Saturday, August 13, 2005

The Wideness in God's Mercy

What do you do with a story about Jesus that makes Jesus look like a jerk?

I know what I would do if I were a redactor of Matthew's Gospel; I'd leave it out. Not only does the Jesus of this story not fit the image of the radically compassionate, radically inclusive Jesus we find looking through the combined lens of all the Gospels, it doesn't even fit the Jesus we find elsewhere in Matthew -- a Jesus who willingly heals a Roman centurion's servant, and uses that occasion to proclaim the universality of God's salvation story; a Jesus who, at the beginning of the tale, has crossed the border of Galilee into Gentile territory, where of course he is going to encounter non-Jews; a Jesus who, just a couple of lines prior, is roundly criticizing the Pharisees for their superficiality and culture-bound rules of ritual cleanliness. And considering the largely Jewish audience who first heard and read the Gospel of Matthew, why would the author include an account of an event where the Messiah gets outargued not only by a woman but by a Canaanite woman -- the most depraved of pagans, the most disliked of ethnic neighbors, the very lowest of the low?

And of course that doesn't even take into account our contemporary discomfort with a Jesus who appears prejudiced, surly and equivocal, who seems to need a jolt of verbal jujitsu in order to take action. Some theologians argue that Jesus knew exactly how this encounter would end, and was only testing the Canaanite woman's faith, and perhaps also pointedly playing on the crowd's bigotry in order to teach a lesson in tolerance; but this seems, frankly, like a hopeful interpretive stretch designed to protect Jesus' honor. Some scholars note that when Jesus speaks about not giving the children's food to dogs, the word used for "dogs" is a diminutive form of the noun used in reference to household pets; for anyone who has ever been the target of hate speech, this argument -- that calling someone a lap dog as opposed to, say, a junkyard dog -- is unsatisfying at best. Some commentators even suggest that the interplay between Jesus and the Canaanite woman is a kind of humorous banter, an argument that is certainly contraindicated by the desperate context of this encounter; it's not exactly a moment where one would expect Jesus and a grieving mother to break into shtik.

All of which lead me to believe that this story is the real deal. Whenever I encounter folks who want to argue with me that the Gospel stories are mostly made up of whole cloth, I like to point to this text. I think it's been a puzzlement to Christians from the beginning, which is why it wound up in the Gospels -- because Jesus' earliest followers knew that it meant something; that it was important enough to keep wrestling with.

When we read the story of the Canaanite woman today, oftentimes we see ourselves in the role of the Canaanite woman -- someone desperate, someone with nothing left to lose, who literally throws herself on God's mercy. And that's an important insight; "We are all beggars," notes Luther. And sometimes when we read this story we see a metaphor for the institutional Church and its reluctance to confront its own prejudices and lack of love. "Send her away! She's loud and annoying!" is a sentiment echoed over the years in Christians' treatment of any number of marginalized groups seeking inclusion and justice.

But in thinking about this story yesterday (it needed extra time to percolate), the thought came to me: What would happen if we tried to identify with Jesus?

Imagine that you feel a deep, profound, focused call to help your people -- whoever your people may be. Imagine that this vocation consumes you with a kind of holy passion. Imagine that you even find, in the holy writings of your faith, a kind of confirmation of your mission. And imagine that, when you follow this call as you hear it, amazing things happen around you; you find yourself a channel for God's saving, healing power. Your life appears to be scripted for you by God Godsself, and as an obedient servant to God's will you feel called to follow that script no matter what.

Now imagine that, as you are living in obedience to your call as you understand stops following the script. The parameters of your mission begin to grow fuzzy around the edges, as you encounter needy people from outside your religion, your culture, your experience, who push you out of your comfort zone as your self-understanding as someone sent only to serve your people, comes into conflict, more and more, with your sense of shared humanity with all people. What if you begin to suspect that you are part of something larger -- much larger -- than you can possibly imagine? What would you feel? What if you didn't think you could carry this burden? What if you didn't want it? And what if you began to second-guess whether this new, larger task was truly a part of a new script, or a distraction, even a self-delusion, impeding your real work?

