Imitating Scriptural Saints

And behold, one came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.”  (Matthew 19:16-17)

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“A brother asked one of the elders: What good thing shall I do, and have life thereby?

The old man replied: God alone knows what is good. However, I have heard it said that someone inquired of Father Abbot Nisteros the great, the friend of Abbot Anthony, asking: What good work shall I do? and that he replied: Not all works are alike. For Scripture says that Abraham was hospitable and God was with him.

Hospitality of Abraham

Elias [Elijah] loved solitary prayer, and God was with him. And David was humble, and God was with him. Therefore, whatever you see your soul to desire according to God, do that thing, and you shall keep your heart safe.”    (Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert, p. 25-26)

 

 

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Is Being Good Enough?

Jesus never taught us “Be good.”  He never said those words.

He taught us to love one another.

He taught us to to serve one another.

He taught us to forgive one another.

He taught us to humble ourselves.

He taught us to do as He did and wash each other’s feet.

He taught us to see our own sins and not to judge others.

He taught us to sin no more.

He taught us to see God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

He taught us the way to the kingdom of Heaven.

He taught us to deny ourselves and to take up our cross and follow Him.

He taught us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect –  in other words – He told us to be like God.

He never said, “Be good” but He did want us to see God, to become God’s people, to participate in the Divine Life which He shares with us.   As St. Athanasius would sum up the Gospel commandments:  “God became man in Christ so that we humans might become divine.

Christ did not come to be the Chief of the Moral Police.  He came to unite us to heaven.  He came so that we could participate in the Divine Life shared by the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  He came to show us how to love like God so that we would imitate God in our love for one another.  When we reduce Christ to some kind of moral detective or prosecuting attorney, we dishonor Him.  Jesus Christ is God.  God is love.  Jesus is love incarnate.  He offers to share the divine life with us, to restore all that humanity and creation has lost due to human sinfulness.

In the Desert Fathers we encounter stories showing how these early Christians imagined imitating Christ by following the Gospel commandments.  Sometimes the stories are quite counter intuitive and they do challenge our modern sensibilities.  Here are two such stories for us to ponder as we discern how to follow Christ in our lives.  Keep in mind these are lessons from people who were both maximalistic and idealistic in their beliefs about what it means to take the Gospel seriously.   They saw the Gospel commandments as what guides life in heaven – yet they were  attempting to live them in this world of the Fall.

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A monk asked a Spiritual Elder: “If I see my brother living in sin, should I despise him?”

The Elder replied: If we cover over the fault of our brother, God will cover over our sins too.  But if we reveal our brother’s sins to others, God will expose our sins to others also.”

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There was a very spiritual monk named Timothy and all the monks in the monastery admired him. One time one of the monks fell into temptation.  The Abbot came to Timothy to ask his advice on what to do.  “What shall I do with our fallen brother?”

Timothy replied:  “Expel him from the monastery.”  So the Abbot expelled him from the community.

That same day the same temptation fell on the holy Timothy, and he spent the entire night crying and weeping, saying: “I have sinned, O Lord, have mercy on me.”  And  “I have sinned, O Lord, forgive me.”

At dawn, God spoke to Timothy and said: “Timothy, this happened to you because you sinned against your neighbor in the time of his trial.”

Our task as Christians is not to be the moral police of those around us.   Our duty is to rid ourselves of all blindness so that we can first see our own sins and repent.  Then we will see clearly God’s Kingdom and walk the way of the Cross to get there, inviting neighbor, family, friend and enemy to join us on the way.

[Having had to deal with sexual abuse in the Church, I will add that the above thought applies to many of our interactions with people.  However there are cases which require extra wisdom, courage and love to discern.  We are not to be foolishly blind to evil, nor are we to ignore or enable sexual predators or abusive leaders – we have a duty to love and protect those who are vulnerable from those who would sin against them or lead them into sin.  And we have to figure out how to love the sinner as well.  Being a disciple of Christ doesn’t give us a pass from having to deal with evil or  complex problems.]

Your Friends May Never Read the Scriptures, But They are Always Reading You

Our Gospel lesson for the Second Sunday of Great Lent of Mark 2:1-12 might be summarized in this way:

8186046743_7c12364a5a_nOne day, 4 men carried their paralyzed friend to Jesus.  They labored hard to get their friend into the Lord’s presence. As any of you who have ever carried another human being know – the man is literally dead weight.  He is paralyzed and can’t help the others who are carrying him.   When Jesus saw the faith of the 4 men, he pronounced that the paralyzed man’s sins had been forgiven.

