32nd Sunday after Pentecost – Orthodox Homily on Matthew 15:21-28

We all know the saying, “pride goeth before a fall.”  Our first parents, Adam and Eve, suffered a fall that was at its heart a consequence of pride, of disregarding God’s way for what seemed good to them at the time even as they knew it was not God’s will.  Their willful sin plunged all of us and the world into an environment of sin with all its terrible consequences.  

Think for a moment of the many ways pride attacks us: it manifests itself in vainglory, thinking we’re better than others; but at the same time, it can also manifest itself in an inverted manner, causing us to doubt God, our identity and self-worth in Him, calling us to despair and question our self-worth. The list of prideful sins is long: Irreverence, sentimentality, presumption, distrust, over-sensitiveness, disobedience, impenitence, and only then, do we get to the more familiar manifestations of pride: vanity, arrogance, snobbery and judgment of others.  

For each of these categories of pride there are a great number of spiritual consequences in our lives, our relationship with God and with others. And so, we can see why 4thcentury St. John Cassian says of pride, that it is “a beast most savage, and fiercer than all the others.”  (John Cassian, Selected Writings, St. Paisius Orthodox Women’s Monastery, 2000).  

Ironically, the person plagued by pride may seem outwardly confident and commanding, or, just the opposite, afraid of his or her own shadow.  The common denominator with pride, however, is the overt focus on self, ego, and a lack of confidence and understanding of one’s identity and calling in Christ, of His healing and salvation.  The prideful person is overly concerned with appearance and is, therefore, insecure.  This is true for the boastful as for the over-sensitive too.  

St. John goes on to say about pride, “that there is no other vice which in this sort renders all the virtues of none effect, and so strips a man of every kind of justice and holiness as this disease of pride…with deadly ruin it does its best to cast down and slay in most terrible overthrow those who have already reached the heights of virtue.”  For good reason, then, the Holy Scriptures warn us, “Let him who thinks he stands, take heed, lest he fall.” (I Cor. 10:12)

Pride can manifest itself as fear too—fear of change in conforming to Christ’s way; fear of giving up resentments, crutches, addictions, pet ways of thinking, opinions or new ‘doctrines’ promulgated by our culture and not in keeping with the holiness of life Christ calls us to in order to save us from what He calls, “this sinful and adulterous generation.”  But ultimately, the sin of pride is the sin of one trying to control instead of letting God lead and seeing His will done.

Back to our quote, “pride goes before a fall,” the actual saying from Proverbs 16:18 is more instructive: “Pride goes beforedestruction,And a haughty spirit before a fall.”  Not only did pride cause the Fall of our first parents; it caused mankind’s destruction—and, it will destroy our individual lives as well, if left unhealed and unchallenged by us, if we do not learn to ground our identity in Christ and take our focus off of ego and put it on Christ.  

One way or other, when pride gets a hold of the unwarry, it can be paralyzing—keeping us from progress in the life of Christ.  But God’s desire is clear: to heal us from sin-sickness and to deify us, to further us in our communion with Him through His Body, the Church.  

The inverse of pride is the virtue we call humility.  If we’re to live with Christ and participate in His life, we too grow in humility.  This is one of our chief aims, to become more like Christ and united with Christ through participation in His divine life, that of the Holy Trinity.  This means, we come out of our self-focus, our insecurities and fears, and we learn to trust God more with our identity, our purpose, our self worth, our very opinions and beliefs, our present and our future.  Through humility, we learn step by step to pray, “Thy will be done.”

In today’s Gospel, Christ gives us an example of such ego-crushing humility, which interjects itself into fallen, prideful humanity like a soothing salve on a stinging wound: the woman from Canaan who comes seeking healing for her daughter possessed by demons, a sad consequence of the Fall, finds hope and healing from the Author of life, the Creator and Savior of the world.  

There is something important we need to know about the context in which this miraculous healing occurs: the Canaanites were bitter enemies of Israel.  They were, throughout their history together, always threatening to destroythe Israelites—both spiritually and physically.  For their own safety and protection, the Law had forbid Jews from having any dealings with Canaanites.  

But here comes this woman of Canaan, armed only with faithand humility, calling after the Lord of all in her humility, willingly using a Jewishreference for the Messiah, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David!”  This foreigner knows where healing is: with the one true God.  She finds Him despite the barriers between her people and Israel precisely because of her faith, her humility, and her love for her daughter.  

Jesus, for His part, doesn’t answer her at first.  We shouldn’t, however, interpret His silence and even His response that follows, as in any way suggesting that Christ doesn’t have compassion for her or that He doesn’t love her.  Rather, He draws out her faith as an example to all.  

Christ then responds, reminding all that before His Passion and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, He is sent first to minister healing to the House of Israel and through Israel to all the world.  The woman is undaunted, not because she’s haughty, not because she thinks she’s worthy or that God ‘owes’ her, that if she doesn’t get her way, then she’ll curse Him, as often happens these days when people don’t get their way with God or find Him as they think He or His Church should be, conforming to their cultural mores or prideful opinions.  No, instead, she comes before Christ and worshipsHim, saying simply, “Lord, help me!”  She does what so many have so much difficulty doing so much of the time: crying out to God in prayer, acknowledging her brokenness and utter helplessness withoutGod’s mercy as the One who alone can heal and save.  

In response, Christ says, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.”  Christ first reveals the woman’s faith.  Then, He reveals her love, for nothing will dissuade her from seeking healing for her daughter from the Great Physician of our souls and bodies. Finally, He reveals her humility. Was the woman insulted as so many would be, from not being recognized as she should be (as perhaps many of us would)?  No, her response says it all: “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.”  

She still cries to Him, “Lord” and “Master.”  Her focus is on God, on healing for her daughter, not on herself.  Christ then reminds us of His words elsewhere, whoever exalts himself will 

be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted”(Matt. 23:11).There are no barriers to those who trust in God and humble themselves before Him, who set their egos aside and focus on Christ, becoming like Him, uniting themselves further with Him. 

Christ then warmly responds to the woman, saying, “Great is your faith!  Let it be to you as you desire.”  And we read that her daughter was healed from that very hour.  

I pray that we too through the work of the Holy Spirit discover and confess any pride, anything that hinders us from growth in this kind of faith, love, and humility that characterizes our Lord and all who put their trust in Him and commune with Him.  Confession is a great tool in routing out the pride that manifests itself in our souls.  Likewise, we need to regularly pray for more humility.  Whatever our struggle, we too can call on Christ God to have mercy on us like the Canaanite woman.  We too can confess our unworthiness before Him—even if we make ourselves through our words and actions more like ‘dogs’ than the beloved children we truly are.  We too can throw ourselves at His feet, kneel and prostrate before Him, to beseech Him for the healing we need for our souls and furtherance of life in Him. By humbling ourselves and denying ourselves, Christ will be the One who lifts us up, exalts us, and heals us as He did the Canaanite woman and her daughter, so that we too can attain to His Heavenly Kingdom.  

Fr. Robert Miclean

Holy Archangels Orthodox Church

26 January 2020

Epistle:            I Tim. 1:15-17

Gospel:            Matt. 15:21-28