Maybe this is what we're seeing in Jesus in this story -- his very human struggle to understand his place in the world and in the Reign of God. As I reread his comments to the Canaanite woman, they almost seem like self-talk, like he's working it out in his own head: But I'm only sent to the lost sheep of's not fair that I use my gifts in the Gentile community when I haven't yet reached all of my own people.

Some people are made very uncomfortable by the idea of a Jesus who isn't a Superman; who lives with the sorts of limitations that the rest of us do as we work out our salvation in fear and trembling. But isn't the whole idea of kenosis, of God's emptying of Godsself into our humanity, inclusive of the idea that Jesus labored under the same limitations of knowledge and perception as other human beings? Is it so hard to believe that a God-Man who had to learn to walk and talk and read and work with his hands also had to learn what his messiahship meant in the course of living it day by day? I don't think so.

When Jesus finally resolves his dilemma -- it's on the basis of compassion. As Kelly Fryer notes in Reclaiming the "L" Word, if you have to choose between leading with the Law foot or the Love foot, lead with the Love. And that's what we see Jesus choosing to do...despite his enculturated attitudes toward non-Jews in general and Canaanites in particular, despite what other people want him to do, despite his own self-understanding of what God has sent him to accomplish in the world.

There's a hymn entitled "There's a Wideness in God's Mercy." I believe that Jesus, in his encounter with the Canaanite woman, found that wideness; perceived it in a way that perhaps he had not before. And, as the One Who Goes Ahead Of Us, he now points us to that same vision, where "the love of God is broader than the measures of our mind."

Christ and the Canaanite Woman, Rembrandt Posted by Picasa


Songbird said...

Oh, LC, thank you.

Sheryl said...

Excellent reflection. And, as a complement to you, this is pretty much the exact angle my pastor took this weekend.

LutheranChik said...

Thanks, both of you.

Interestingly, I know a pastor who got in Big Trouble -- Biiiiiiiig Trouble, as in "I'm calling the Bishop!", All-Hell-Breaking-Loose Trouble -- for making a similar point in a sermon on the same text.;-)

bls said...

The preacher at my parish also looked at it this way. It's actually a good thing for Our Hero to show his human side, I think. Otherwise it's just God in a skin suit, and that's not the deal.

We sang this hymn yesterday, too. It was the first time I'd heard it; sounds real Protestant and kinda Southern to me. (I guess you can tell I'm sort of new around these parts.)

LutheranChik said...

It's not in the "Lutheran Book of Greatest Hits" either.;-) But that's neat that you sang it yesterday.

We sang a hymn -- I should say, the organist played a hymn -- during the Eucharist that was unfamiliar, and that completely flummoxed the congregation, so no one sang it. LOL. I'd just as soon have instrumental music rather than congregational singing during Communion, so that was fine by me, but I felt sorry for the organist.

Yeah...the idea that Jesus was just pretending to be one of us in order to humor us is, well, pretty Gnostic. But you sure run into it a lot in contemporary Christendom. I once read a book by Billy Graham where he maintained that Jesus was never sick, being Jesus and all, and I thought, "What is up with that? You mean, he could be tortured and killed, but no head colds or mumps?..." It's that paradox of truly human, truly divine...still hard to wrap our heads around.

Derek the ├ćnglican said...

It's a docetic view, actually. The notion that Jesus only seemed human but was actually spirit rather than flesh (from the Grk dokeo=to seem).

It's interesting as a Synoptic Gospels guy to see what Matthew does with the story. He takes Mark's Syro-Phoenecian woman and points it up quite a bit. Nobody referred to themselves as Canaanite in the 1st century AD. It's an geographical-ethnic term that only had meaning for readers of the OT. If anything, it makes the story more dramatic and makes her more of an outsider because it was the Canaanites in general and the Canaanite women in particular who were constantly accused of leading the Israelites "a'whoring" after other gods. Thus, Matthew paints her not just as an outsider but a radical deviant outsider...

bls said...

