This Sunday is known as the Sunday of the Canaanite Woman and the evangelical reading is from the Gospel of Mathew (15: 21-28).
Mathew, the Evangelist, tells us that the Lord went out to the areas of Tyre and Sidon, to the regions inhabited by the pagan nations (who were known as Gentiles). In the Apostle Mark’s account, there was a woman there who was ” a Syro-phenician by nation,” (Mark 7:26). This woman appeared out of the pagan crowds and headed towards Jesus shouting a prayer common among Jewish believers, “Have mercy on me Oh Lord, son of David.” This is a prayer we have seen over and over commonly uttered by those of a believing Jewish background, often when they’ve appealed to Christ to heal them, like the blind man for example. But for the first time, we see these words come from the lips of a Canaanite pagan woman, who is not a descendant of Abraham and not of the chosen people expecting the coming of the Messiah. It is plausible to accept that perhaps this Canaanite woman was the first of a pagan background to show evidence of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour. She had heard and believed in the power of Christ to overcome unclean spirits, so in faith, she came asking the Lord to heal her daughter who had been overtaken by a demon who was tormenting her.
The Lord Jesus at first ignored the request of this woman. Mathew says, “He did not answer her by any word.” Perhaps Christ wished to highlight to the disciples and the rest of the crowd the faith and fortitude of this woman in her request. And yet the disciples were more concerned with the confusion and embarrassment she was causing among the crowd as she continued to cry out to Christ to fulfil her request, and they began to mediate on her behalf.
The Lord Jesus answered them, “I was sent only to the stray sheep of the House of Israel.” This was what He had declared at the beginning of His Mission and through His choice of the twelve. Christ followed with a directive: “Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not. But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 10:5-6). But we must understand how this does not contradict the coming down of Jesus for the benefit of all of mankind, even the pagan nations. We read in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew that after Christ’s baptism and the trial on the Mountain, He descended and resided in Nazareth i.e. in the Galilee region of Nations, which confirmed Isaiah’s prophecy, “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” The ultimate goal of the Evangelisation of Christ was to preach to all nations, including the pagans.
The lack of response from the Lord Jesus did not discourage the Canaanite woman; instead, her faith only grew to be more fervent and she came kneeling at the feet of Christ, worshiping Him. Here she shows by word and deed her absolute faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour. She prostrated and prayed, saying: “Help me Oh Lord.” Then Jesus answered with a seemingly shocking and harsh response: “It is not right to take the children’s’ bread and throw it to the dogs.” i.e. It is not fair to give preference to the strangers (pagans) over the children of Abraham (the Jews).
Here, it must be pointed out that Jesus did not mean to insult the woman personally, and we know this through the way Mathew writes “He answered” rather than “He answered her”. Meaning Jesus merely verbally expressed what the crowds and the Apostles around Him were indeed thinking. Christ expressed a type of thinking that was prevalent among the Jewish people; that pagan nations, according to Mosaic Law, were considered “impure” because of their lack of faith in one God. Jesus spoke in metaphor that was not meant to insult the Canaanite woman as much as it was intended to further highlight her complete show of faith, humility and patience.
Jesus’ response further inspired the Canaanite woman to show greater faith and humility and she accepted this view of the inferior pagan in order to gain salvation. She disregarded what the crowds were saying about her in order to be counted one among the “children of God”. Through her zealous faith, this woman surpassed the gap between the Sons and the Gentiles. Jesus praised the faith of this woman, “Oh woman, great is thy faith, let it be as you wanted” and her daughter was healed from that hour.
Through this woman’s faith and humility, the way for the pagan nations to enter into the true faith and light was illumined and opened. The Lord Jesus gave His mission to His disciples after His resurrection to “go and disciple all nations and baptise them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).
When Mathew wrote his Gospel to the Jews, he intended to focus on this particular incident to remind them that “God will claim all the ends of the earth to repent to him and to be saved, and worship Him alone” Isaiah (45:22-23) and that “God would bring strangers to His sacred mountain to join in worshiping Him there” (Isaiah 56:7).
Subsequent incidents such as the belief of the Centurion and the Samaritan women prove that the work of God’s salvation begins with the Jewish community as a starting point, but it is open to everyone without exception, since in the Lord Jesus Christ “there is no Jewish or Greek. Neither a slave nor a free. Not male and female, because you are all one in Jesus Christ. If you are for Christ, then you are the descendants of Abraham and according to the promise, the heirs”. (Galatians 3:28-29).
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