Note in the Gospel lesson that neither the paralyzed man nor his friends protest when Jesus forgives the paralyzed man – none of them say, “No, Lord, he’s a good guy, he never did anything wrong that’s why we’re bringing him to you.  He deserves to be healed because of all his good deeds.”   Instead they all seem to accept that the man is a sinner and needs God’s forgiveness.

The 4 men bear the burden of their friend’s sinfulness.  They are not bringing to Christ some upright and holy man who they think deserves God’s intervention, rather they are bringing to Christ a man whose sin apparently led to his paralysis.  His sin had a visible affect and all could see it.  His paralysis perhaps the result of the man’s own choices.  I visited such a man once – he was in his  mid-30s and paralyzed from the waist down.  He told me he had been in that condition for 15 years – the end result of being a young fool who was drinking and driving.  He regretted his condition and his past choices, and he blamed no one but himself for the fact that he was in a wheelchair and in a great deal of pain.

So we can even imagine that instead of bearing the burden of their friend’s sinfulness, that the men in the Gospel lesson could have been more like Job’s friends and telling hims: “you made your own bed, now sleep in it” or “you caused your own problems, so solve them yourself.”  Or even worse, “you were such an idiot, now you got what you deserved.”  Or maybe even reminding the paralyzed man, “We are doing all the work and you don’t even carry your own weight around here because you are the burden.”

But the 4 men aren’t complaining, they are fulfilling the Gospel commandment that we bear one another’s burdens.  (Galatians 6:2)  –  “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.

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We should have the same attitude when we do the work of God – not complaining about the burden we have to  bear nor to criticize those who don’t carry their own weight around the church.  We have a task to accomplish – to bring others to Christ, not just holy, deserving and good people, but even those who have made a mess of their lives.

We bear other people’s burdens not only in bringing them to church, but also when we decide to pray for them and when our hearts are moved by their problems and we fell the weight of their suffering.  We are called by Christ to help carry the burdens of others.

We are to lead by example.  It is Great Lent and some have rightfully set out to read Scripture during Lent, or to read more Scripture daily: God bless you for that.  Persevere!  We all know how our good intentions don’t always get fulfilled.  We start out with zeal, but then life intervenes and pretty soon we have forgotten what we promised to do.

Just remember that reading the bible is noble, but that is not the goal of the Christian life.  The real goal is to live the scriptures in your daily life.  St. Paul once said to his flock:

You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all men; and you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.   (2 Corinthians 3:1-3)

The goal is to live in such a way that others can read the scriptures written on our hearts.  We are to be the living word, a living temple of God.  If Christians keep the Gospel commandments, others will be able to see the Word of God active and alive in us.

The stories from the desert fathers or the lives of the saints are most effective when they illustrate how to live one of the Gospel commands.  I must admit that Orthodox lives of saints are often full of miracles and magic, which to me is all inimitable and not very inspiring.  But it is when I read something that is an illustration of how a person lived one of the Gospel teachings in daily life that the saint illumines the Gospel and shows me what it is to obey Christ.

You are to be the living word of God – with the Word written on your hearts and visible for all to see in your life and life style.  Of course you first have to know the Scriptures before they can be written on your hearts, but then you have to live that Word.   Your friends, family, neighbors, co-workers may never read the Bible, but they do read you – what you say, how you live, what you do.

Be an example to others, let them see in you Jesus Christ – may they experience from you the power of living the Gospel.  The only word from God they may ever experience is the one they see in you.

In the book, THE KEYS OF THE KINGDOM, Fr. Chisholm spends 30 years as a Catholic missionary in a town in China.  The day before he is to leave China, Mr Chia, the wealthy, powerful and leading man of the town says to Fr. Chisholm:  “When you first came to our town, I was not willing to be a Christian, but then I was unaware of the nature of your life . . . of its patience, quietness, and courage.  The goodness of a religion is best judged by the goodness of its adherents.  My friend . . .  you have conquered me by your example.”           Then Mr Chia asked Fr. Chisholm to baptize him.

Great Lent is sometimes called a school for us Orthodox.  It is a time for us to practice our faith, to be an example of what it is to be a Christian.

