I really appreciate the Lutheran pastors (and one Episcopal guest) in my conference Bible study group. Some of them are young enough to be my kids, but I have to say they often seem a lot smarter than me. Still, even with the aid of their magnificent and theologically trained young minds, this week’s Gospel lesson (Matthew 15:22-28) was something of a stumper. You’ve heard the story: Jesus encounters a Canaanite woman with a sick child. He calls her a dog and refuses to heal her little girl. Then, when she gives a pithy comeback to his rather insulting rebuke to her, he changes his mind and heals the child. My young colleagues and I agreed that there were a few things about this passage we found jarring.
First, let’s assume that Jesus intended to heal the foreign woman’s kid all along, but he was using this episode either to test her faith or to teach his followers a lesson about inclusivity. This interpretation might fly in the face of our understanding of grace since the healing seems to depend on the woman giving the right reply to Jesus’ nasty comments about her. Also, the fact that Jesus basically calls her the “b-word” kind of ruffles our image of a loving and compassionate Savior. I mean, this lady is suffering enough with a demonically possessed daughter. Does she need to be insulted, too?
Of course, we could take the opposite tack and assume that Jesus—who was true human as well as true God—was just doing what any rabbi in his culture would do when he denied the request of a gentile. We could conclude that he was won over by the foreign woman’s faith, and so decided to change his mind about the healing. The problem with this interpretation is that it doesn’t square up with our Trinitarian understanding that Jesus is one with the omniscient God. We’re left with two alternatives: Jesus is either omniscient but rude to the point of being cruel, or he’s not omniscient and is figuring it out as he goes just like the rest of us.
Part of me likes the idea of the human Jesus having an epiphany. It’s kind of like the wonderful moment we have when we discover that someone we assumed was a total jerk turns out to be pretty decent after all.[i] All the same, if I had to pick an interpretation, I guess I’d go with the idea that Jesus was teaching us a lesson about loving our neighbor—even if that neighbor is someone with whom we wouldn’t normally associate. Matthew’s Gospel seems to lean in that direction. He starts his story with a genealogy of Jesus which includes foreign women like Rahab and Ruth. He goes on to introduce a bunch of foreign astronomers who hail Jesus as a king. He depicts the Holy Family as refugees in a foreign land, and ends the whole story with Jesus sending his ambassadors out to make disciples of all nations.
So what does this story about inclusion say to us as we’re trying our best to avoid everyone during a pandemic? With which of the characters in this story do you identify? I’ll bet it’s pretty easy to feel sympathy for the disciples who just want this weird, nagging woman to put a sock in her pie hole and leave them alone. With all the misery and conflict in our world right now, do you really have time to listen to someone else’s problems? Can’t you just hear Peter or Andrew or one of the guys saying, “Look, lady. The Lord has enough sick folks to worry about among our own people. We don’t have time for your foreign brat. So beat it!” In a time of stress, don’t we all have to triage our level of concern? But Jesus is still there for everyone. If we’re really serious about being imitators of Christ, we’re going to have to put up with a lot we think we’re too tired to handle.
In contrast, we might want to identify with the Canaanite woman. It’s not hard. Have you ever felt left out? Have you ever wondered if God was listening to you? Have you ever been made to feel undeserving of God’s grace? Jesus admires this woman for her faith. With a sick child, a hostile crowd trying to get rid of her, and a really belligerent rebuke from the rabbi she’s petitioning for help, she still presses on. What else can she do?
As we start the sixth month of a pandemic shut-down, we watch continued protests in the streets of our cities, and we wait for our government to do something meaningful, we’ll accept any crumb of grace that falls from God’s table, and even a crumb will be enough.
God’s peace, my friend. Take care and thanks for reading this week.
[i] A 1999 made-for-TV movie by Trimark simply called Jesus took the interpretation that Jesus changed his mind when moved by the faith of the Canaanite woman. A church member said she really liked this depiction as it made Jesus seem more relatable.