On the fourth Sunday of Great Lent in the Malankara Syriac Church, the Church remembers the Syrophoenician/Canaanite Woman (Matthew 15.21-30).
Glory to Jesus Christ. Glory forever.
Barkemor (Bless me O Lord) Achen, Deacons and Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
On this fourth Sunday of our journey of the Great Lent and our journey to the Cross, the Church reminds us of a parent pleading to the Lord for her child.
Jesus comes to a land of Gentiles. What happens is that a Gentile woman (not of Jewish background) but a Syro-Phoenician or Canaanite woman comes to Jesus.
The Jews do not like to be with anyone that’s not of Jewish heritage. Any non-Jewish person is unclean/unholy because they do not believe in the God that the Jews believe. The disciples even ask Jesus to tell this non-Jewish woman to go away.
What does this mother want?
The mother begs that Jesus heal her daughter, who is possessed by evil spirits. She says, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon” (Matthew 15.22).
We can recognize this feeling/request as we mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters - go to Christ and ask for the healing of our family members due to some illness.
However, Jesus responds, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15.24).
The mother tries again. She kneels before him, saying, “Lord, help me" (Matthew 15.25).
But Jesus answers, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15.26).
For the third time, the mother tries again. She says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (Matthew 15.27).
At this time, Jesus says “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire” (Matthew 15.28).
The daughter is healed at that moment! We have a happy ending!
What we admire and love about this story is the parent’s/ mother’s persistence; she goes to Jesus not one, not two, but three times. We love that she wins and gets the cure that she asked.
Is Jesus telling us to knock on the door and be patient for the healing? Absolutely! Matthew 7.7-8 states, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”
What we are all seeking, finding, and knocking on the door is a cure for this COVID-19 (Coronavirus). Just like this mother, we need to ask Christ to help us. The government instructs us to wash our hands, cough/sneeze into our arms, keep our distance from people who are sick, and not to touch our face.
How can we be healed?
The mother is coming to Jesus.
What else is this story telling us?
In Luke 7, the gospel mentions the friends of centurion asking Christ about the healing for the centurion’s dear servant. Jesus responds, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Luke 7.9).
What do we see between these two stories of the mother and the centurion?
Besides their amazing faith that Jesus can heal their loved one, they are both non-Jewish.
How does this follow?
Jesus says to the mother in the first response, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15.24). Jesus is stating that he is here only for the house of Israel. It makes sense; he is Jewish; even the disciples know that Jesus is only for the Jews and their healing. So why are non-Jews coming to Jesus?
But first, who are the lost sheep? Isaiah 56 tells us of the foreigners who will cling to God. Jesus is teaching his disciples who are Jewish, to teach, preach, and heal the foreigners as well. The non-Gentiles are the lost sheep of Israel. Israel is not limited to those of Jewish background, but we all are sheep of Israel.
Jesus tells his disciples at the Ascension, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28. 19-20).
Jesus is for all of us; he is not only for the Jews, Gentiles, Malayalees, or Syrians. Thus, we need to strive to live holy and pure lives. The Church, in her wisdom, has prescribed the Great Lent or the Great Fast for us to shed our material pleasures (food, TV, or social media). We are urged to become holy people by coming to the feet of Jesus and not to be distracted by this world.
In his second response to the mother, Jesus says, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15.26). Jesus says that the bread is for the children (meaning for the Jewish children). As we recall, God gave the Jews manna (bread) in the desert.
The woman responds quite brilliantly and quickly with “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (Matthew 15.27). As a parent, I can attest to the crumbs on the floor! Dogs is another word for the Gentiles.
What can these small pieces of bread represent? The crumbs could be the bread and body of our Lord in Holy Qurbana (Holy Communion). The priest gives us small piece of the Holy Body and Blood.
Jesus is not here for one group; he is here for all us to live holy lives.
In Romans 7, St. Paul reminds us of our human struggle that following God means to abandon our foreign gods (such as our pleasures) and to thank God because he will deliver us.
Let us follow the example of the mother and the centurion. Let us go to Christ by partaking of our Lord.
GLORY TO GOD forever, AMEN
Asha Mathai is a seminarian at St. Vladimir's Seminary, wife of a priest, mother of two young sons, and acting vice president of Axia Women.