Humility: The Mystifying Virtue

December 5, 1999 / Mark 7:24-30

Sometimes a simple story can shed light where argumentation, exegesis, and historical data cannot. Since todayís text is particularly difficult to many people, there is a true story I ran across several years ago with which I choose to begin. I think it will help clarify a challenging event in the life of Jesus.

The late Lee Weyer was a National League umpire for twenty-six years. As with every major league umpire, he had to take his share of abuse from players and fans. Fans can be unmerciful with umps. And players donít always agree with a called third strike!

In the spring of 1980, Weyer was stricken with Guillain-Barre syndrome. It is a mysterious illness that affects motor control and can also cause blindness. When the initial threat to his life had passed, his physician told him that he might never be able to work another baseball game. But Weyer worked hard at his program of physical therapy. He improved dramatically and regained his muscle coordination. The one thing that did not improve, however, was his eyesight. Yet, with corrective lenses, his vision was deemed good enough for him to be allowed to return to work.

A major-league umpire wearing eyeglasses! Can you imagine it? "Hey, Clark Kent!" somebody would shout from the stands. Once, as the umpires went onto the field at the start of a game, he heard someone begin singing "Three Blind Mice." This was Weyerís comment about that day: "I was so glad to be back that it was music to my ears."

If you want something badly, youíll take whatever insults or indignities go with it. Someone loves and marries across a cultural or racial taboo. A prisoner is mocked for his newfound faith ó "jailhouse religion," someone will call it. A teenaged girl commits to staying drug-free or sexually chaste and takes grief simply for making the pledge. A man who works construction is chided for accepting Christ by some of his former drinking buddies. One of Jesusí apostles wrote about such things: "Of course, your old friends donít understand why you donít join in with the old gang anymore. But you donít have to give an account to them. Theyíre the ones who will be called on the carpet ó and before God himself" (1 Pet. 4:4-5, The Message).

A Woman Who Endured Insult

Mark tells us about a woman who came to Jesus to ask that her daughter be set free from an evil spirit. The conversation between the two of them shocks us. It offends our sensibilities. It seems so out of character for Jesus that interpreters have felt called to explain it away. I think Mark means for us to be shocked by the story. It contains a lesson that otherwise would be missed.

The background for the story in Markís Gospel is a series of events in which Jesus teaches about the nature of impurity and defilement. Whereas the Jews were inclined to attach great weight to ceremonial defilement (e.g., hand-washing rituals, ablutions, dietary restrictions, etc.) and to tolerate far too much spiritual sacrilege, Jesus turned things on their head. He taught his disciples this about uncleanness:

Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, "Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a man can make him Ďuncleaní by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him Ďunclean.í"

After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. "Are you so dull?" he asked. "Donít you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him Ďuncleaní? For it doesnít go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body." (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods "clean.")

He went on: "What comes out of a man is what makes him Ďunclean.í For from within, out of menís hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man Ďuncleaní" (Mark 7:14-23).

Three things are important about this text, when examined from Markís perspective as a purposeful writer. First, Jesus has made a revolutionary declaration that all foods are "clean" for people to eat. Second, Jesus has just underscored the fact that henceforth "uncleanness" is to be a description of oneís moral and spiritual life, not his status in terms of ceremonies and rituals. Third, Jesus has felt called to chide his disciples for being so "dull" that they hadnít picked up these, these ó shall we call them ó obvious truths from his behavior and teachings already.

Against this background, Mark tells next of a visit by Jesus to Tyre. Tyre is in Gentile territory ó "unclean" ground to Jews. It is a city of Phoenicia that belonged to the Roman province of Syria for administrative purposes. A woman from that region (i.e., "a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia") came to him and "begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter." Now what would he do? He had already made it clear that one could not be made unclean before God by unwashed hands or non-kosher foods. But what about race and ethnic background? What about skin color? What about slant of eyes or size of nose?

Jesus gave this answer to her pathetic request: "First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the childrenís bread and toss it to their dogs." How politically incorrect to our modern sensibilities! How offensive his words must have been to that poor woman! What are we to make of this?

For one thing, I suspect we are supposed to be shocked by this story. That sort of reading certainly makes the story emphatic. Since Markís original readers are generally thought to have been Christians at Rome, you would expect him to say something to them about how Jesus views non-Jews. But to have him say this, of all things?

First, letís permit Jesus to be a Jew of his own time and to use the vocabulary and categories of that time. Jews were "children" to God, and pagans were "dogs." Sons of Israel were "near," and non-Israelites were "far off" (cf. Acts 2:39); Jews were "chosen," and Gentiles were "aliens"; the circumcised were "citizens," and the uncircumcised were "foreigners" (cf. Eph. 2:11ff).

Second, letís allow Jesus the right to examine the authenticity of this womanís faith in him and even the degree of her love for her daughter. He tested Abrahamís faith. He both shaped and revealed the faith of Joseph and Esther, Mary and Paul by the incredible circumstances they had to face. Was it unjust to explore the nature of this womanís faith?

