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Augustine on the Canaanite Woman

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I have been looking for Augustine’s sermon on the Canaanite woman so as to get additional insight into Matthew 15:21-28 and how it can be used in a homily or catechesis. I found not one but three. These are given in The Works of St. Augustine, III/3 edited by John Rotelle and translated by Edmund Hill. Two of these are really on the Canaanite woman episode (Serm. 77 and 77B); the other uses the text of the gospel as an occassion for an exhortation on Christian Combat based on the responsorial psalm for that day, Psalm 51 and the reading from Paul, Rom. 7:14ff about the struggles of the flesh and spirit (Serm. 77A)

Augustine’s Sermon 77B takes the aspect of prayer found in the Matthew 15:21-28 which he combines with Luke 18:1, “pray always and not lose heart” (from the parable of the widow and the evil judge.) and Mt. 7:7.

On gaining the favor she begged, she departed joyfully. But first, she was changed and only then made joyful. Changed how much? From a dog into a woman. And what sort of a woman? One whose faith was great. She certainly pushed hard; what progress she made in a single moment! That’s why the Lord put her off, the Lord who also told us to pray always and not lose heart (Lk. 18:1)

That you see is a statement of the Lord’s, exhorting us to pray … As the apostle too says “Always rejoicing, praying without breaking off (1 Thess. 5:16-17).” That’s the same as, One ought always to pray and not lose heart. In another place, the Lord himself says, Ask and you will be given, seek and you will find, knowck and it shall be opened to you (Mt. 7:7). That’s what this Canaanite woman did; she asked, she sought, she knocked, she received.

Sermon 77 however comes closest to the theme of the 20th Sunday Year A where Augustine presents the Canaanite woman as a model of humility for the Gentile church, but having as background Romans 11:17-18

But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the richness of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you.

The whole point of the sermon is in Augustine’s concluding remarks

Let’s learn or let’s keep humility. If we haven’t got any yet, let us learn it. If we do have it, let us not lose it. If we haven’t yet got it, let’s get it and be grafted in. If we already have it, let’s keep it, and not be broken off.

The above examples from the works of St. Augustine illustrate how the same passage from Scriptures can have different meanings depending on the the liturgical readings that accompany it and the preacher’s assessment of what his audience needs. What interests me is the way the liturgical texts of the day help bring out the surplus of senses in a scriptural selection. We have mentioned how Psalm 51 and the reading from Rom. 7 gave the opportunity for Augustine to admonish his parishioners to continue in the Christian struggle. In Sermon 77B, it is the reading from 1 Tim 6:9

Those who wish to become rich fall into temptation and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge a man into destruction and ruin.

The Canaanite woman was asking the Lord to heal her daughter. But for the Christian, Augustine says, much more important than a daughter’s life is immortal life. And so if the Lord does not seem to listen to our prayers it may be because we ask for the wrong thing. If the object of our prayer is to become rich (1 Tim 6:9), then God is right in not granting our prayers. If God does not listen to our prayers, then Augustine says, “change your prayer.” (Augustine’s thesis in this sermon is similar to the excerpt on prayer (In Johannem 73.3-4) we have included in this post.)

In the case of Sermon 77, the responsorial psalm figures once more, Psalm 106:47

Gather us from the nations, that we may confess to your name
and glory in your praise.

By association, Augustine links the psalm to the work of the Apostle of the Gentiles and with him — “it was by means of him that the gentiles came to believe. His letters are a proof of this” — to the section in Romans where Paul discusses how the Gentiles were graftedi into Israel (Rom. 11). And from Rom. 11, the link to humility and the need of continuing in it.

I have shown that Matthew 15:21-28 is about the Gentile missions and anticipate the universal commissioning of the disciples in Mt. 28:20. Augustine’s Sermon 77 comes very close to the intent of Matthew. But we also showed that the figure of the Canaanite woman lends itself as a model of persistent prayer similar to the widow in the parable of the widow and the evil judge (Luke 18:1ff), something that was not lost to Augustine. So Augustine, as well as Bede the Venerable, are quite justified in using the example of the Canaanite woman as an example of prayer. Hence, if you are looking for a homiletic theme, you can stick to the theme of evangelization in Matthew, or make use of the Canaanite woman as an example for Christian prayer.

Originally posted 2008-08-04 17:40:56. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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