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The "Canaanite Woman"
“Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 157). These encouraging words of John Henry Cardinal Newman, perfectly mirror the biblical story of one woman, who is widely known as the Canaanite Woman, who once lived in the exact area of modern-day Southern Lebanon. She encountered seven spiritual hurdles before she received her miracle for her daughter. Her spiritual experience is a great lesson for those troubled with doubts and despair when they seek Devine's intervention.
- Exorcism of the Syrophoenician woman's daughter - Wikipedia
According to tradition, the Canaanite Woman is identified by name as Justa and her daughter's name as Berenice.
Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt
— John Henry Cardinal Newman,
Scripture spoke about the story of the Canaanite Woman whose persistent faith, helped her to leap over seven spiritual hurdles. In the end, she overcame those difficulties before she received the miracle of healing for her daughter. The biblical narrative story in the books of St. Matthew and St. Mark recounts the miraculous healing of the woman's demon-possessed daughter in the ancient region of Tyre and Sidon. For the entire story, our reference is made to the Bible, from the book of St. Matthew 15:21-28.
Now, without further ado, let's reflects on the first hurdle she encountered when the Canaanite Woman met the Lord Jesus Christ face-to-face.
First Hurdle: She Experienced God's Silence for her Perfect Prayer
The request the Canaanite woman made to the Lord Jesus Christ is referred to as a Prayer to Jesus by the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 2616. Here's her prayer, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” (Matthew15:22, New American Bible (Revised Edition)). By addressing Jesus Christ as Lord and the Son of David, she was recognizing him as Messiah, the promised deliverer prophesied in the Scripture.
Speaking through prophet Nathan, the LORD God told King David about his royal son in the distant future, “When your days have been completed and you rest with your ancestors, I’ll raise up your offspring after you, sprung from your loins, and I’ll establish his kingdom. He, it is who shall build a house for my name, and I’ll establish his royal throne forever.” (2 Samuel 7:12-13). Prophet Isaiah also foretold the work of the Messiah by the following prophesy, “But he shall judge the poor with justice, and decide fairly for the land’s afflicted. He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth, and the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.” (Isaiah 11:4).
Contrary to what she expected, she got no word, no response, only silence. This kind of experience is familiar to many Christians in their spiritual endeavor. Christians after fulfilling all their theological demand of effective prayer, sometimes they tend to hear nothing at all. Christians should be aware that this sometimes may happen as a test of endurance and stamina which are important ingredients in spiritual growth.
The Canaanite woman overcame this hurdle by keeping her faith and focus on Jesus no matter what. She resembled the woman told in the parable of the persistent widow, (Luke 18:1-8), where Jesus, in the first verse, taught that it is necessary for believers to pray always without becoming weary. She had a deep, unwavering faith toward the Son of David, the only Messiah, the promised Deliverer.
After the silence, then the story unfolds to the next second hurdle.
Second Hurdle: After Unanswered Prayer, the Disciples made a Counter Prayer of Expulsion Because of her Persistence
Communication made to God can be classified as prayer. Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Christian prayer is a covenant relationship between God and man in Christ.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2564). Christ is the only mediator between humans and God.
When the Canaanite woman was undergoing an ordeal of unanswered prayer, other fellow believers (disciples) rose against her and spoke to Jesus that, he should send her away because she persistently cried for help, (Matthew 15:23). They misinterpreted the silence of Jesus as a prayer denial. It was clear that the woman was all alone in this petition to seek God’s mercy for her daughter.
I can see, the silence prompted her to ask the disciples to help in making Jesus hear her prayer. Unfortunately, this resulted in disciples making a counter prayer and they suggested that she be expelled from there simply because God was silent at that moment.
Obviously, it must be with the Holy Spirit's help that she kept her faith fixed on Jesus as she previously referred to him as Lord, (1 Corinthians 12:3). And in another occasion, Jesus had declared that “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and I will not reject anyone who comes to me, because I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me.” (John 6:37-38). Undoubtedly, in the spiritual realm the door of deliverance was wide open for her, but not until she proved worth entering.
At this point, all she wanted was at least to hear a word from Jesus Christ. And after a long period of silence, Jesus finally broke the silence and replied to the woman. On hearing the reply, the woman found herself in the third hurdle.
Christian prayer is a covenant relationship between God and man in Christ.
— Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2564
Third Hurdle: In the Context of Old Testament she was Disqualified to Receive Prayer Answer.
In reply, Jesus said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 15:24). She was Canaanite by ethnic origin and Jesus was sent to the Israelites. She found herself excluded and at a crossroads.
