14 August 2005
Our Gospel reading this morning is a very strange story. What on earth is going on? It’s really weird; what did Jesus think He was doing? The whole story begs a very great many questions. To start with, why did Jesus go to Tyre in the first place? These days it’s in the Lebanon, and back then it was a Gentile place, not a Jewish one. What was he doing there?
Then, how did the woman know of him? Had he been sharing the Good News up there? Had someone mentioned Jesus of Nazareth to her when she was looking for a healer for her daughter? Did she know who he was, or was she just looking for a wonder-worker?
Then what on earth did Jesus mean? The Bible is a bit like the Internet in one respect, in that you can’t tell what people’s tone of voice was meant to be. So we don’t know what sort of voice Jesus said, first of all, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” and then to the woman herself “It’s not right to take the children’s meat and throw it to the dogs”. There’s so many ways he could have said it. He could have been aloof, remote: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. “It’s not right to take the children’s meat and throw it to the dogs”. He could have been thoughtful: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. “It’s not right to take the children’s meat and throw it to the dogs”. He could have been almost teasing: “It’s not right to take the children’s meat and throw it to the dogs, nome sane?” We don’t know, and at this distance, we probably never will know.
And what of the woman’s response when she came in to kneel at his feet? Was she desperate, clutching at straws? Was she in an “Oh well, I’ve got nothing to lose!” mood? Was she responding to his affectionate teasing? Again, we can’t know.
The classical explanation, of course, is that Jesus was testing the woman to find out whether or not she had enough faith for him to heal her daughter. Well, that may or may not be the case, I don’t know, but it’s what people often say because it’s what they think Jesus is like.
But I once read an explanation that was a little different. I am not totally sure exactly where I read it, and it was years ago, but it had a profound effect on me. In this explanation, the writer – I have a feeling it was M Scott Peck, but I wouldn’t swear to it – suggests that Jesus had gone to Tyre for a break, to get away from it all for a few days. And when the woman came to him to heal her daughter, his first reaction was irritation. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In other words, “What’s she doing here?” But because he stayed so close to God, he knew he mustn’t give in to that reaction, but went out to see her anyway. And then when he found she wasn’t Jewish, again, his first reaction was to send her away: “It’s not right to take the children’s meat and throw it to the dogs”. But again, he listened to God, and heard the voice of God in her response: “but even the puppies can eat the crumbs the children let fall”. And so he knew that what God wanted was for him to heal this woman’s daughter. Which he did. In Mark’s version of the story, this was another “healing at a distance” – the woman went home and found her daughter lying on her bed, quite well again.
Now, when I first read that explanation, I was rather disturbed. I felt it was all wrong. “No, no, that can’t be it! Jesus wasn’t like that?” But that was a knee-jerk reaction, and the story refused to go away. Like a sore place in one’s mouth, or something, I kept on thinking about it and thinking about it. Why was this so totally alien to my mental image of Jesus?
Then I realised that, of course, it was because I was confusing “being perfect” with “never being wrong”. There’s a difference between being mistaken and sinning! Jesus, after all, was a human being, and that meant he had to have grown and changed. He was not born fully-grown from his mother’s forehead, like whoever it was in the Greek myth; he came, we are told, as a human baby. And as a human baby, he would have had to have learnt – and you don’t learn without making mistakes. Jesus would have fallen over when learning to walk, just like every other baby; he would have confused common words when he learnt to read, and forgot which symbol represented which letter in the Hebrew language. St Luke tells us that Jesus grew and became strong, and the favour of God was on him. But even the mere fact of growing and becoming strong means you have to learn – you don’t become strong without training your body, and nobody can run 100 metres in less than ten seconds, for instance, or skate the Golden Waltz, without years of intensive training.
So it is certainly possible that Jesus was, in this instance, mistaken just at first about whether he could or should do anything for this woman’s daughter. And in the end, I found this thought very liberating. It made Jesus far more human. I realised that, while I had always paid lip-service to the belief that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, in fact, I’d never really believed in his humanity! For me, he had always been a plaster saint, absolutely perfect, never making a mistake, never even being tempted. I realised I’d envisaged him overcoming those temptations the gospel-writers talk about with a wave of his hand, not really tempted at all. But, of course, it wasn’t like that! St Paul tells us that he was tempted “in every way that we are”, and if that doesn’t include really, really, really wanting to do it, then it wasn’t temptation!
