By Fr. Cleopa
But let us pray as we can, as we have seen that the Savior didn’t overlook the Canaanite woman’s prayer. She wasn’t Jewish, she was a Phoenician from around the Tyre and the Sidon. Now, Phoenicians were pagans. Yet she had heard of the Savior and how He worked miracles and came along [to see Him, too]. On seeing so many people around Him, the poor thing started crying: Have mercy on me, O Lord, the Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil!
As a pagan woman, she hadn’t even known how to call out so she had asked around among the Jews to find out how to call to Him properly. She didn’t even know His name. They must have told her: “You just call to Him this and that way, woman!” So she cried out as the poor and upset mother that she was. And “she took upon herself the face of her daughter”, as listen to what she cried out: Have mercy on me, O Lord, as my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil! She didn’t say: Have mercy on my daughter, O Lord!
That is, if you show mercy to my daughter, it is me that you will grant mercy to.
So she “placed herself” in her daughter’s stead and was praying for her with all her heart. And the Savior, in order to show the others the steadiness of her faith, pretended not to hear her. You see what He said at first: I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. That is, “You are Phoenician, you’re a pagan, it is not for you that I have come into the world!” But she would only cry out harder. And the Apostles felt sorry for her: Send her away; for she cries after us. They could see her cry out tearfully, from the depth of her heart. And the Savior challenged her once more: It is not meet to take the children’s bread and to cast it to dogs.
He called her a dog! You see that? But she didn’t get upset that He called her a dog. In the ardor of her prayer, she overlooked it all. That’s why she said: Truth, Lord: I am a dog – that is, I am not from the house of Israel; I’m a pagan – yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table. That is, “even if I am a dog, please give me at least a crumb, as otherwise I will never reach out my hand at the same table with the masters.” And then the Savior said to her: “O, woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt.” And her daughter was made whole from that very hour. You see what real prayer is? See what faith is? Not in many words, but from the heart!
What about the thief on the Cross? Have you seen what St. Ephraim says in his Word on the Thief on Good Friday? At first, he and the other thief were blaspheming Jesus on the Cross and told Him: If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross and save us, too. Then they realized that when they were driving nails through His hands and feet and mocking Him, He was praying for them without hatred: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!
Then the thief on His right was touched by His kindness and said: “Look at that! How much we’ve cursed and sworn at the ones who have crucified us, and He says: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do! Then he believed in his heart that The One Who was crucified next to them was not a prophet, but God.
So this thief who started to believe that the Savior was God, upon seeing Him suffer through with so much kindness, started to gaze up to the Savior – as Our Lord’s Cross was higher than theirs – and was thinking: “What wrong has this Man done? He has risen the dead from their graves, He has healed sick people, He has fed people, He has taught in the language of kindness, He did not sin, nothing ever touched Him… He is truly God!”
That is what the Apostle says, too: For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. As it is not enough to believe in God in your heart; you should also bear witness to Him with your mouth, because we’re made of two parts: I [may] believe, in my soul, that He is God, but I must bear witness to Him with my lips, as well. That is why the Savior said: Whosoever shall deny Me before men, him will I also deny before my Father. You must confess Him with all your being; both by word and heart, through faith.
So then the thief, who believed in his heart that the Savior was God – what did he think? “Will God ever forgive me, too, who have blasphemed, just as the one on the left?” He was thinking: “This Jesus, Who prays for the ones who crucify Him – if He bears no wrath against the ones who crucified Him, He will all the more forgive me, for all my debauchery and killing and theft and swearing and drinking I have done!”
He was going through his thief’s life and saying to himself: “What repentance can I do now? If my legs were free, I would genuflect, but they are tied up. If my hands were free, I would slap the one on the left who is blaspheming and I would tell him: “Why are you blaspheming this gentle Jesus! But my hands are tied to the cross, too”. He was thinking: “What repentance can I do now, on the cross?” And the Holy Spirit sent him a thought: “You know what I still have free? My tongue! My tongue isn’t crucified. And I’m going to call out to Him from all my heart, with my tongue: Lord, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom!
See? First, he defended Him with his tongue, from the thief on His left, who was railing the Savior, and told him: Don’t you fear God, seeing you are in the same condemnation, for we’ve done so many sins? But what has This Jesus done? First, he rebuked the other one, with his tongue. “I believe this is Jesus! I won’t follow you!” After having rebuked the thief on the left side with his tongue, he did penance – fruits of penance, as his tongue and his repenting heart were all that he had left. “I shall cry out with this tongue of mine, to Jesus, Who does not remember evil, and ask Him to forgive me.” And he cried out from all his heart: Lord, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom! And the Lord, up where He was on His cross, heard him and told him: Verily I say unto thee, today you shall be with me in Paradise.
St. Ephraim shows very beautiful art of wording here: “See a thief’s prayer? See how the thief was smart? He knew how to steal a lot in his life! But with faith in his heart, he knew how to steal Heaven through his tongue only.” In other words: “You thief! You’ve stolen, you’ve broken in, you killed and committed all sorts of other evil deeds in your life; and now, with the faith of your heart, you knew how to steal Heaven, through your tongue alone.” And he concludes by saying: “O, you thief, stealer of Heaven! You have stolen a lot of things, but you have also stolen Heaven, with your tongue. O, you thief and stealer of Heaven! O, early flower of Christ, to Whom all glory is due!”
That is, the first flower that emerged from the Cross of Christ was the thief’s soul.
Which is why he was the first one to step into Heaven alongside Our Savior, because he bore witness to Him on the Cross, before Longin the Centurion ever bore witness to the Lord after having pierced His side with a spear, and then many others, afterwards. The first one who bore witness to the Lord and asked Him to take him to Heaven was the thief.
That’s what prayer is in times of need! Whenever we are troubled and upset, let us cry out from all our hearts, as it is our hearts that God will look into.