaknesses of all the children of the Church. She intercedes for our weaknesses.
As you see, we are revealed here a mystery about the prayer of intercession. We pray for each other. We are asked at times to pray for various people and for specific demands, as long as they correspond to the will of God. There are people like monks, whose ministry is specifically the prayer of intercession. From of all of us who are asked to pray for others, one thing only is necessary: faith.
Look at the story of the Canaanite woman. Christ does not look for faith from the daughter; in the same way, he does not look for faith from the daughter of the centurion (Mat 9:18-26) nor for faith from the daughter of the servant (Mat 8:6-13). He looks only for the faith of the one who intercedes. Christ answers when He is satisfied with the faith of those who approach Him on the behalf of those who needs healing.
You will find confirmation of this in the text which follows immediately the Canaanite woman. The crowds bring the sick people to Christ for healing. This is the faith of the crowds which is offered to Christ so that the blind may study the Word, the dumb may praise with their voices and the paralyzed may follow Christ.
Therefore, all starts with your faith. If you make that free-choice and if it is founded in humility, then your faith will be your shield and your weapon leading you to victory and changing the world.