The Canaanite Woman


Sermon preached by Dn. Jeff Smith on Sunday, January 29, 2023

Good morning! I’m going to start with an outline today. I would like to make three points about today’s gospel. First, I would like us to reflect on how this encounter opens a whole new ministry to the gentiles. Second, I would like us to think about the Canaanite woman’s response to Christ’s rebuke. Finally, I would like to end with a meditation on Jesus’ silence.

In today’s gospel, we see that Jesus has left his homeland, which is a new departure for him, fraught with possibility. What was Jesus doing in Lebanon? Was he seeking rest from the tumult of his ministry in Israel? Was he driven into exile by Herod, after John was assassinated? We don’t know, but leaving home created a major break from his traditional ministry to the Jews. It is clear that Jesus believed his mission was to deliver Israel first. He wanted to channel his energy through his own people, and not spread himself too thin. Jesus practiced his faith in the belief that God had chosen Israel as His instrument to save the world. But now, at this moment, he broke with that tradition. Here the Canaanite woman shows more faith than God’s chosen people, and this is something new. You can imagine Jesus wondering, does God intend that I fulfill my purpose through the gentiles? More and more, he does. How often does that happen, where we too are pleasantly surprised by faith and love outside of our community?

Today’s gospel refers to the Syrophoenician or let’s just say, Lebanese woman as a Canaanite, a person of reproach, another outcast, like the Samaritan woman at the well, or the woman with a flow of blood who dared to touch Jesus. But this Canaanite or Lebanese woman had the love of a mother. She was persistent. She was quick. She crossed swords with the master with her comment “even the dogs eat crumbs” when she is pushed away and rebuked. I know if I was in her place, I would jump to my own defense if I heard the disciples begging to send me away. I might cry out for equity, justice, and inclusion, and demand better treatment. That’s what society tells us to do. This woman is rebuked at least three times, first by the disciples, then by Jesus, first by not replying at all to her plea, then by saying, “I have nothing to do with you, I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” But she is not deterred, crying, “Lord, help me.” He rebukes her again, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” This is harsh language. But the woman wins Jesus over with her quick reply born by love, faith, and humility. She is receptive, persistent, and eager to believe in God’s power to heal. She doesn’t presume anything. She simply believes in Jesus, and brings him unexpected joy, “O woman, how great is your faith, be it done as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. The woman went home and found her lying in her bed, the demon gone. This unnamed woman created an opening for God’s power and grace.

Now I want to pause for a minute on Jesus’ silence. At first, he does not answer the woman’s pleading at all. He is silent. The gospel says, “He did not answer her a word” after she approached him. He is silent like he was silent before Herod and Pilate. He was silent as he drew in the sand before calling out, “let the one without sin, throw the first stone.” He was silent after Peter denied him, before Peter’s broken heart brought him to redemption. In silence, Jesus watches our world. In silence, he searches our hearts. In silence, he forgives. In silence he prays, all the way to Gethsemane, a prayer in which he meets God face to face. All his power comes from silence. All his words are born in silence. This silence is as deep as eternity. It is overwhelmingly healing and welcoming, and we are called to join him in his silence, Jesus’ special hesychasm.     

In the end, Jesus could not be cruel when he encountered this mother’s pain. He did heal her daughter. He acted with love.  And so, begins a magnificent adventure of the early church into the world of the gentiles. She who hoped for a great thing, who believed that Jesus could save her child, opened up the kingdom of heaven for us all. Thanks be to God.