And what is the word that we should be an example of?  St. Paul says:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23)

May God bless your Lenten efforts and give growth to the seeds which are planted in your hearts so that you might bring forth spiritual fruit.

 

 

 

Imitating Christ: One OF Us

That a Christian is one who both follows Christ and imitates Him seems pretty straightforward.  Jesus Himself told us:

“You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”  (John 13:13-17)

Today in American English we often hear the “you” of these commandments in the singular.  We are so attuned to individualism that we assume this is a command for each off us to keep individually, and yet the command is spoken in the plural and means that all of us together are to love one another.  Christ is an example to each of us personally, but then calls us to act communally as brothers and sisters.  We as parish are to serve all.  Christ gives an example to each of us, and together, communally, collectively, as a body, as a parish we are to fulfill the commandment together.

In this same discourse but a minute later Christ goes on to say:

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  (John 13:34-35)

Again he addresses himself to each of us personally but calls us to love together, collectively and communally.  We are to be recognized as disciples not just an individual disciple.  We are recognized as disciples in community.  The parish is essential for our identity and witness.  In the parish community we can and are to fulfill the commandment that we together do what Christ commanded us to do.  This is very much what the early church understood about being Christian and discipleship:  one Christian, or a Christian alone, is no Christian.  Only in community can we love as Christ commanded us to do.  Of course we each have to contribute to this communal behavior, but it is always each of us have to work together to love as Christ exemplified and commanded us to do.

The plural “you” – we, us – is also in St. Paul’s exhortation:

“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”  (Rom. 15:7)

Christ welcomes us and receives us.  It is as one of us that we live our Christian life.

“Let us commend our selves, and one another and all our life to Christ our God.”

Be an Example to Believers

Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity.   (1 Timothy 4:12)

St. Alexander Schmorell (d. 1943AD)

Abba Isaac said: “As a young man I was staying with Abba Cronios and he never told me to do a task even though he was aged and tremulous. Of his own accord he would get up and offer the water bottle to me and likewise to all. After that I stayed with Abba Theodore of Pherme and neither did he ever tell me to do anything. He would lay the table himself and then say: ‘Brother, come and eat if you like.’ I would say to him: ‘Abba, I came to you to reap some benefit; why do you never tell me to do anything?’ The elder said to them: ‘Am I the superior of a coenobium to order him around?’ For the time being I didn’t tell him [to do] anything. He will do what he sees me doing if he wants to.’

So from then on I began anticipating, doing whatever the elder was about to do. For his part, if he was doing anything, he used to do it in silence This taught me to act in silence.” (Give Me a Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 147)

So the Evangelist Luke writes:

A dispute also arose among them, which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves.   (Luke 22:24-27)

When Jesus had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.  (John 13:12-17)

Struggling to Love One’s Enemies

“Everyday experience shows that even people who in their inner depths accept Christ’s commandment to love one’s enemies do not put it into practice. Why? First of all, because without grace we cannot love our enemies. But if, realizing that this love was naturally beyond them, they asked God to help them with His grace they would certainly receive this gift.

Unfortunately, it is the opposite that prevails. Not only unbelievers but people who call themselves Christians are afraid of acting toward their enemies according to Christ’s commandment. They think that to do so would only be of advantage to the other side, seeing the enemy refracted through the distorting prism of hatred as having nothing good in him, that he would take advantage of their ‘indulgence’ and respond to their love either by crucifying or shamelessly crushing and subjugating them, thus letting evil, as generally personified by this enemy, triumph.

The idea that Christianity is ‘wishy-washy’ is profoundly mistaken. The saints possess a force powerful enough to sway people, influence the masses, but theirs is the reverse method – they make themselves servants of their brethren, and thus win for themselves a love in its essence imperishable. By following this course they gain a victory that will obtain ‘world without end’, whereas a victory won through violence never lasts and by its nature is more to the shame than to the glory of mankind.”   

(St. Silouan the Athonite, pp. 224-225)

St. Gregory the Great: Renouncing Desires to Inherit the Kingdom

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So it was, as the multitude pressed about Him to hear the word of God, that He stood by the Lake of Gennesaret, and saw two boats standing by the lake; but the fishermen had gone from them and were washing their nets. Then He got into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, and asked him to put out a little from the land. And He sat down and taught the multitudes from the boat. When He had stopped speaking, He said to Simon, “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” But Simon answered and said to Him, “Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net.”

