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Humor and Perseverance

We meet some interesting characters in the gospels. In addition to the usual suspects such as the apostles and the disciples, every now and then we encounter someone who makes an impression on us. In last Sunday’s readings, we met a Canaanite woman whom the Gospel of Matthew does not name. Even though we know hardly anything about her identity, her meeting with Jesus teaches us certain lessons that we cannot ignore. We have to keep in mind that she was a Canaanite, and the Canaanites were the ancestral enemies of the Jews.

She approaches Jesus because she wants to ask for a cure for her sick daughter. She keeps calling after Jesus, and the Lord keeps ignoring her. Whether the apostles were moved by their prejudice or annoyed by her persistence, it is not clear. They ask Jesus to get rid of her. The Master keeps interacting with her. Jesus tries to discourage her by telling her that He came to save the people of Israel and not the gentiles. The woman is not fazed by His remark. She keeps begging.

Then Jesus tries to throw her off by hurling an apparent insult at her. He says, “It is not right to take the food of children and give it to the dogs.” In the Semitic culture – as well as in many other cultures – to refer to someone as a dog is a huge insult. The woman persists. She comes back with a self-deprecating retort: “Even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the master’s table.” Moved by her persistence and her humility, the Lord heals her daughter.

It is obvious that Jesus carried on this “game” in order to win her faith in Him. In Palestine at the time of Jesus, there were two types of dogs: house pets and stray dogs. The word Jesus used is “kunaria” which means puppies or house pets. Jesus was using this back and forth in order to test the faith of the woman. She came through. I believe she has two lessons to pass on to us. She won Jesus over both by not taking herself seriously (her sense of humor) and by her perseverance. These are two qualities all of us need in our spiritual as well as our personal lives.

Sense of Humor: When I talk about a sense of humor, people mistakenly think I am referring to someone’s ability of make people laugh. Believe me, it is a gift to bring laughter to others. However, a sense of humor is more than that. It is the ability to take ourselves lightly. It is the capacity to see the apparent absurdity of life. It is the skill not to be beaten down by the struggles and challenges of life on the one hand, and not to be too buoyed up by our successes and achievements on the other. It is the ability to laugh at our mistakes.

People sometimes wonder whether Jesus had a sense of humor. Of course He did. There are several occasions where Jesus would have shaken His head because the disciples did not get Him. Our God has a sense of humor. If you don’t believe me, just look at yourself in a full-length mirror as you get out of the shower. The older we get, the funnier we look. God must have a sense of humor because He made us.

It is important to develop a sense of humor as we get older. We should not take ourselves too seriously. We should learn to laugh at our mistakes. When we look back, we know that we have made many. Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of India, who had to face many struggles and challenges, had this to say: "A sense of humor is the pole that adds balance to our steps as we walk the tightrope of life. If I had no sense of humor, I would long ago have committed suicide."

Perseverance: The Canaanite woman got what she wanted because she persisted. Anyone who has had success in any field will tell you that persistence and perseverance are needed to achieve anything in life. Perseverance is the ability to keep working at something even though we do not see immediate results. It is the capacity to try and try again even though we keep failing.

Nowadays people cannot make a commitment even to a one-year cell phone plan. Our attention span is short. How do we make a marriage last a lifetime, in good times and in bad, when we are tempted to run the moment we hit a roadblock? Rome was not built in a day. Italians know that it takes a long time to make good wine. It takes a lifetime to make a great marriage. We need to persevere.

As we get older, we realize that we struggle with the same temptations and sinful tendencies over and over again. I am grateful that God does not judge us by our success but by our effort. He is patient with us. When we make the Stations of the Cross we see that Jesus fell three times, crushed by the weight of the cross. But every time He picked Himself up and plodded on to that hill to fulfill His mission. We need to keep up the fight. We must persevere. Grantland Rice writes: "For when the One Great Scorer comes, to write against your name, He writes not that you won or lost, but how you played the game." 

Let us pray for a sense of humor and great perseverance.

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