The Canaanite Woman


Sermon preached by Dn. Jeff Smith on Sunday, February 18, 2024

Good morning. Often, when I wake up in the morning, I take a glance at my phone, looking at emails, and what I see is a looming catastrophe. It certainly seems like the news cycle focuses on endless political and environmental catastrophes, but the greater fear, the greater context, I believe, is a fear of death and annihilation. But what if the greater context for our lives is not annihilation, but ongoing life and beauty? How do we grasp this context in our lives?

The underlying context for the Canaanite woman is hope. She is willing to do anything for her daughter, including begging for her because she believes in Jesus’ power to heal. Her expectancy – she expects and hopes for great things from God – this is the passport to His kingdom.  

Her first words to the master are: “Have mercy on me, O Lord.”  How weighted are her words in our tradition. This is the prayer, Sine qua non, the perfect prayer, that we repeat again and again, “Lord, have mercy on me.” “Have mercy on me, O Lord,” can be a constant prayer, one that draws us closer to God by recognizing first that we are in need of mercy. The Canaanite woman has no problem with this at all. She easily recognizes her place next to Christ by acknowledging that she is willing to eat his scraps. She is persistent but not demanding.  And as we reflect on our own faith journey, this is an important distinction. To be persistent, to knock on the door of the Lord, begging to know his will in our lives, but without presumption. The Syrophoenician woman’s persistent request is not a quid pro quo. She does not attempt to offer anything in exchange for Christ’s healing, except her hope and her faith that Jesus can accomplish a miracle.

Jesus, of course, responds first with silence, just as many of our prayers are met with silence. That does not deter the Syrophonikissa though. I wish I knew her name so I could know her better. She is the one who perseveres.

Jesus appears to be difficult with her because he knows that she can handle it. Although he appears to reject her, he is subtly drawing her closer in order to reveal her faith. He teaches her humility, and she understands. The woman understands that she is not of the House of Israel, but she does not fall back, rejected. Instead, she perseveres with humility, and this is a lesson for us, to persevere in our relationship with God and with each other in humility.

She is bold, yet she is humble, a seeming marriage of opposites that Jesus praises, and responds with compassionate healing to the world beyond Israel. We are that world. And we are called to be just like her, passionate, yet full of grace.

So, when we don’t get what we want right away, we can persist with humility. When we approach God in prayer, we must persist with humility, because we are asking for God’s will to be done! Let us not be like wild or savage dogs, but turn toward Jesus, domesticated like puppies sitting at his feet, wagging our tails. If we persevere in prayer, then Jesus will raise up our minds, and our desire to do good for the glory of God will only increase. So, as we have just tasted the precious crumbs of the Eucharist, let us go forth like the Canaanite woman in thankfulness, in faith and in love. Amen.