Personalizing the Lesson

What would you have done that day? If Jesus had addressed you in so abrupt and challenging a manner, how would you have reacted? Maybe you would have "punched him out." Perhaps you would have "given him a piece of your mind." Or possibly you would have simply wheeled around, walked away, and muttered, "See if I ever get within a mile of that man again!"

If you had reacted in any of these ways, what would have been the outcome? Oh, I donít mean that I think Jesus would have struck you dead or made you leprous. But you would have missed the chance to get a miracle for your daughter, right? Your child would have remained demon-possessed and helpless. And you would have had no other place to go, for you had already been everywhere else you could think of for help.

If you want to know how you might have reacted that day, ask yourself these questions: How do you react when someone calls you a name? How do you feel when someone cuts you off in traffic or takes your turn at a four-way stop? How do you react when someone flicks you an "unsanctified hand gesture"?

"Well," you say, "it just makes my blood boil! I donít have to take that sort of thing from anybody ó and I let them know it! Believe you me, once Iím through with that fellow, heíll think twice before doing it to somebody else! Why, just last Tuesday . . ."

Whoa! Hold on a minute. Thatís just my point. Most of us are so offended at real (or perceived!) affronts that we wonít let them pass. So what does that mean in terms of this Bible verse: "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger"? (Prov. 15:1). And what does it mean in terms of a self-image that cannot bear an affront? Or, put another way, what does it say about our possession of such Christian virtues as either self-control or humility?

I will confess to you that I donít like to be insulted, called names, or taunted. The inclination of my sinful nature is to give it back in kind ó and with interest! Iíd rather get even than turn the other cheek. Iíd much prefer to "set the record straight" and answer every charge than to trust the matter to the Lord. Having made that confession, I will quickly tell you that I know the Bible calls me to do otherwise! Jesus tells me not to return evil for evil, to turn the other cheek, to trust God to set things right in the end.

And do you know what there is about my sinful nature that makes me the way I am? It is pride. I donít want to be mistreated ó as my Lord was. I donít want to suffer for doing right ó as Joseph did. I donít want anybody saying anything hateful or untrue about me ó as they did about Job and Mary and Paul. Iím too proud to be inclined just to let it pass. Ignore it. Turn the other cheek. Go on about my business and leave the thing to fair-minded people and to the Lord.

Asking for "Crumbs"

So how did the woman react that day? She didnít challenge God for deciding to feed the children (i.e., Jews) first. In fact, she apparently heard the word "first" for its possible implication that eventually others would eat too! So she said, "Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the childrenís crumbs."

It was as if she said: "Lord, Iíll just take a crumb and be grateful for it. Iím not asking for myself, but for my daughter. And Iím not asking for us to be treated as children. Just let us have what the puppies playing under the table are allowed to eat when the children drop their scraps on the floor."

"For such a reply, you may go," Jesus told her, "the demon has left your daughter." When she got home, she found her precious daughter healed and resting. The demon was gone.

Lee Weyer enjoyed being teased as a four-eyed umpire, for he knew what he had gone through to get back onto the playing field. "Three Blind Mice" was music to his ears. And the prospect of a crumb was enough for the Syrophoenician woman.

Is your life really "too hard," or is it just harder than youíd like it to be? Have you had to "pay too high a price" to follow Jesus, or have you just had to face things you didnít expect? Has God really been "unfair," or have you just had to experience some of the sickness Job endured, some of the injustice Joseph faced, or a taste of the indignities heaped on Jesus?

Humility may be the rarest of all the virtues. It certainly mystifies people of our time and place, for we are encouraged to stand up for ourselves and not to take mistreatment of any kind. But a Christian ethic of behavior is different. If someone else is being abused or oppressed or victimized, rush to their defense. If someone else is being misrepresented or lied about, speak up on their behalf. But be slower to come to your own defense. Be willing to put up with slights and insults.

Oh, there are certainly limits to what you should let others do to you. Both Jesus and Paul gave us the example of appealing to the authorities in an attempt to protect oneís person or to have his basic civil rights restored. But both of them exhibited an even greater capacity to endure rather than retaliate, to withstand mistreatment rather than strike back.


When the woman of Syrian Phoenicia met God in the flesh, the God she met both surprised and shocked her. You may be having the same experience with God in your life. Things may be happening that confuse you. You donít understand why they are happening ó or why God would allow them. So listen to this verse: "No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it" (1 Cor. 10:13). Do you believe that verse for me? For the person seated across the room? What about for yourself?

The disciples had indeed been "dull." They were having a difficult time figuring out this Jesus ó Messiah, Lord, Son of God. Not her! She wasnít trying to figure him out. She was simply prostrate at his feet. The disciples thought they were genetically and theologically entitled; she knew anything she received would be entirely of grace. They were with Jesus and needed sound judgment; she had judgment sound enough to know that she needed Jesus. The disciples were dull, all right; she was brilliant.

The rarest and most mysterious of virtues called humility allowed a woman to receive the blessing she wanted that day near Tyre. And it will allow us to receive blessings we would miss otherwise. To be broken and empty and praying before Christ is holy, not humiliating. It is not an unworthy place for any of us today.


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