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Monday, August 18, 2014

Saving Jesus

My sermon for this week was based on Matthew 15: 21-28.

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There is a tendency among Christians to want to save Jesus from all criticism, as though Jesus was incapable of error.  It comes from a good place, but I think it is wrong in a few cases, and the Gospel passage for this week is one such case.

This week, we heard the story of Jesus healing the Canaanite woman's daughter.  A little background: Canaanites and Jews were mortal enemies, and so when this woman approaches Jesus to ask him to heal her daughter, he responds by saying, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs".  Earlier in the passage, Jesus claims that he was sent "only to the lost sheep of Israel".

The what these two phrases imply is that up to this point in his life, Jesus believed that his mission, message, miracles and ministry were reserved for the Jews.  Jesus is protesting that he should not have to heal this woman's daughter because they are "dogs".

Even in Canada, this is a pretty mean insult, but if you are even remotely familiar with Middle Eastern culture, you will know that in some quarters, this is one of the worst insults you can level at someone.

Now here is where everyone wants to save Jesus.  Churchgoers, preachers and teachers of all stripes try to turn this into one of Jesus' "teaching moments".  They claim that he is speaking ironically or at least in hyperbole, that he was sharing an inside joke with the woman for the benefit of his listeners, and so on.

I suspect that the exact opposite is actually true.  I suspect that this is a "teaching moment", but that it is actually Jesus that is learning a lesson.

Here's what I think happened: even if Jesus was raised without or managed to overcome the long-standing racial hatred between Jews and Canaanites, he was almost certainly raised with the belief that Jews were God's chosen people, the elect.  So when this woman approached him asking for a boon, his response was that of a typical Jew of his time: disregard and indifference, tinged with open hostility.

But this woman responds "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs from their masters' table".

What must Jesus have felt at her response?

Her response gave witness not only to the love she had for her daughter, but also the humility (and indeed humiliation) she was willing to endure in order to have her healed.

Despite the fact that Jesus was probably taught that Gentiles were, in fact, sub-human, this woman shows the utmost love, devotion and humility.  She shows to Jesus the best that humanity has to offer, the qualities that exemplify humanity itself, regardless of race, creed, religion, politics or colour.

From this moment on in the Gospel, Jesus takes a much different tack: his message and mission include everyone, Gentiles as well as Jews.

And why is this such a bad thing?  Why is it so unbelievable that Jesus had to learn a few lessons along the way like the rest of us?  Why can Jesus not be human an fallible, just this once?

I think the true power and the true lesson in this Gospel passage is that is that if Jesus can overcome centuries of racial hatred, if he can overcome the false lessons he was taught about the people he was likely told to fear and despise, if he was able to see through the insignificant differences that separate groups of people to the things that really make us similar on an individual level, then so can we.

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