A reflection on St Jacob of Sarug’s Homily
On the twelfth Sunday of Pentecost in the Maronite liturgical calendar we hear about the Canaanite Woman in Matthew 15:21-28:
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.
Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’
But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’
He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’
But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’
He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’
She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’
Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.
The Syriac writers often wrote about biblical women. In other traditions, these women appear as minor characters in the background. For the Syriac writers, they are often a primary focus for the revealing of Christ’s message. The women in the bible are presented as being bold, faithful and confident. They reveal Christ’s truth even though they are outsiders in terms of their gender and their cultural background. They are eloquent in speech (think the Samaritan woman) and they are not afraid to proclaim the faith.
Jacob of Sarug’s treatment of biblical women is no exception. His homilies about five biblical woman have been collated in an exquisite compilation titled ‘Jacob of Sarug’s Homilies on Women Whom Jesus Met’. In each of the homilies Jacob employs the Syriac technique of retelling the relevant Gospel and adding dialogue to the episode. This unique technique of narrative allows a deeper understanding of the scripture.[i]
Jacob of Sarug’s homily on the Canaanite Woman begins by speaking about Christ the ‘Great Light’.
The Sun of Righteousness descended and walked the land,
and the multitude of shadows fled from his beauty.
In this first part of his homily Jacob explains that Christ was sent for our healing. In this darkened world, he was sent as a light for all humankind. He cleansed lepers, healed the sick, forgave sinners and cast out evil spirits.
Jacob explains that even though Jesus did those things on the ‘land of Judah’, the people oppressed, reproached, questioned and hated Him. Jacob observes:
The uncircumcised Peoples believed in Him and His remedies
and the circumcised People doubted his healing.
For the Canaanite Woman, the news sufficed to believe in Him,
But for the Daughter of the People, even the Scriptures did not
grant the wisdom to stand firm.
Report that he was the Son of God hastened to Sidon and Tyre,
But in Jerusalem He was reviled as the son of Joseph
Let us stop here for a moment and reflect. So often as people in the Church, who have been graced with the revelation of the Truth, we push away Christ. We do it every time we refuse to follow God’s commandments. We do it when we look away from the poor, when we are blind to our brothers and sisters who are in need or when we refuse God’s love in our own lives. We at times, oppress, reproach and question God. At times, we stand in our own self-righteousness about those outside the Church, presuming that they do not know or love God or the truth. This Gospel teaches us we need to be careful of that pride and judgement.
Jacob’s homily moves to Christ’s crossing over the boundary of Sidon and Tyre (in modern-day Lebanon) with his disciples, into the land of pagans. We are told by Jacob that at the as Christ crossed over, the Canaanite women ‘sung’ His faith. This idea of ‘singing’ or ‘proclaiming’ (metkarza) is an important one to the Syriac thought. This is not the only time we hear of it. Women singing the word of God and praising it is a reoccurring theme beginning in the Old Testament:
The Lord announces the word,
and the women who proclaim it are a mighty throng: Psalm 68:11
Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women followed her, with timbrels and dancing. Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted.” Exodus 15:20 -21
The idea of women proclaiming or praising continues in the New Testament, including with Mary Magdalene and the women at the tomb:
Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her. John 20:18
So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” Matthew 28: 8-11
The idea of women proclaiming is not a mere accident or coincidence. In an essay ‘Bride of Blood, Bride of Light: Biblical Images of Church in Jacob of Sarug’, Susan Harvey explores the idea of women being an image of Church throughout the bible. In that article, she refers to the examples of Jephthah’s Daughter, Tamar and the Sinful Women.[ii]
In another poem, Jacob writes about his joy that St Ephrem, through his hymns, has bought the female choirs back to life. Alluding to the Old Testament Jacob writes of Ephrem:
By you even the sisters are strengthened to speak.
Your instruction has opened the closed mouth of the daughters of Eve,
and with their voices throngs of crowned women are singing out,
and women teachers are being called into the congregations ‑‑
a new vision that women will speak the Gospel!
It is a New Age, a complete sign of your teaching
that there in the kingdom men and women will be equal.
Your effort made the two sexes into two harps,
and men and women began simultaneously to give glory. [iii]
The Canaanite women is also a type of Church. Jacob of Sarug alludes to the building of the Church in the next part of the poem. He explains:
The Plowman of Truth crossed the border of the Canaanites,
And scattered His seed and began to reap from it.
Jacob speaks of the Canaanite women’s daughter. He speaks at how the ‘Murderer’ has controlled her and the ‘evil demon has snatched her.’ Jacob explains about the daughter:
The whole earth was depicted in her symbolically;
It resembled her in her sickness and her healing.
