Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Humility Unites Us All

One summer in college, I went to visit a friend and her family in the middle of Illinois. I went in order to rekindle that friendship, but I also went to see a part of the country I know almost nothing about. I remember driving out into the middle of a field, turning off the truck's lights, and seeing more stars than I had ever seen before. I remember eating buckwheat pancakes--something the father made every single morning whether anyone else ate them or not. And I also remember learning about Scandinavian culture, visiting a museum of Swedish immigrant history, and hearing one Scandinavian joke I'll never forget.

Two young Swedish farmers ran into each other at the feed store. One of them said to the other, "I heard a good joke the other day. Let me tell it to you. Two Norwegians were walking down the road and talking with each other..." At that point, the other farmer interrupted and said, "You can't tell that joke. That's politically incorrect." "What do you mean?" the other farmer said. And his friend replied, "You can't tell a joke about Norwegians. That's impolite. You can tell the joke, but don't make it about Norwegians or else someone will be offended. Instead, make it about a nationality that doesn't exist anymore--like Hittites or Amorites. They died off long ago. You can tell a joke about them and no one will be upset." After a lengthy pause, the first farmer said, "Ok. Two Hittites, Ole and Sven, we walking down the road and talking with each other..."

I didn't get it. The farmer of Swedish ancestry who hosted me had to explain to me that Ole and Sven were distinctly Norwegian names. Even thought the farmer had called the two men Hittites, by naming them "Ole" and "Sven," he hadn't really changed the joke at all. I think about that joke whenever I read Matthew 15:21-28 and the story of the Canaanite woman who begged Jesus to heal her daughter.

There were no Canaanites in Jesus' day--at least no one thought of them that way. Canaanites were an ancient people who had inhabited the Promised Land when Moses and the people of Israel moved in. We hear about them in Numbers 13, when Moses sent spies to survey the land of Canaan to see whether it was a good place to settle and whether God's army could defeat the tribes who already lived there. So, when Matthew uses the label "Canaanites," he's sending us a signal about the sort of person who approached Jesus. He could have called her a "Gentile woman," but, by labeling her as a Canaanite, Matthew is bringing back to mind an ancient ethic, religious, national separation that was defined by armed conflict, bitter rivalry, and pure hatred.

This is the person that came to Jesus and asked him to heal her daughter. Jesus had entered the region of Tyre and Sidon, a Gentile area north of Galilee, Jesus' hometown. Just then, a Canaanite woman came to Jesus and said, "Have mercy on me, Son of David." Isn't it interesting that this foreigner is able to identify Jesus as the descendant of Israel's greatest king? She gets the words right, but words aren't enough. Jesus ignored her. The disciples tried to chase her away unsuccessfully. They asked Jesus to take care of the matter quickly, but he refused, saying, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel"--another anachronistic reference to a kingdom that had disappeared centuries earlier. Undeterred, the woman flung herself at Jesus' feet, imploring him to help, but Jesus said to her, "It is not fair to the children's food and throw it to the dogs." Those words are shocking to us. They aren't the words of the tenderhearted Good Shepherd. They sound like a curt statement from a diehard bigot. But the truth of this passage is that they aren't the really shocking part.

Matthew calls the woman a Canaanite in order to show us that she shouldn't have been helped. She was, by definition, the enemy. She represented those who stood in the way of God's conquest. She was reckoned as one who must be eliminated before God's promise can be fulfilled. Jesus wasn't supposed to help her. As strange as it sounds to us, Jesus wasn't supposed to heal her daughter. But the woman showed Jesus and us something no one expected--not even Jesus himself. After being rejected by Jesus a third time, she said to him, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." And what was Jesus' reply? "Woman, great is your faith."

There is something about humility that transcends even the most bitter separations. As St. Thomas tells us, the word "humility" comes from the Latin humus, which means "dirt." It is that which is beneath all of us. It is that from which all of us are made. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. All we go down to the dust, from which we were made. The act of total emptying, total humility, is the most basic expression of this Canaanite woman's humanity. It thus unites her with all children regardless of her ancient ancestry. As one who lowers herself even to gather up the crumbs under the table, she becomes something more fundamental than a nationality. In humility, she becomes God's creation. She becomes God's child.

What labels do we use to define ourselves? Mother, father, brother, sister, doctor, lawyer, teacher, student, college-graduate, high-school-dropout, Swedish, Norwegian, Scots-Irish, English, Caucasian, African-American, Arab, Jew, trust-fund-baby, welfare-recipient, Republican, Democrat, American, Episcopalian, Christian? What are the labels we place upon ourselves? What are the labels that others place upon us? Rarely are we defined by our humility. Rarely are we defined as God sees us. God looks upon all of us as his creation, as his children. Anything else we hold onto is pure hubris. All we are is dirt. All we are is the dust from which we are made. May our response to God be 100% humility so that we might truly know the indiscriminate nature of God's love.

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