But if Jesus could be mistaken, if he sometimes had to change his mind, if being perfect didn’t necessarily mean never being wrong, then that changed everything! Suddenly, Jesus became more human, more real than ever before. The Incarnation wasn’t just something to pay lip-service to, it was real. Jesus really had been a human being, with human frailties, just like you and me. He had had to learn, and to grow, and to change. Suddenly, it was okay not to get everything right first time; it was okay not to be very good at some things; it was okay to make mistakes.
And, what’s more, it meant that the Jesus who had died on the cross for me wasn’t some remote, distant figure whom I could aim at but never emulate, but almost an ordinary person, someone I might have liked had I known him in the flesh, someone I could identify with.
Do you remember, about 15 years ago there was a film called The Last Temptation of Christ? I never actually saw it, but I do remember someone saying that the film-makers had forgotten than Jesus was divine as well as human. I think sometimes we forget that Jesus was human as well as divine. I know that I had, and I needed that interpretation of today’s story to remind me.
Of course, Jesus was a human being, of a certain race, living in a certain place and time of history. Because we know him so well, because His Spirit indwells we who call ourselves Christians, we’re apt to forget that. We know him, and rightly so, as Saviour and Lord, and it’s not always easy to remember that once, long ago, he struggled with the same issues and temptations as we do.
Because those issue don’t go away, do they? Especially today, when our young people are being taught fanaticism, taught that what God wants is for them to take bombs on to the Underground and to kill and maim people. I can sort of see why they do it, by the way. When I was young, and a very new Christian, I had very little sense of my own centre. I believed all that my preachers told me – I hadn’t learnt that preachers were as fallible as I am – and had they told me that the best way to serve Jesus was to die in His Service, well, I wouldn’t be here now! And it’s the same with these young folk. They are young, they are in love with God, whom they know as Allah, they want to please Him, and they are taught that this is how to do it. It is their teachers who are the real criminals here, playing on the “all or nothing at all” way that young people are. Thank God my own teachers were wise and loving folk – Christian teachers haven’t always been so, by any manner of means. Think of the Crusades. Think of the Spanish Inquisition.
All of us who are “people of the book”, whether Christians, Jews or Muslims, like to think we are God’s special people. We like to think we are the only ones who God loves – and, worst of all, we like to think that we know who God doesn’t love, and that usually includes all the folk who don’t believe in exactly the same way that we do! I expect that the young folk who took those bombs into the Underground and buses reckoned they were okay as the only people to be killed would be what they would call infidels, unbelievers. Sadly, that wasn’t the case – but their cohorts may have rationalised it by telling themselves firmly that the young Muslim woman who was killed would have to have been a heretic of some kind…. Just like we used, arrogantly, to reckon those who didn’t believe exactly the way we did weren’t Christians at all!
The Gospels are littered with examples of how Jesus treated people who weren’t Jewish – usually rather to the surprise of his hearers. Remember the woman at the well – she was a Samaritan, and Jews spoke to Samaritans as little as they possibly could. Plus she didn’t exactly have a spotless reputation! Then Jesus healed the Roman centurion’s servant – a member of the occupying power! He allowed the woman with an issue of blood to touch him…. He told the story of the Good Samaritan, helping a badly-wounded man who might even have been dead. All people who well-brought-up Jews wouldn’t have gone near with the proverbial! And in today’s story we see that he, too, might even have struggled sometimes. “Father, I’m so tired, do I really have to deal with this unbeliever, too?”
And the answer, gently, was “Yes, even the dogs can eat the crumbs that fall from the children’s table!”
St Paul, in our first reading, was struggling slightly; he knew in his head that the gospel was for all, and even that he had been sent specifically to the Gentiles. But in his heart he was Jewish, totally and utterly – what these days would be called “ultra-Orthodox”.
a descendant of Abraham,
a member of the tribe of Benjamin.”
And he minded quite dreadfully that it looked as though it would be the gentiles, the unclean, the non-people who would now be God’s chosen ones, since his own had rejected Jesus….
Many of you will know, far better than I can, how awful it is to be “different”, to experience people hating you because of the colour of your skin, or your accent, or where you come from. You will, perhaps, understand something of the alienation that these young Muslims feel. And all of us who first said “yes” to Jesus when we were young will empathise with them as they take in and internalise the teachings they receive – I believe some of the most inflammatory teachers are based here in Brixton, which figures.
So what can we do? Two things, I think. We can love, and we can pray. We know that these young folk are as dear to God as we are. Not the things they do in their misguided zeal – but they themselves are. We must and should pray for them, and when we think of them, we must think of them with love. Love is stronger than hatred, for God is love. Amen.