Satan had captured the earth and it could be seen amongst the pagans who worshipped idols and amongst the chosen people who had failed to see the Messiah. The ‘Great Saviour’ has come to send the demons away and restore the ‘sanity of the land maddened by idolatry.’ Jacob uses powerful descriptors of Jesus and Satan. On hearing of him, the Canaanite Woman ran after Jesus and ‘seized’ Him. Jacob refers to Jesus as the ‘Judge of the World’ and the Woman has come to Jesus to make her accusations against Satan, the ‘Robber’ who has captured her daughter. Jacob refers to Jesus as the ‘Hunter’ who is able to drive out the girl’s demons. Jacob describes Christ as:
The Good Shepherd who went out to seek lost ones
In a wonderful line, referring to Luke 15:3-7, the Woman warns Jesus that a wolf has snatched one of his sheep. The Woman ‘calls out’, ‘petitions’ and with “mournful cries’ goes after Christ. She recognises Jesus as the ‘Son of David’ and explains to Him that “The Hater of Mercy’ has seized her daughter. It is not lost on Jacob that a pagan is confessing Jesus, while His own people are calling him the ‘head of the demons” and the ‘faithful assembly’ are rejecting him.
In what is perhaps confronting to us a first, despite the Canaanite Woman’s faith, Jesus ignores her. Jacob explains to us that Jesus knew that the;
Woman was undivided concerning the truth
Jacob explains that Jesus turned away from the Woman so that she could be victorious in her faith. By her perseverance, her faith would increase and it would show to others ‘that the love that is true is not divided.’
This is an important lesson for all of us. Even in those times when Jesus does not immediately answer us, we should not lose faith. We must persevere. Even more important, God does not abandon his Church. Even when the apostles approached him to silence her, Jacob explains that Jesus remained silent so that the Woman’s ‘beauty might be added to the image of her faith’. Jesus’ actions of silence put the spotlight on the beauty of this Woman’s faith.
To further magnify the Woman’s faith, Jesus tells his disciples:
After the sheep of the house of Israel has the Father sent me.
For many of us, this statement is confronting. We do not expect this from Jesus. It is exactly what the disciples would have believed. Jacob explains that although Jesus said those words to the Canaanite Woman:
because [her faith] was great, it did not lessen her expectation.
He restrained the Canaanite Woman so that she would persist with her loud voice,
and her faith was healthy, it was not restrained.
Jacob provides an extensive narrative of what the Woman replies to Jesus. Her response is intended for all of us in the audience to hear:
Your table fills citizens and foreigners;
You wholly satisfy both strangers and neighbours.
You can nourish both the sons and the hired hands,
And let the dogs eat and live from the crumbs….
From the crumbs of Your medicine, my Lord, give to my daughter,
And by them she will live and will truly be Yours.”
It is revealed by Jacob that because of the Canaanite Woman, ‘the faith of the People increased’. The Canaanite Woman was not provoked to turn away from Christ even when she was called a dog because she was confident in her faith.
Jacob reminds us that it is not only the Canaanite Woman’s faith that we should learn from, but we should also see that she ‘was clothed in love’:
Whoever loves is not rebuked even when rash;
whatever love says to his own is acceptable.
It was Love that dragged the Canaanite Women to our Saviour,
and for this reason, her disputation was acceptable.
No one ever went against Him when he was teaching,
Apart from this Woman who was full of love and faith.
The Woman was rewarded when Christ crowned her and declared:
O Woman, great is your faith, may it be for you according to your will.
The homily concludes with Jacob telling us that the Canaanite Woman is a mirror for us and that we also need to be bold in our faith and approach God in love.
Sisters and brothers, let us to be bold in our faith, let us persevere in faith and let us truly love the Lord. The reward is all ours.
This Gospel reminds us that even though we might live in a world where people hold different beliefs to us, we need not fear the secular world and the things happening in it. Rather, everything is an opportunity to bring Christ into the midst. We don’t need to react to things as if they are signs of the end of the world. We need to go to those who do not know God and seize the opportunity to take the message of Christ to the world in a time when many must be craving it, we might be surprised by the faith we find and we must have faith ourselves.
We as a Church need to be prepared for the influx of people who will be looking to the Church and searching for the Truth. We don’t need to be panicked and reactive. We need to be proactive. The Church thrives in times when it has been counter-cultural.
The Church is not going to be attractive if it is consistently morally outraged, full of its self-righteousness, fearful and closed up on itself or if its people are only preoccupied with themselves, full of pride, judgemental, yelling moral outrage or are angry. We must resist anger and the language of moral decline. This Gospel teaches us faith and love. The joy of the Gospel is for everyone and no one is excluded. We must be Christ and see everyone as a son and daughter of God.
[i] The references to the homily on the Canaanite women used here are from the compilation ‘Jacob of Sarug’s Homilies on Women Whom Jesus Met’. The compilation is edited and translated by some of the foremost Syriac scholars of our own time, Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Sebastian P. Brock, Reyhan Durmaz, Rebecca Stephens Falcasantos, Michael Payne and Daniel Picus. We encourage you to purchase the book and read it for yourself at https://www.gorgiaspress.com/jacob-of-sarugs-homilies-on-women-whom-jesus-met
[ii] Also available through Gorgias Press at https://www.gorgiaspress.com/bride-of-blood-bride-of-light-biblical-women-as-images-of-church-in-jacob-of-serug
[iii] See Dr Kathleen McVey’s wonderful article at http://www.syriacstudies.com/AFSS/Syriac_Articles_in_English/Entries/2007/10/11_Jacob_of_Saruge_on_Ephrem_and_the_Singing_Women_-_-_Dr._Kathleen_McVey.html
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