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 it...life 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 Israel...it'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