Sometimes we hear stories about our heroes that we’d just rather not hear. It’ll be a moment in which they act in a manner that doesn’t fit the character we want them to have. A moment in which they’re decidedly not the hero we want them to be. Same might be true of Jesus. Here’s one.
“Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.” (Matthew 15:21-28, NRSV)
Excuse me? Where’s Jesus and who is this in his place?
That’s always my initial reaction to this story. Fortunately, some biblical scholars have saved us (no pun intended) with helpful and safe explanations of this apparent Jesus of Nazareth/Mr. Hyde behaviour.
The “He Didn’t Really Mean It” explanation: this is an acted out parable and Jesus was behaving this way on purpose to make his point.
The “He Didn’t Really Say It” explanation: this is not an authentic quote of Jesus, but was added by the gospel writer or the early church to make a point about welcoming gentiles or “foreigners” into the church.
The “We Don’t Really Get It” explanation: Jesus wasn’t really calling her a dog, but using an ancient proverb about puppies (yes, the original literally translates as “young puppies”) that we just don’t understand.
I’m sure there’s more, but I think you get the point. All of these are meaningful, but safe ways to explain Jesus’ apparent un-Jesus-like behaviour.
But what if the story is true? What if Jesus was ignoring her? What if he did say something hurtful? What if, in this moment, Jesus behaved in exactly the opposite way to what he taught people was right? What if, just briefly, Jesus was all too human?
Perhaps this is a moment in which “the Word made flesh” is truly human, a moment of “human-ness” with which we can all readily identify. Busy, maybe, with other things on his mind, tired and a little short tempered, he responds as we might. But it’s the next thing he does that is the example for us to follow: Jesus learns. Jesus is open to hearing the woman’s words and seeing her faith and that moves him. It moves him – and us -to see what will be the defining truth of his ministry, that God’s love is for all.
And let’s not forget the real hero in this story. The “Canaanite woman” was not a Jew and she was a woman, two reasons why, in Jesus’ day, she should not have spoken to him, let alone ask for something or, worse, respond to him the way she did. But she did.
Her love for her daughter and her faith in God (a faith that crosses cultural and religious boundaries to bring her to Jesus, by the way) compel her to act. It’s her voice in this story that brings us the truth, the wisdom and the faith that should move us to act, to be prepared to challenge structure and tradition for what’s right.