Williamstown Uniting Church
17 of August, 2014
A few years’ ago I took my nephew and niece to see a film called To the Arctic at IMAX. The stars of the film were a polar bear mother and her twin seven-month-old cubs who travelled across the huge icebergs together in order to find food and stay alive. At one point, the little family was menaced by a male polar bear. The mother, like many mothers, human and animal, was willing to sacrifice her life for her children. She acted as a decoy to lead the male polar bear away from her cubs. Fortunately, she and the cubs all survived. I suspect that if they hadn’t the movie would have been given a much higher classification.
My nephew was absolutely stunned by this self-sacrifice. That was all he could talk about for the rest of the day, and the first thing he told his parents about when I dropped him home. “The polar bear mother loved her cubs so much that she was willing to die for them!” he said over and over again. His own mother was a little bothered by how impressed my nephew was. After all, as she pointed out to him, as his mother she herself was quite prepared to die to save him, her son, if the situation arose. Come to that, it was extremely likely that his granny and his auntie Avril would also throw themselves between him and an angry male polar bear if necessary. It’s not just polar bear mothers who are willing to die for their young.
Given the sacrifices that both human and non-human mothers make for their children, it’s not hard to understand the Canaanite woman in today’s gospel story. Culturally, she’s behaving completely badly. She’s come out from her own Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon to approach a Jewish man; and she doesn’t approach him quietly, but instead shouts at him publically. She’s crossing all sorts of boundaries by approaching Jesus, including the boundary that marks off appropriate behaviour from behaviour that’s completely and utterly inappropriate. But we know why she’s doing it. Her daughter is being tormented by a demon, and this woman will do anything, whatever it takes, to get her daughter the help she needs. She will put up with being first ignored, and then verbally abused. She will argue back when condemned, rather than slinking away in shame. And in the end her commitment is rewarded, and her daughter is healed. If only we knew this woman’s name, she could be the patron saint of all parents who are determined to do anything possible to protect their children and keep them alive and healthy.
So, we can understand the Canaanite woman. But what can we make of the way Jesus speaks and behaves in this story? This is not the Jesus that we know. Until the very end of the story Jesus behaves in a way that I’d describe as sexist and racist, and normally those are some of the last words I can imagine using about him. As a thirty-something Jewish man, accosted in public by a loud Canaanite woman, Jesus is behaving properly. He first ignores this noisy, disruptive woman, and discourages his disciples, who suggest that he send her away by just giving her what she wants, with a bit of wisdom that no one could question: ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’. Then, forced to engage with this woman because she has the temerity to approach him and kneel before him pleading, he rejects her: ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs’. Commentators have tried to excuse Jesus for using the term ‘dogs’ by saying that it was almost affectionate; that the Greek work quoted is the equivalent of ‘puppies’. But basically the equivalent would be an English-speaker calling this woman a bitch. It might be a fine word for referring to a female dog, but it’s not a good word when applied to a female human.
How can we explain this story? Some commentators have suggested that Jesus was just testing this woman’s faith; that all the time he intended to cure her daughter and he just wanted to see how far she was willing to go in her quest for healing, how committed she was, how much she trusted the one she called ‘Lord, Son of David’. That seems to me to be unbearably cruel. Is a Jesus who tests the faith of a desperate mother like this any better than a Jesus who turns away from her because she’s a Canaanite, one of the indigenous people of the country, one of the enemies of Israel, and so not one of his lost sheep? Either way this is not the Jesus we know.
There is a simpler explanation of this story. One of the mysteries of the Incarnation is that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human. He was both the Word without whom nothing in creation was made, and he was a baby, then a child, a teenager, a young man. As someone born fully human he must have learned as we all learn: how to speak; how to behave; how to live. So, why not believe that as a human being Jesus developed in ways that led him to change his mind? And that in this encounter with an indigenous woman that’s exactly what happened – Jesus heard something that made him change his mind?
The argument that the woman makes is a clever one. She doesn’t challenge Jesus’ characterisation of her and her people as dogs when compared to the children of Israel. She doesn’t demand that Jesus treat her as an equal of his own people. Instead she takes up Jesus’ use of the description ‘dogs’ and turns it to her benefit: ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table’. There is room for even the Gentiles at the feast of the kingdom. The Jews may come first, but there is a place for Gentiles, too, at the banquet. And Jesus accepts her argument: ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’
Jesus’ first response to this woman might have been dismissive and cruel, but we need to give him credit for being able to recognise the truth when he heard it, even if the speaker was a Canaanite. He was able to listen to someone that other people would have ignored, and he then chose to act compassionately in a situation where no one would have blamed him for simply moving on. Because of this, Jesus was converted to a larger vision of God’s kingdom and a fuller revelation of his mission. His powers were not given to him only for the Jews, but for the Gentile world too. Earlier in the gospel Matthew described Jesus as fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy about the coming of the Messiah in whose name the Gentiles will hope. Here we see that prophecy in action.
As one who was both fully human as well as fully divine, Jesus isn’t just the one we worship. He’s someone for us to emulate. Here we see Jesus originally expressing a racist stance, only to abandon it when challenged and shown a new way of seeing. So often when people are being sexist, racist, homophobic, they excuse themselves or someone excuses them as it being ‘just the way they were brought up’. Jesus was brought up as a first-century Jewish male, and yet was able to be challenged and changed by a determined Canaanite woman. As we seek to live in imitation of Christ one of the things Jesus can teach us is how to learn from others and not to assume that we already know it all.
If even Jesus can change his mind, and discover that God’s love and care is infinitely more inclusive and extensive than he thought, surely the same can be true for all of us who seek to follow in his footsteps.