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And when they had done this, they caught a great number of fish, and their net was breaking. So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid. From now on you will catch men.” So when they had brought their boats to land, they forsook all and followed Him.   (Luke 5:1-11)

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St. Gregory the Great comments:

“You have heard, my friends, that at a single word Peter and Andrew left their nets and followed Jesus. They had not seen him perform any miracles yet, and they had not heard him saying anything about eternal recompense, but at a single command from the Lord they forgot all their possessions.

You may be thinking that these two fishermen possessed almost nothing, and so you ask how much did they have to give up? In this case, my friends, it’s the natural feelings and not the amount that we have to weigh. Those who have kept back nothing for themselves have left a great deal; those who have abandoned everything, no matter how little it may be, have left a great deal. We are attached to what we have and hold on to it; we long for what we do not yet have and try to get it. When Peter and Andrew renounced their desire to possess, they gave up a great deal; along with their possessions they renounced even their craving to possess. Those who imitate them give up as much, then, as those who do not imitate them crave to possess.

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Don’t ever say to yourselves, when you think of people who have given up a great deal, “I want to imitate them, but I have nothing to give up.” If you renounce your desires, you are giving up a great deal. No matter how little they may be, our external possessions are enough for God. He weighs the heart and not the substance, and measures the effort it costs us and not the amount we sacrifice to him. If we consider only the external substance, we see that these astute businessmen, Peter and Andrew, traded their nets and their boat for the fullness of life!”  (Be Friends of God, pp. 26-27)

Remembering 9/11

Even 16 years after the events, when I see any documentaries on TV about the terrorist attack on the United State on 11 September 2001, I find myself hypnotized by the images on the screen.  A paralysis of disbelief takes over as I watch in horror the events unfolding and experience the terror and sorrow of the victims and their families – images that seem burned into my memory.

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I have not been moved to hatred or thoughts of revenge.  My reaction has been a total sorrow that we in the world are in such condition that hatred takes over our lives and that we humans can do such horrendous acts of murder.  Such dehumanization is hard to fathom – both that we dehumanize those we see as enemies and that we ourselves become dehumanized and come to think that murder and mayhem and evil are somehow godly.  They are inhuman acts, why do we imagine they can be godly?  Unless of course we think God is tyrannical, maniacal and demonic.  From the time Cain murdered his brother Abel, humans have been willing to kill and murder on such a scale that is should trouble every human . . .  but doesn’t, tragically enough.

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So, how are we to understand such inhumanity?  Here are some words from a 4th Century Christian bishop, St. Basil the Great, whose saintly parents had lived through the Roman persecution of Christians:

“An enemy is by definition one who obstructs, ensnares and injures others.  He is therefore a sinner.  We ought to love his soul by correcting him and doing everything possible to bring him to conversion.  We ought to love his body too by coming to his aid with the necessities of life.

That love for our enemies is possible has been shown us by the Lord himself.  He revealed the Father’s love and his own by making himself ‘obedient unto death‘, [Phil 2:8] as the Apostle says, not for his friend’s sake so much as for his enemies.  ‘God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.‘ [Rom 5:8]

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And God exhorts us to do the same. ‘Be imitators of God, as beloved children.  And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us.‘ [Eph 5:1-2]

God would not ask this of us as a right and proper thing to do, if it were not possible.

On the other hand, is it not perhaps true that an enemy can be as much of a help to us as a friend can?

Enemies earn for us the beatitude of which the Lord speaks when he says: ‘Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.‘ [Matt 5:11-12]”  (DRINKING FROM THE HIDDEN FOUNTAIN, pp 232-233)

It is no easy task to be a Christian in the face of terrorism.  It is not impossible as St. Basil says to do what Christ commands us to do.  But it is for us very had and seems like a great burden . . .  like taking up our cross to follow Christ.

Jesus said: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  (Mark 8:34)

Holy Tuesday (2017)

The events of Christ’s life some 2000 years ago are remembered in order to make Christ alive for us today. The events are history, but their importance lies not so much in being ancient history, but because they are alive in the Church today and help orient all believers to the coming Kingdom of God.   Our Gospel proclamation is: “Christ is risen!”  We don’t celebrate that He was risen but rather that He is risen and is alive right now, as of this moment.  His life means the power of death is overthrown. We remember the life of Christ to seek Christ, because Christ is alive now, and because He seeks us.

