King’s Acre Church, 7 September 2003
What on Earth?
Our Gospel reading this morning is made up of two very strange stories. In that first 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 “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: “It’s not right to take the children’s meat and throw it to the dogs”. He could have been thoughtful: “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? 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. 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. He didn’t need to go to her and make himself unclean by going into a Gentile’s house – you remember, we were talking about uncleanness last week, and that was one of the things that Jews simply Did Not Do. He was able to tell her to go home, her daughter would be healed.
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 ten seconds, for instance, 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.
I think I’ve probably made a great many bricks from very little straw, but it’s something that’s rather precious to me. Let’s turn now to the other story in today’s reading.
Jesus goes back home on a rather circuitous route; perhaps not exactly on holiday, as we know it, but certainly having a break from normal routine.
He meets a man who is deaf and can barely speak, and heals him. As you know, deaf people are often not able to speak clearly, if at all, and many prefer to use sign language. Although it’s possible that this bloke had some kind of speech impediment as well, the text isn’t very clear. Anyway, Jesus takes him to one side, so that he won’t be the centre of attention – too ghastly to have to explain the problem in front of a crowd when you can’t speak very clearly in the first place – and makes it very clear to him exactly what he is doing. He touches the man’s ears, spits and touches his tongue, and then says “Be opened!” in a loud and clear voice. And the man can instantly hear and speak – and, apparently, make sense of what he is hearing.
Something to notice here is how Jesus treats people as individuals. He treats this man quite differently from the way he treated the Syro-Phoenician woman’s daughter. And other healings are different again. This is perhaps obvious, but all too often we like to make Christianity “one size fits all”. Okay, to a certain extent it is: “One body, one Spirit, one faith, one Lord, one people, one nation, praise ye the Lord!” as the old Chorus has it. But within that, Jesus meets with us as individuals, and deals with us as individuals. The story of the Syro-Phoenician woman’s daughter, that means so much to me, might leave you totally cold. And perhaps part of the Bible that, at this stage of my Christian journey, leaves me a bit cold, means everything to you! We are all different – there are many Christianities, even though there is only one Christ. We are all on different stages of our journey; some of us have walked with Jesus for longer than we care to remember, while others have only recently said “yes” to him. And so it goes. What matters is that we continue to walk with him.
So at the beginning of this Methodist year, let’s pray that we will be able to carry on together as a community, while recognising that within that, we are individuals, with individual needs. And allow Jesus to meet us where we are, not where we think we ought to be. Or, worse, where we think you ought to be! Amen.