We got to sing "Let all mortal flesh keep silent" during Communion yesterday.

That's sort of the other end of the spectrum, but man! What lyrics!

"At His feet the six-winged seraph;
Cherubim, with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the Presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry,
Alleluia, Alleluia,
Alleluia, Lord most high.

That's a great hymn, a spectacular one, even though it didn't really fit quite that well with the rest.

The choirmaster's on vacation.


Derek the ├ćnglican said...

That's one of my absolute favorites...

LutheranChik said...

Derek: That's right; Docetism. Actually, at my first lay ministry training we zipped through a short course on Top Ten Heresies or something to that effect, so I should have remembered. (Gee, I hope my mentor isn't reading this blog.;-))

Bls: I like that hymn too. Now I remember the hymn that no one sang: "There in God's Garden" -- it's in With One Voice, the supplement to the Lutheran Book of Worship. Evidently not included per popular demand.;-)

Back when I was a kid, "Beautiful Savior" was a favorite default hymn;-)...always a crowd-pleaser. The organist would drop out on a verse or two -- the congregation always rose to the challenge -- then come back for a grand finale. Perhaps this is a symptom of increasing geezerdom, but IMHO, to quote Bob Seger, today's music ain't got the same soul.;-)

cheesehead said...

We sang that exact hymn yesterday--right after I prached that text. Great minds think alike!

cheesehead said...

Um, that would be *preached*, not "prached". Sorry.

*Christopher said...


More excellent reflections. Food for the journey.

J.C. Fisher said...

I've grown to love this story, because it shows Jesus being a jerk.

I believe in a Jesus "without sin" . . . but not in a Jesus with a non-human omniscience as to exactly What Sin Is (he had to grow into wisdom, just like the rest of us homo sapiens . . . that is, I hope we homo sapiens grow into wisdom!)

Does that make me "adoptionist"? I don't know. Maybe. (Like most things divine, it's beyond our human ken: a paradox)

The important thing is not exactly HOW the Nazarean Carpenter is the Second Person of the Trinity (aka G_d), but (to use a cliche I've heard a time or a thousand) that JESUS SAVES! (Pushy Canaanite women, for starters!)

Boltono said...

Ack!...Bishops and pastors who can't be real! Why on earth not? What is there to defend and hide if Christ dealt with it in the open?!
Please, let's be real all the way to the top of the systems and beyond, or else it's a bit daft to put up with it for "socialisation" purposes and a "comfort" zone "don't rock the boat we are happy in the harbour despite the big beautiful sea out there".
Not known for his tact, Boltono does love Jesus and is aware of Christ's huge love for him.
In the gospel story mentioned in the post, there were a lot of comfort zones crossed. Even by Jesus himself, apparently. Never thought of it like that before. What a good example.

LutheranChik said...

Greeting, Boltono! For some reason I suspect that you may be on shore leave from the Ship...greetings!:-)

LutheranChik said...

Greeting, Boltono! For some reason I suspect that you may be on shore leave from the Ship...greetings!:-)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for blogging on this idea, it's a very interesting one. It is indeed a paradox.

In one sense, docetic tendencies may be holding believers back from properly loving their neighbors.

In another sense, plumbing that mystery with too much enthusiasm just doesn't seem to promise us very much. After all, though imago dei is fundamental to our universal worldview, it's not really our humanness that we hunger for. So, we naturally grativate toward his divinity, since we so sorely lack it in ourselves.

It would be interesting to note if any good x-ian wisdom literature exists on the topic. I know there is a certain political set which makes a lot of it, a la Kazantzakis. I've never read him; I wonder if there is much profitable there, and if not, who has written something profitable in that vein?