In the days of Holy Week we remember Christ coming again, as a Bridegroom seeking His beloved – seeking us! – inviting us into His Paschal Banquet.  Our orientation is toward the eschaton, and life in the world to come, far more so than toward past events.  The past has happened and can’t be changed, but the present and future are becoming reality, and in our interactions with God, we are shaping that reality.

“In a series of marvelous images, St. Makarios told us why Christ was born, lived on earth, suffered, died, was buried, and rose. Why? In order to stand and knock at the door of our heart (Rev. 3.20). The fact that he knocks is a sign the He does nothing without our consent: He cannot enter unless I want Him to. Christ seeks us out and knocks on our door, waiting patiently outside like a stranger seeking warmth and shelter. In so doing, He creates within us the sense and experience of His kenosis, His self-emptying (Phil 2.7).

Why does the God of the universe stand outside in the cold, day after day, knocking on our door? Because He can’t do without us. Just as a married woman can’t do without her husband, or a married man without his wife–because each partner is integral to the identity of the other–so too has Christ arranged things so that He can’t do without us. Without us, He is naked, hungry thirsty, and has no place to rest his head (Mt 8.20). He has made us His food and drink, His clothing and shelter: He has made our hearts His only place of repose. And when we open the door and welcome Him in, He fills us with His life and light. But make no mistake: without Him we are dead; a dark, empty place, designating only His absence.”  (Archimandrite Aimillianos of Simonopetra, The Way of the Spirit: Reflections on Life in God, p. 249)

Christ is our food – we eat His Body and drink His blood. We are today His hands and feet and eyes and ears in the world. We carry out His work and ministry. When we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, visit the sick and imprisoned, we are doing this to and for Christ.  The practice of Lenten self-denial has the goal of freeing ourselves from enslavement to the self so that we can serve others.  Abstinence and asceticism have the goal of freeing us from enslavement to the self so that instead of being self oriented and engaging in constant self-love, we can become like Christ and live to love and serve others.

 

The Canaanite Woman is My Sister

The Gospel reading of Matthew 15:21-21 presents a hard lesson both because Jesus appears to treat the woman harshly and because we are challenged to think about people like this woman who might appeal to the parish for help but whom for various reasons we feel justified in just wanting to be rid of them.

Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.” But He answered her not a word. And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.” But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Then she came and knelt before Him, saying, “Lord, help me!”

In the Gospel text, the word rendered in English as “knelt before” or in some versions, “worshipped”, is the Greek word prosekunei which has the implication of humbly submitting like a dog before its master by being down on the ground on all fours and waitinganxiously for the master’s command.

It is the way she submissively kneels before Jesus, on all four, like a dog, that apparently elicits the response from Jesus reported in the Gospel.  (see also my blog You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks)

But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.

The Children’s Bread

The woman asks from Christ, like so many other people in the Gospel, for mercy – not for herself but for her daughter.  Jesus appears to either mock her by comparing her to a little puppy that follows its master around hoping to get some crumbs of food dropped by the master, or Jesus out and out is comparing her and her daughter to nothing more than dogs.

In the desert fathers, there is a very interesting comment about this Gospel lesson.  Abba Poemen reminds us that such unwanted nuisances such as the Canaanite woman are actually our brothers and sisters who we are commanded to care for.  The Canaanites were no friends of the Jews and often were hostile to them.  The Jews forbade intermarriage with the Canaanites.  Whatever the Canaanites represented, even as a religious threat to each Israelite, the Lord Jesus responds favorably to her, seeing in her something the Twelves Disciples cannot see.

 “Abba Poeman said:

‘We are in such trouble because we are not taking care of our brother who the Scripture stipulated we are to take in. Or do we not see the Canaanite woman who followed the Savior, crying and beseeching for her daughter to be healed – and that the Savior looked with favor on her and healed [her daughter]?’”

(Poeman in Give Me A Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p 260)

Today, many Syrian, Mideastern and Muslim refugees are very much like the Canaanite woman to us.   But it is not only them, for many of us have a distrust and dislike for any migrants, any poor, any people of different culture or color.  We want them to go away, or maybe we, like the apostles, hope God will make them go away.  But He might, instead, mercifully answer their prayers.  And He might expect us, His servants, to do the same.