But despite that statement, deep in her heart, with the help of the Holy Spirit, she knew no one could help her against the invisible demonic power of darkness except the Lord Jesus Christ. Although she was excluded from the group of the special beneficiaries of Jesus’ earthly ministry, his words greatly strengthened her faith even more.
The Lord Jesus by saying that he was sent only to the house of Israel, by implication, revealed to the woman that he was truly the much-awaited Messiah, except that at that point, his work, will be geographically ministered to the house of Israel only.
The Canaanite Woman no doubt, spiritually, she was walking by faith and not by sight. In his letter to Galatians, Apostle Paul inspired by the Spirit of Christ wrote, “For through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendant, heir according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:26,28,29).
The Canaanite Woman, with increased faith, and to show that she understood who Jesus was, came forward, did homage to him, and pleaded while in the posture of worship, she uttered only three words, “Please, help me.” (Matthew 15:25).
In response to that, Jesus made a statement that put the woman into the fourth hurdle.
Fourth Hurdle: She was Told Wisely and with Strong Reason why it’s Impossible for her to get the Answer
Hopefully, maybe with a smile on his face, Jesus tried to reason with the Canaanite Woman by responding with these words, “It’s not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” (Matthew 15:26). For someone looking for a cure, these words surely tasted like bitter pills to swallow. What would you do if it was you?
Jesus was very consistent in his teaching because in other places he warned his followers by saying that, they should not give what is holy to the dogs, or throw their pearls before swine, lest they trample them underfoot, and turn and tear them to pieces. (Matthew 7:6).
No doubts the Canaanite Woman loved her daughter very much. So, she understood well Jesus' point on why it’s impossible to feed the dogs first and let the children go hungry. For the Gentile to ask for a miracle of healing before all Jews are healed is the same as asking the father in the house to take the food reserved for children and feed the dogs or you might say puppies.
Actually, Gentiles were very far from knowing the holy majestic glory of the true God. First, they didn't have a just law to ensure fair treatment or consecrate their communities. They were not regulated with holy justice similar to the standard of sacred Mosaic law. They were living in total spiritual darkness with the majority of them being pagans. Evil, sinfulness, and wickedness prevailed as normal. Just like wild dogs, they might bite the dog's keeper at any moment regardless of the care they receive. It's no wonder that the Canaanite Woman's daughter became sick and was tormented by demons because of the evil power like witchcraft that was practiced in that pagan region.
So at this point, the Canaanite Woman was to choose between two choices: the first choice is to keep on praying or the second choice is to give up and go home and watch her daughter tormented by demons to death. But because of her love for her daughter, her faith was kept alive and she faithfully chose to keep on praying. And she drew this power of praying persistently from God himself. This is because God is very close to the broken-hearted, and He saves those whose spirit is crushed (Psalm 34:19)
In fact, the reason she was told was very justifiable in that context, but she kept faith and love above reason and she discarded any temptation to give up. Christianity teaches, "Faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 159).
After that scenario, she responded with one of the powerful spiritual responses ever been uttered while going through the crucible of humiliation, rejection, and testing.
Her response brought her to the next - fifth hurdle.
Fifth Hurdle: When she was Humbled and Compared to a dog, she was still Optimistic.
The Canaanite Woman calmly responded, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” (Matthew 15:27). What she was saying is that a puppy in the royal house would have the best delicious food than the homeless dog in the street. In other words, she meant that the children's leftovers might make a fantastic meal for a dog or puppy. If she was permitted to eat that "scraps" then she believed that given the everlasting messianic power of Jesus Christ, then even that “scrap” of his messianic power was enough to restore the wellness of her entire family. In spiritual reality, Jesus Christ's everlasting power has no corruption in it so even the little bit of its "scrap" will do just fine to cure any kind of maladies.
At this point, Jesus must have been touched by this woman's faith because he himself, on other occasion taught his listeners about the power of faith by saying that, “Amen, I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain ‘Move from here to there and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20).
It's worth noting that in this story, Gentiles were called “dogs” by their character and not by classification. Many times in the Scripture even the obedient Israelites were also referred to as “sheep” because of their positive response to God’s call.
But before she got her miracle for her daughter, she got to get over the sixth hurdle.
DISCOVER JESUS - Jesus Christ Heals the Canaanite Woman’s Daughter (Matthew 15:21-28) ESV
Sixth Hurdle: She Persisted in Praying for Someone else and not for Herself.
She was not selfish but full of love for others especially her family. She had experienced those challenges for the benefit of the cure of her daughter and not for herself.
To some extent, faith involves what is going on in each person's heart. And the Canaanite woman has little or no control at all over what was going on in the heart of her suffering daughter. If some people buy and smoke a cigarette with a label that says "Caution: Cigarette smoking may be hazardous to your health" then there's no limit to what people could do to cause serious harm to themselves. Regardless of how much she prayed, but her daughter still had the free will to choose between good and evil.
