230820 – Humble Pie

Yr A – Pentecost 13 – Mt 15:21-28

I love today’s gospel story. I love it for lots of reasons, but mostly it’s because Jesus doesn’t come out looking too good in it. It’s the mark of a great story, and more likely one based on a real incident, because it’s kind of embarrassing for our hero. Why leave it in the gospel if it makes Jesus look bad?

Just look what happens to him. First, a woman is trying to talk with him – that’s a no-no – and what’s more, she was a Gentile (a non-Jew) which meant he wasn’t supposed to talk to her at all. So what does our Saviour do? What does the King of Love, the Great Shepherd, the Compassionate One do for this poor woman? He ignores her, excludes her, and insults her. Then, when she has the audacity to challenge him, he’s seemingly ‘bested’ by her in a spiritual question, admits he’s wrong, and learns from her. That, my friends, is a giant, heaping helping of Humble Pie! But to stop there is to miss what I think the story’s really about. Like almost all of Jesus’ stories, it’s really about the grace and mercy of God, and how we’re to respond.

Jesus had just finished lecturing the Pharisees about arrogance – about the dangers of relying on the letter of the law instead of the spirit of the law – about how theology is not absolute, and how human traditions may have to be rethought in the light of our ongoing relationship with God. He passionately spoke about how it isn’t what goes into your mouth that defiles you (challenging the purity and dietary codes of the Jewish faith) but it’s what comes out of your mouth that defiles you, because that’s what comes from your heart. Then, what does Jesus do? – He goes out and does exactly what he scolded the Pharisees for! I love that! I mean, I don’t, but I do!

I love that the Bible acknowledges that to be faithful is not the same as being perfect. News flash – Jesus wasn’t perfect. He was human. Now, don’t get your knickers in a knot. I know the scriptures say that he led a perfect life and all that – but that’s in reference to his communion with God – his perfect oneness with his Abba. It doesn’t mean he never made a single mistake in his life. That wouldn’t be…human – and if Jesus isn’t human we can’t ever hope to live as he lived.

So let’s look at this remarkable interchange. It’s a pretty polite telling of what was probably a really impolite scene.

They’re walking along when out of nowhere a Canaanite woman jumps out and starts shouting at Jesus and the disciples for mercy. But Jesus had places to go so he keeps walking. The disciples are bearing the brunt of her continuous pleas so they ask Jesus to get rid of her for them. But Jesus won’t speak to her.

Maybe the disciples went back and said, “Get lost lady; Jesus only came for Jewish people.”

But she will not be put off so she races around the crowd of disciples, circles in front of Jesus, stops him in his tracks, and kneels down before him in prayer saying “Lord, help me. Have mercy on me!”

So there’s Jesus, rolling his eyes, “God, these Gentiles will be the end of me. Listen, lady, my food is for the children of Israel, not dogs like you.”
Maybe he regretted saying it – sometimes things just come out of your mouth before you know it.
Maybe Jesus stubbed his toe earlier and he’s just having a bad day.

The lady responds – “Yeah, I’m a dog – all of us are really – and even the smallest crumb from the table of God would be a blessing to me.”

And Jesus is schooled!
He looked at the woman and thought how marvelous it was that God’s love knows no bounds – that this foreign woman somehow had experienced the love of God, and knew that God was so great that even the smallest morsel of mercy and grace would be sufficient for her need. And Jesus looked into the depths of her heart, and saw faith. He swallows a giant bite of Humble Pie, and says, “Woman, great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish.”

Look at what this woman does here. She models faith to the disciples: need, passion, persistence, and humility.

She articulates her need, a healing for her daughter; she seeks it passionately and persistently; and now, significantly, see how she does it – she cries out for mercy. She wants to be treated compassionately, but she comes humbly, hoping not demanding.

It isn’t “heal my daughter because I said so,” or “heal my daughter because I deserve it,” or “heal my daughter because I’m faithful,” or “heal my daughter because I go to church every week.” She’s crying out for forgiveness. Notice her body position – she’s prostrate – she’s begging – on her knees praying – flinging herself on the mercy of the court. And here’s the kicker – the part we don’t like to hear at all – the thing about mercy is that it’s unearned and can’t be ‘deserved’.

That’s hard to hear isn’t it? We think “I live a pretty good life. I follow the Way of Jesus, pretty much, most of the time. I deserve to be healed/saved/rewarded.” As soon as you start thinking you’ve earned anything you’ve missed the point.

