In the Orthodox Church the Lenten Triodian is a preparation for the period of Lent. The last Sunday before the start of the Triodion, the Orthodox Church reads the gospel of the Canaanite Woman (Matthew 15:21-28). The encounter of the Canaanite woman with our Lord helps us to psychologically and spiritually prepare for the coming of Lent.
The Canaanite woman came to Jesus crying, "Have pity upon me Son of David!" It is the only occasion on which Jesus was ever outside of Jewish territory: the land of Tyre and Sidon north of Galilee where the hated Phoenicians, the enemies of the Jews, lived. What is implied here? Did it foreshadow the spread of the gospel to the whole world? Was it the beginning of the end of the geographical barrier to His message? Could it be that even enemies should have the gospel of Christ proclaimed to them?
The Apostles reacted to the woman with irritation. She was a nuisance. They wanted to be rid of her — the sooner the better. Even the response of Jesus seems inexplicable at first After she pled for help in curing her daughter's possession by a demon, Jesus replied, "It is not right to take the children's bread, and to throw it to the pet dogs," — hardly a comforting response given that calling a person a "dog" was an insult with the most contemptuous intent. Historians write that in those days dogs were the unclean scavengers of the street — lean, savage, and diseased.
The Canaanite woman had to have been aware that Jesus was telling her that Jews considered her to be contemptible. But this did not stop her. She acknowledged Him as "Son of David." She was persistent and did not let obstacles: the insults of others stop her.
She was cheerful. To the question asked by Jesus: "It is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs?" she answered "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table." Linguistic historians comment that her reply was a clever play on words, of someone with a cheerful quick wit.
St. John Chryosotom asked, "Was she silent and did she desist? By no means, she was even more insistent." Chrysostom pointed out Jesus knew she would say this. Jesus wanted to "exhibit her high self-command." She went even a step further, demonstrating her profound humility by not calling the Jews children, as Jesus had done, but "master" (Homily LII, on St. Matthew XV).
To follow the Canaanite woman's lead we too must be committed to Christ with all our heart. We have to be persistent, tenacious, stubborn, undiscourageable and joyful. This is similar to the psychological toughness that Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) had in the Gospel reading on the Sunday that precedes this one.
Both Zacchaeus and the Canaanite woman share something in common: they are tough and resilient, and take responsibility to overcome barriers. Resilience is a psychological process of adaptation in the face of obstacles, trauma, tragedy and stress that is related to good emotional and physical health (Reivich & Shatte, 2003; Seligman, 1990, 1995). One characteristic of resilience and hardiness is to take decisive action, surely a fitting description of the Canaanite woman. Interestingly, religious people are more involved, hopeful and optimistic than non-religious individuals (Sethi and Seligman, 1993).
"These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full," (John 15:11). Grace is a gift of God but we must cooperate with that grace. Like the Canaanite Woman we have to start by making a choice even against all odds. We have to be committed against all who mock us and loving in the face of those who reject our love or even hate us.
As the crumbs of bread from the Masters table was the food that sustained the Canaanite Woman, may the food received by Orthodox Christians from the table of the altar during Divine Liturgy sustain us to become tough and resilient in overcoming the barriers of life in Christ. Glory to Christ in all things!
Reivich, K. & Shatte, A. (2003) Seven keys to discovering your inner strength. NY: Random House. NY.
Seligman, M.E.P. (1990). Learned optimism. NY: Pocket Books.
Seligman, M.E.P. (1995). The optimistic child. NY: Houghton Mifflin.
Sethi, S. & Seligman, M.E.P. (1993). Optimism and fundamentalism. Psychological Science. 4, 256-259.