People often wonder where they are in their relationship with God. Over the years I have had countless souls ask me if there is some objective way or some practical tool they can use to measure their progress in the spiritual life or to determine where they are on the spiritual map. Numerous saints and theologians throughout history have suggested to us various means to answer these questions. In my own analysis and reflection, it appears to me that the answer to these concerns can be summed up in three questions: How pure is my faith? How confident is my hope? How selfless is my love? The honest answer to these questions will reveal to us where we are, really, in our relationship with God.
In the world today, both inside of Christianity and out, there is a great deal of hype about spirituality. People talk regularly in spiritual circles about things like consolations, methods of prayer, inspirations from God, one’s own vocation and experiences of God in prayer, etc. Obviously, these are all very important and necessary for us and each one of them is an essential component to our relationship with God. However, by themselves, none of these aspects of the spiritual life make us holy, nor do they provide a valid measuring tool to determine the state of one’s own soul. Whereas a person whose faith is becoming purer, whose hope is growing in confidence, and whose love is becoming more selfless, that person is becoming holy, regardless of whether those other things are present or not.
Now, there is both good news and bad news in this. The good news is that it is no secret what God desires of us. The genuine path to holiness, which will include both light and darkness, clarity and confusion, and joy and sorrow, is ultimately the path of faith, hope, and love. St. John of the Cross affirms this when he writes, “Faith and love,” (and we could certainly include hope) “are like the blind persons guides. They will lead you along a path unknown to you, to the place where God is hidden.” This then is what the path of holiness looks like, and therefore this is how we are called to live.
The bad news about this is that usually, not always, but usually, the purity of our faith, the confidence of our hope, and the selflessness of our love is revealed to us, and grows most deeply, in darkness and in suffering. If God were to remove from a person the felt experience of His presence or a tangible experience of his grace, how much faith a person has at that moment is how much faith they really have. The same can be said about hope and love. It is easy to love God and another person when there is a tangible and felt experience of that love. Hence, when that love is reciprocal, not just in theory, but present amidst one’s experience of life, it is easy to believe in the love of the other and to love in return. However, if you take away that experience, or if the other person appears distant or even not interested, how much love a person has at that moment is how much love they really have.
In the Gospel story of the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28), we are given a profound and beautiful illustration of all of this. This Gospel can be very confusing, and I will admit I spent many years puzzled by Jesus’ actions and words in this passage, so much so that I would often not preach on this Gospel simply because I didn’t understand what was occurring. A superficial reading of this passage can easily lead one to conclude that not only is Jesus being rude to this poor woman, but that he is not even interested in her.
St. Matthew recounts for us that a Canaanite woman comes to Jesus, and cries out “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon” (Mt 15:22). At first, Jesus does not even respond to her, and then we are told that “his disciples came and begged him, saying, ‘send her away, for she is crying after us” (Mt 15:23). Finally, Jesus responds to her, but he tells her “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt 15:24), implying that there is something wrong with her because she is a Gentile and not a Jew; therefore Jesus can’t help her. Almost immediately then, there are three strikes against this poor woman.
It is worth stopping here for a moment and asking ourselves, how would we respond if we were this woman, and this was our experience of Jesus? Most likely, we would think to ourselves, where is the Jesus who opens the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf? Where is the Jesus who when Jairus comes and falls at his feet and says to him, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be well, and live” (Mark 5:23), goes immediately to heal her? Where is the Jesus who says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28). If I were this woman, I would think to myself that either this Jesus whom I have heard so much about and whom everyone is talking about is either a fake, or he is simply not interested in me. Most likely, I would end up leaving him, disappointed, angry, and hurt. However, this woman responded very differently.
Rather than leaving Jesus she comes and kneels before him and begs him, “Lord, help me” (Mt 15:25). Once again, this woman makes herself totally vulnerable in front of everyone and in front of Jesus. Once again, she risks being ignored, considered a nuisance, and degraded. Once again, she will show the crowds, the disciples, and most importantly Jesus, that her faith is indeed mature, her hope is confident, and her love is selfless.
Every time I read this passage, I can’t help but think that now Jesus will respond to her with love and gentleness, that now he will agree to go and heal her daughter. However, Jesus’ response to her now appears even worse than before: “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Mt 15:26). It is difficult to imagine a response more insulting than the one Jesus offers her, yet without hesitation she responds by saying, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (Mt 15:27). This, I believe, is one of, if not the most extraordinary responses to Jesus from anyone in all the Gospels. The reason her response to Jesus is so extraordinary is because it is filled with a pure faith, a confident hope, and a selfless love. Even though she does not understand what is happening, why Jesus is saying these things, and where this is all going, her faith, hope, and love in Jesus remains intact. It is pure, confident, and selfless.
Why does Jesus respond to her in this way? I can’t think of anyone else in the Gospel whom Jesus responds to like this after approaching him with such sincerity and humility. Jesus’ response to her is meant to be a teaching moment, not for the Canaanite woman, but for the disciples and us. Through Jesus’ words, though they certainly can appear harsh and insensitive, Jesus is teaching and attempting to show us that this woman is a model of discipleship. As the disciples watch this encounter take place, though they may be annoyed and irritated by her, they witness a woman before Jesus who will continue to pursue him, even if it seems like she is not being received in return. Hence, Jesus is attempting to show the disciples and us that if we truly want to be his disciples then, like this woman, we must continue to pursue God even if it seems like He, and everyone else, is against us. We must continue to pursue God even when it might seem like there is no hope or when it seems that God is absent, or that maybe He doesn’t even love me.
By responding to this woman as he does, Jesus is drawing this woman deeper. Her experience of this moment in her humanity is one filled with darkness and suffering because it can seem like not only is she being rejected, but she is even being ridiculed by him. Of course, Jesus is not rejecting or ridiculing her. Rather, by treating her this way he is attempting to elicit from her a deeper faith, hope, and love and to show us what authentic discipleship looks like. He can do this with her, and not with the disciples, because he knows the depths of her faith, hope, and love is great, and he wishes to call her even deeper.
If we wish to follow Jesus more deeply and grow in our relationship with him, then we too must strive for a purer faith, a more confident hope, and a more selfless love, because it is ultimately the only path that leads us to God.
Image courtesy of Unsplash.