Imagine if everything in your life falls apart. Will you still love God? If your loved ones become sick or die, if you are insulted, abused, and slandered, will you love God? If you endure all that, but your prayers are unanswered, and God remains silent, will you still love God? The Canaanite woman shows us the kind of determination needed by a Christian.
“[Jesus] went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all” (Matthew 15:21-28).
She left everything behind to pursue God. Origen tells us that Tyre means “the nations” in Hebrew, and so symbolizes worldliness. Sidon means “the hunters,” indicating violence and depravity. She left all this behind to set out for Christ: her home, friends, comforts, and lifestyle.
Christianity means a change of life. We cannot look or talk or entertain ourselves the way the people in our society do. If we are, we are not living as Christians. The movies we watch should be different. The way we understand dating. Even the way we eat, as we witness during Lent, sets us apart from the people around us. Quite simply, we cannot live like the average American and still call ourselves Christians. How far are we willing to go to give our lives to God?
The woman gave up her dignity for the sake of God. The Canaanites were despised by the Jewish people. They were pagans, with a history marked by idolatry, slavery, and child sacrifice. The Jews found them revolting. She broke every social expectation by approaching Jesus’ company. She knew it would be humiliating, but that did not prevent her.
“She started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David!” “Ekérazen, legousa, Elehson me.”
Ekérazen comes from the Greek word, krazw, which literally means shouting or bawling. It is an onomatopoeic word. It imitates the hoarse cry of a raven or the barking of an animal. There was nothing refined or religious about her prayer. She was desperate.
Then the disciples got involved: “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” The servants of God make it plain: “We do not want you.” Jesus replies: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Now God himself says: “I am not here for you.” Finally, Christ compares her to a dog.
Are we willing to go this far to give our lives to God? Are we willing to be despised and insulted? Orthodox Christians love to tell stories of the martyrs. My childrens’ books probably depict Christians getting beheaded and tortured more than any other theme. Look at the history of our Church. Martyrdom is definitely the lot assigned us. Other churches can change their doctrines and morality to accommodate the Spirit of the Times. The Orthodox just keep doing what they have always done, and then get killed for it.
Are we ready for martyrdom? I used to imagine the physical pain would be the hard part of martyrdom. Scenes from Rambo come to mind, a hero being scourged and beaten, but never flinching. Heaven knows how reality will hold up to imagination. Nonetheless, I wonder whether the beatings are actually the most difficult part. The heavier trial is the shame.
People are so easily brainwashed. The Nazi Germans genuinely believed Jews were subhuman. The Soviet communists considered Christians a legitimate hazard to the well being of society. Already, today in America, it is becoming mainstream to consider traditional Christian values offensive and dangerous. I keep hearing: “But there are so many good people in America.” I am not so sure all this can not flip quickly. It is easy to be moral when you have lots of food and comforts. What would happen to our “morality” if we were all of a sudden far less comfortable?
“His disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away”…“[But] She came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’”
She was humiliated and embarrassed, but she was undaunted. Are we prepared to be hated and despised for our faith? Are we ready to be looked at as bigots by our own friends and family?
How far are we willing to go to give our lives to God? She leaves the world behind her. She is shamed. It gets worse. After all that, God is silent. She begs more. God finally speaks: “I have not come for you.” She begs even still. God replies: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” It is one thing to be rejected by people. What if God himself seems to reject us?
“Many praise and bless Jesus as long as they receive some consolation from Him, but if He hide Himself and leave them for a little while, they fall either into complaining or into excessive dejection” (John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul).
How far are we willing to go?
“‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’”
This is faith! This is the determination we need.
St. Gregory Palamas marvels: “Let us learn from this teacher with how much patience, humility and contrition we must persevere in our prayers. Even if we are unworthy, and even if we are sent away because we are soiled with sins, let us learn not to turn back, but to keep humbly asking from our soul” (341).
There are a lot of trials in our lives. Sometimes everything seems to fall apart under our feet. There is only one way to respond: keep reaching out to God. Even when God himself seems to abandon you: reach out more. We must expect it: everything will fall apart eventually, our nation, our families, our health, everything, and God allows it. Our job: keep reaching out to God.