Humility and Love
Humility. It’s not really a popular virtue today. It seems like our society promotes much more pride, egotism, vanity, even conceit and arrogance. We see this on full display among our athletes, our politicians, our celebrities, and among the rich and famous. In so many avenues of society, we see runaway egos and the vanity that comes from it. Maybe there was a time 100 years ago when people would at least to pretend to be more modest, even if they had a big ego. Yet today, showing off one’s pride and flaunting one’s ego is acceptable and even celebrated.
In contrast to this, humility, meekness, and modesty almost seem like virtues of a by-gone era. They appear to be signs of weakness. How many parents teach and promote to their children to become meek? So few. This is why even Christians don’t understand Jesus’ teaching, “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” We equate the meek with the weak and who wants to be considered weak?!?
Comparing these categories, the Church truly teaches something completely contrary to popular culture. Instead of celebrating pride and ego, our Faith teaches that pride is the root of all evil. Pride is what cast Lucifer from heaven. Pride is what betrayed Adam and Eve. Pride and one’s ego is what haunts humanity in every generation since. Pride is the root of all evil and can destroy even all the good that we try to do. This is why Saint John Chrysostom teaches that “humility is the root, mother, nurse, foundation, and bond of all virtue.”
Saint Anthony the Great once said, "I saw all the dangerous snares and temptations that the evil one spreads out over all the world and I groaned, asking "What can get anyone through such snares? How can we overcome such temptations?" Then I heard a divine voice saying to me, 'Humility. It’s the one virtue that can help us overcome any and every temptation.’”
We see a beautiful example of such humility in the Gospel story of today. A desperate, foreign woman approaches Jesus seeking help for her ill, demon-possessed daughter. She doesn’t know where to turn to find help her beloved daughter yet she must have heard about this miracle working Jewish prophet. The woman was not a Jew but a Greek, a Syro-Phonecian Canaanite. Although a foreigner, she must have heard of the fame of Jesus and boldly approaches Him.
“Have mercy on me, O Lord, son of David” Are the words of a desperate woman crying out for help, a woman who feared for the well-being of her severely demon-possessed daughter.
This story proceeds in an unusual and fascinating manner because of the way Jesus responds to the woman. When anyone hears this story for the first time, they will be utterly confused by the reaction of Christ. He doesn’t initially answer her cry. Not even a word. He seemingly ignores this desperate woman and turns his back on her pleas for help.
After his disciples get annoyed with the woman, they tell Jesus to send her away and again He responds in a surprising manner. “I was sent to the lost sheep of Israel.” In other words, I wasn’t sent for you, a foreigner. I was sent to my own people. What do I have to do with you?
She persists in her cries so Christ goes even further than His first two responses and bluntly states in an offensive manner, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.”
Now imagine if YOU were this desperate woman seeking relief from Jesus. You approach Him believing He can help, and THREE TIMES He seems to not only ignore you, not only push you away, but then becomes quite offensive with his words, calling you a dog! How would you respond to someone who treated you like that? Our pride would be hurt. We would most likely be offended and become quite angry! How dare someone treat us in this manner?!? Maybe we would endure it for a little if we thought this man Jesus had some power to help our child. Maybe out of our deep love and concern for our child would we tolerate this behavior? But maybe we would simply storm off, angry at the audacity of this man to offend us in such a manner?!?
This is precisely where we learn from the Canaanite woman. Pay attention to how she responds to each action of Jesus. First, she cries out to the Jewish teacher “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” She wasn’t Jewish. She was a foreigner yet she acknowledged Jesus as a descendent of David and calls him Lord. After Christ initially ignores her, the disciples try to send her away, and Jesus says he was only sent to the house of Israel, she “approached and worshipped him saying ‘Lord, help me!’” She approaches him respectfully despite the slight. Finally when Jesus says, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs,” she humbly goes with the flow and ignores Jesus’ offensive words, responding with some wit, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Her extreme humility accepts being called a little dog. She doesn’t even try to pretend that she is worthy to sit at the banquet table with the master. She humbly and meekly is satisfied with crumbs that fall from his table. What extreme, utter humility and faith!
Saint John Chrysostom highlights this response from the Canaanite woman and explains that this is exactly why Jesus spoke to her in such a seemingly harsh manner. He knew the faith this woman possessed. He understood the extreme humility she cultivated in her life. He spoke to her in a seemingly offensive manner not to demean her at all, but to call forth her example of deep faith. He wanted his disciples to see such humility and faith and in the end He lauds her by saying, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And immediately, the woman’s daughter was healed! This foreigner displayed a faith that all could admire and learn from.
The pride and vanity we see all around us in society is not the path that will lead toward God. Our egocentric and self-centered pursuits are not the path that lead us into the kingdom of heaven. Saint Kosmas Aitolos noted very clearly that “A Christian needs two wings to fly to paradise: humility and love.”
In today’s story, we see a wonderful example of these two virtues. The Canaanite woman exhibited a desperate love for her daughter and then displayed extreme humility with our Lord. These two virtues led to a faith that brought about a miracle of healing. Humility and Love. The two virtues that lead to paradise!
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