Matthew 15:21-28 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. (NRSV)
The fact that Jesus ignored this woman when she was clearly in distress and came to him for relief for her daughter rubs many people the wrong way. What was Jesus thinking? It seems uncharacteristically cold.
Yesterday I said, “I get so task oriented and focused on what I am doing that I sometimes miss the moment.” It is true. I am an INFP on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality test. I remember way long years ago when I first took this test, reading the results, one sentence jumped out at me. It said, “People think you are aloof because you focus so thoroughly on what you are doing and don’t even notice them when they are near your personal space.” I remember thinking, as a light dawned in my brain “Oh, am I supposed to acknowledge them when they walk by?” I would like to give Jesus the benefit of the doubt. Was Jesus having an INFP moment? I don’t think so. NOTHING about Jesus is recorded without intent. There are no ‘throw-away’ images or phrases in the gospels. So let’s keep at it.
Was Jesus being manipulative? Was he trying to do the Carl Rogers thing (an American Psychologist that developed the client centered approach to therapy where the counselor would sit in silence ‘with an attitude of unconditional positive regard’ until the person in the other chair started talking) on the disciples, to see what they would do? To see if they would be up to the task of helping this woman? I want to give Jesus the benefit of the doubt, but this doesn’t really do it for me. That would be using her, using her distress as an object lesson. That doesn’t sound like Jesus.
Or do we need to look back at the story right before this one that I wrote about on Wednesday? In that story the Pharisees were offended that Jesus wasn’t advocating stricter observance of the dietary laws. Jesus’ response was “”Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone;” (Matthew 15:13-14a, NRSV) If Jesus truly thought his mission was the people of Israel alone, then why bother wasting time and energy with this foreigner? It was not part of what he was called to do. But then that doesn’t seem to fit, either. Remember this is in Matthew, the gospel of the Magi, the foreigners that came so far to recognize and adore the baby messiah when his local leaders didn’t recognize him at all. This is Matthew, in which the outsiders consistently recognize Jesus more than the insiders do.
So what is a faithful follower of Jesus to do with this? I’ve read lots of commentaries. There are lots of guesses, but nobody really knows. So most every one of them notes this incident, tosses out a theory or two, and skips on to the end. The girl is healed and the woman’s persistence is lauded. Most people take this as a moral object lesson to hang in there and keep trusting the faith you have. It will pay off in the long run. Keep praying, even when you have no evidence that God is even listening. I will grant that is definitely there. But I think there is more to it.
I think Jesus is having a ‘teachable moment.’ And I think Jesus is the student.
I don’t remember which professor asked, “Is Jesus teachable?” He is the Son of God, after all. He is the incarnation of the divine. Does he not know everything from the beginning? I don’t think so. If he was fully human, he would have to be capable of learning. This is HUGE for me. God is a responsive God. The outcomes cannot be pre-determined for God to be truly in relationship with us or any part of God’s creation. I think our prayers and what we think is vastly important to God. It is part of free will. God does not steam-roll us and neither is God steam-rolled.
The interesting thing is this is something we, the readers of Matthew’s gospel, have known from the beginning… or at least from as early in the tale as the arrival of the Magi. Jesus’ ministry and meaning reaches FAR beyond the bounds of Israel. But Jesus has to learn it, right in front of us.
Be teachable, my friends. Look at someone around you in a new way today.
blessings to you,
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.