Sermon: Sunday of the Cana’anite Woman

Sermon on the Cana’anite Woman
Matthew 15:21–28

As when a dog goes to his own vomit, and becomes abominable, so is a fool who returns in his wickedness to his own sin. [There is a shame that brings sin: and there is a shame that is glory and grace.] I have seen a man who seemed to himself to be wise; but a fool had more hope than he — Proverbs 26:11–12

The above proverb of King Solomon helps to shed light on a challenging utterance of the Lord in today’s Gospel reading. The Lord is approached by a woman asking him to heal her daughter. The woman was a Cana’anite, meaning that she was not merely a Gentile, but that she came from an accursed people: “Cursed be the servant Cana’an, a slave shall he be to his brethren” (Gen. 9:25). The name Cana’an comes from the Semitic root “kn”, meaning low or subjugated, and in this case represents fallen humanity’s subjugation to sin.

Thus, when our Lord responds to the woman’s pleas for help, saying, “It is not good to take the bread of the children, and to cast it to the little dogs”, we should understand these dogs to refer to the worldly-minded person, who is incapable of understanding and utilising the grace of God. Rather than humbly seeking the presence of God as a child seeks the closeness and affection of its parent, the worldly-minded person seeks the help of God only as it pertains to their worldly pursuits, “seeming to himself to be wise”. He misunderstands the purpose of God’s grace, and is therefore in no position to receive it. “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:3). This is why the prayers of such people often are met with apparent silence, as were the initial prayers of the Cana’anite woman: “But the Lord answered her not a word”. 

Herein also lies the difference between mere regret and true repentance. We might momentarily regret our sinful actions when we feel their negative consequences, be they inward or outward, and tearfully turn to God asking for help and forgiveness. However, because we lack true repentance, a true change of our nous and inward disposition, because we remain self-centred and self-reliant, we soon return to the same sins as the dog returns to its vomit, seeking to fill with earthly things the void that only the grace of Christ can fill. Christ warns us against this at an earlier point in the same Gospel:

When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest, and findeth none. Then he saith, I will return into my house from whence I came out; and when he is come, he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first. Even so shall it be also unto this wicked generation — Matthew 12:43–45

While a moment of sincere regret might give us the resolve to abstain from particular outward behaviours for a time, if we do not fill the void left behind, if we do not humbly seek the presence of God and entrust ourselves to him as children to their Father, our return to sin is inevitable; our prayer for help remains unanswered because we are unwilling to receive it. 

It was the Cana’anite woman’s humility which ultimately granted her what she sought after. With her reply, “Yes, Lord, indeed even the little dogs eat from the little crumbs which fall from the table of their masters”, she cast off the “shame that brings sin” and embraced the “shame that is glory and grace”. Emptying herself of all pride, in imitation of the Lord’s kenosis (self-emptying), she makes herself a worthy receptacle of the Lord’s grace. No longer a dog, but a child, she finally receives the answer to her supplication: “O woman, great is thy faith! Let it be to thee as thou wilt”.  

In the words of today’s Epistle reading:

Ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore Come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; And I will receive you, and will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty — 2 Corinthians 6:16–18

Fr Kristian Akselberg