Unless she was unconscious, but if she was conscious she could choose either to pray in support for her mother or to be against it. But the only thing the Canaanite Woman set to do is to pray earnestly for her daughter's wellbeing. She knew one thing and one thing only, if she would have a whole-hearted faith in God without any kind of doubt, then she could move the mountains. Nothing would be impossible for her. And thanks to God, she did just that!
Hopefully, Jesus with his omniscient character (John 2:24-25) loved her for that because he himself was voluntarily crucified on the cross for the sins committed by humanity and not himself. (Mathew 20:28). Jesus and the Canaanite woman were speaking the same language of love, the genuine love for others no matter what they've done.
And concerning this love for others, Apostle Paul wrote it more succinctly, “And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:2).
Lastly, there was one remaining hurdle to overcome before Jesus Christ showed her God's mercy she was hungry of
Seventh Hurdle: Her Canaanite's Ethnic Origin was an Obstacle.
This hurdle is listed last, but in reality, it was the first hurdle she encountered and overcame. Evangelist St. Matthew wrote that the Canaanite Woman came from the Canaanite region, (Matthew 15:22). On the other hand, evangelist St. Mark wrote that she was Greek by origin and added that she was also a Syrophoenician by birth, (Mark 7:26).
Is there a contradiction? No, here's how it can be reconciled. Scripture declares that before the arrival of the Jews from Egypt, the lands they occupied after the Exodus from Egypt, was historically known as Canaan. So it is possible that the two evangelists referred to the same person, without creating any kind of contradictions, but simply they were writing from two different angles. Take for a modern-day example: if an Eskimo with parents from Greenland is born and raised in the United States of America, then we can refer to him or her as either an American citizen (jus soli) or Eskimo by origin. In either name, we'll be pointing to the same person.
Apart from that, all two evangelists agreed clearly on one thing, and that is she was not an Israelite.
When her daughter became demonized, possibly she first tried to seek the cure in her area without success until she heard about the great miracles performed by the Son of David - Jesus Christ.
By reading the written text, she looks like she believed Jesus’ teaching of repentance before she came to meet him for she knew how to pray and behave in front of the Lord Jesus. This is evidenced by the proper address she made to the Lord Jesus. She said, "Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David ....." (Matthew 15:22). Now, think about this, from King David to the birth of Messiah (Jesus Christ) a total of 28 generations or about 490 years had passed. It can be argued that the Canaanite Woman was clearly speaking the spiritual language of faith that Jesus is the Lord and she knew the Old Testament. For I can see when she called Jesus Christ as the Son of David is by no means was by accident.
In the Old Testament, the Almighty God promised the land of Canaan to Israelites' ancestors because of the following reason written by Mosses, “No, it is not because of your justice or the integrity of your heart that you are going in, to take the possession of the land; but it is because of their wickedness that the LORD your God is dispossessing these nations before you, and in order to fulfill the promise he made on oath to your ancestors; Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” (Deuteronomy 9:5).
The Canaanite woman was a bonafide member of the wicked community in the sight of God. And God does not listen to sinners. (John 9:31).
In order to overcome this hurdle, she pleaded persistently to Jesus regardless of how her condition looks like before the Almighty God. All she wanted was the mercy of God through Jesus whom she was looking at him face-to-face, right there. She knew that once the Son of David forgives her if her daughter's suffering was due to sin, then no demon could touch her family again, forever. The torment the demons were doing to her daughter is the same punishment reserved for demons who will be punished from the appointed time to eternity. (Matthew 8:29).
Then filled with mercy and by virtue of his divine authority, Jesus Christ spiritually gave the order and the miracle happened. These are the words, the Canaanite Woman waited to hear for so long from the one she believed has authority in heaven and on earth.
The savior of the world, Jesus Christ made this verdict, “O woman, great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that hour!
O woman, great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish.
— Matthew 15:28
The Size of the Canaanite Woman's Faith
Faith is a personal adherence of the whole man to God who reveals himself. It involves an assent of the intellect and will to the self-revelation God has made through his deeds and words, (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 176).
Therefore, in this context following the fact that the miracle happened at the end of the story, then we can safely deduce and estimate the size of the faith of the Canaanite Woman by answering the following questions:
Did the Canaanite woman seem to adhere wholly to God? Oh, yea.
Did the Canaanite woman’s faith involve her intellect and the will? Absolutely.
Did God in the person of Jesus Christ reveal himself through words and deeds? Historically, yes.
Then we can join our Lord Jesus Christ who saw her actual faith and conclude that: Great is the faith of the Canaanite Woman.