One Objective: Humility
Why should you go to church on Sunday? Imagine, for one moment, that your chief objective, your highest motivation Sunday morning, is to be humbled. Suppose, for one instant, that we are not here to get a “Jesus high”. We are not here to feel the grace of God. We are not here primarily to experience quiet, peace, or reflection. God gives these to us at times, or holds them back, but they are not the point. We are here to humble ourselves, to one another, and to God.
A woman from Canaan started shouting: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” Who was this woman? We do not know much about her as an individual. Whether she was rich, poor, married, or a prostitute, those details were left out. We know she had a daughter, and a daughter with a severe affliction. Moreover, she was a Canaanite. The Canaanites were an indigenous and ancient people who had lived in that region as far back as 8,000 B.C. They were a gloomy and lost culture. We can be sure her life was not easy, and in so many ways, she represents all of us in our troubled times, our confusion and struggles. She represents anyone who recognizes he is not worthy of God, and desperately needs God.
The woman shouts out for help. How do the disciples respond? Jesus was quiet, observing and waiting. The disciples scorned her. “Send her away, she keeps shouting after us.” They did precisely as their upbringing had taught them. She was being indecent, after all. As a Canaanite and a woman, she should have known better. She was making a scene. She violated social normals and etiquette. It was embarrassing. You can imagine them saying: “We are religious people. You are too uncouth, uncivil, to associate with our type.”
Our Lord reveals two things: tragic and divine. First, he makes an example of the disciples and their religious hypocrisy. He lets them put into words what lies hidden in so many of our hearts: prejudice, arrogance, and superiority. They were the “good type.” They had the respectable upbringing. They voted for the right political party. They had their act together. She, on the other hand, was one of the “other kind” — the “no good.”
Second, Christ reveals to us what true humility looks like. He tells her “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” How does she respond? She approaches Christ and kneels on the dirt: “Lord, help me.” St. John Chrysostom marvels: “What did the woman do after she heard this? Was she silent, and did she give up? Or did she relax her earnestness? By no means, but she was the more instant. But it is not so with us; rather, when we fail to obtain, we give up; whereas it ought to make us the more urgent.” God and humankind refuse her. Even then, she does not grow indignant and she does not give up.
Christ tests her further. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Would you feel indignant? Most of us spend our lives defending ourselves and asserting our rights. If someone puts us down, we want retribution. If someone steps on our toes, we want justice. Some are assertive, others are passive aggressive. It is all the same, if someone slights us, we become angry.
The woman was humble. She was ignored and then insulted. Yet, she is not indignant. She is not angry. She does not fire back insults or march away in a huff. She stands her ground and makes herself smaller. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Heaven and earth are silenced.
“Do you see the woman’s wisdom,” St. John Chrysostom insists, “how she did not venture so much as to say a word against it, nor was stung by other men’s praises, nor was indignant at the reproach? Do you see her constancy? He said, ‘It is not meet,’ and she said, ‘Truth, Lord;’ He called them ‘children,’ but she ‘masters;’ He used the name of a dog, but she added also the dog’s act. Do you see this woman’s humility?”
Our Lord and God praises her. Not only does he heal her daughter, he elevates her to the state of sainthood. Her humility earns her the highest place in heaven.
What do we want in life? Winston Churchill was once asked: “Doesn’t it thrill you to know that every time you make a speech, the hall is packed to overflowing.” Churchill responded: “It’s quite flattering. But whenever I feel that way, I always remember that if instead of making a political speech I was being hanged, the crowd would be twice as big.”
We spend so much of our lives wanting to be praised. When we are not, we get downhearted and irritated. How much energy do we waist in a life, or in a week, because we want respect, and for what? A fleeting opinion, a passing pat on the head…How many arguments are escalated because two people insist on being put higher. How many spouses fall into the trap of constantly defending themselves? Does it make their marriage better? How many people leave their churches because of a slight or insult? Do they find a better situation at the next church or stop going to church altogether? A famous therapist, Fritz Perls, once summed up humility in this way: “I am I and you are you; I am not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you are not in this world to live up to mine.” It is a liberating idea. Can I be content as myself, despite what anyone else does or thinks about me?
Now bring this to church community. The woman of Canaan is a paragon of how a Christian must act at Church. She humbled herself to man and to God. The people around her were rude. The community hurt her. She did not become indignant. She did not retaliate. She simply got on her knees, and honored those around her.
“Be humble and gentle,” St. Paul tells the Christian community. “Be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Eph. 4:2).
The woman of Canaan humbled herself to God. She approached Him. He was silent. She asked for healing. God refused her. She asked for mercy. God challenged her. She could have defied Him. Instead, she lowered herself further. She responded in humility. Then God gave her everything she desired.
“Humble yourselves, then, under God’s mighty hand, so that He will lift you up in his own Good time” (1 Pt. 5:6-7).
Lent is about humility. Church is about humility. We come here to nurture hearts of humility. This is why we need one another. This is why we need God. If we can humble our hearts, we will be given in return a life of peace on earth and an eternity of everlasting joy.