Now, that goes against our 21st Century sense of entitlement. We want instant gratification – buy now, pay later – and then we resent it when the bill comes in. We constantly tell ourselves how great we are, and yet self-esteem books still fly off the shelves? Why is that? Maybe we don’t suffer from too low self-esteem but from too high self-esteem! Maybe we identify it as low self-esteem because deep in our hearts we don’t buy into the giant load of manure we try to sell ourselves. Maybe what we need isn’t more self-esteem but more humility! Humility and grace and mercy are intrinsically linked.

We understand the need for the Word of God. We understand the passion required to keep at it – and we get that persistence is vitally important too, whether we’re any good at it or not. But the humility bit can really trip us up.

We expect to be seated at the table – like our own personal pew (or chair, or couch as the case may be).
We expect to be served the best food, because we’ve learned that the food offered by Jesus is the very bread of heaven – and the water that gives life. We’ve been given a taste and find ourselves banging our knives and forks on the table like spoiled brats yelling “we want more, we want more”.

Where’s the humility?
Where’s the appreciation that even the tiniest crumb, or faintest glimpse of God’s awesome presence, would be a feast – that even that little crumb is more than we ‘deserve’ – not because we’re bad little boys and girls and people, but because God is absolute holiness, and without tremendous humility we can’t even bear to stand and approach God. Like looking up into the sun – if you’re not humble about its awesome power you’ll learn humility the hard way.

The root of the word ‘discipleship’ is discipline. You have to have a need or a desire to exercise discipline. You have to be persistent, keeping at it whether you feel like it or not. And being driven by the goal of becoming more loving, more Christlike, your passion is fueled by that possibility. Discipleship is driven by need, passion, persistence – and one more. Humility.

I hope you remember the fantastic ancient prayer of utter humility (and need, and persistence, and passion) that Christians have prayed for centuries. It’s called the Jesus Prayer, and it’s an echo of this Canaanite woman’s plea:

“Lord, Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

My big question today is whether we, enlightened, progressive members of the United Church, can bring ourselves to pray that prayer today. I’d like us to try.
Wherever you are, I’d like you to pray that prayer with me right now, out loud is best. Say the words after me: “Lord, Jesus Christ / son of God / have mercy on me / a sinner.”

“Lord, Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Do some of the words stick in your throat a bit? Does it feel weird to ask for mercy? Does it rankle to call yourself a sinner?

Want to grow a deep, authentic, Christian faith? – pray that prayer about 20 times a day for the next few months and see what God grows in you.

“Lord, Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

There’s a reason it’s been such a powerful prayer over the centuries – it’s because it’s transformational. But it requires great humility.

Now, you can go too far the other way, and get carried away with this, and start calling yourself a vile worm, and dwelling on guilt, and end up paralyzed by it all – but that’s not humility.
Humility (or calling oneself a ‘sinner’) isn’t self-degradation or self-flagellation.
It’s acknowledging that we all fall short by times. That’s what sin means – falling short of God’s love.
Humility means having a reasonable sense of one’s relative place in the grand scheme of things.

It’s realizing that the world doesn’t revolve around you, despite what your mom told you – and understanding that when it comes to God, even what seems like the tiniest crumb to us is an incredible gift, and more than we could ever really expect or demand.

And then God’s mind-blowing, unconventional wisdom takes over – and in the moment we really ‘get it’, get that the crumb is a veritable feast, we see that there IS a place for us at the table. Not a place that we earned, not a place that we deserve – but a place that God mercifully and graciously offers, that we can finally see and recognize because we’ve stopped looking at how great we are, and started focusing on how great, and awesome, and majestic, and wondrous God is.

I don’t know why Jesus tried to blow off the woman in this story. I don’t know why he ignored her, excluded her, and insulted her. Maybe he was having a bad day. Maybe he was tired from trying to help so many people – compassion can be a draining business. Maybe he was just being human and screwed up.

But in the end, when her need, her passion, and her persistence failed to move him, her humility finally broke through, and Jesus saw the light of God shining in this foreign woman – saw how her heart truly yearned for a mere crumb from the table of God, and saw that while she knew she didn’t deserve it (whatever that means), she trusted that such a crumb would be more than sufficient for her need – and her prayer was answered through her openness and her humility.

For whoever exalts themselves shall be humbled, and whoever humbles themselves shall be exalted.
“Lord, Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

And in that holy, vulnerable space our gratitude for even the smallest crumb that falls from the hand of God will overflow – and our hearts can be healed by God’s love.

Or, we can try to tough it out, and demand to see the manager, and register our complaints. Don’t be surprised though, if you find yourself eating humble pie. Humble prayer goes down much more easily!