The Woman Who Taught Jesus

Note: Each Thursday, I'll be looking at one of the lectionary passages for the upcoming Sunday. Today, we're looking at Matthew 15:21-28 because I obviously want to make life difficult for myself.

A dog.

That is basically what Jesus calls a Canaanite woman in this passage. There is no way of getting around it or sugarcoating it. This woman came to Jesus because her daughter was possessed by a demon. She believed that this rabbi could heal her child. He ignored her. The disciples wanted to send her away. Finally Jesus said he was only sent for the lost sheep of Israel. She persisted. She got down on her knees and begged, "Lord, help me." Then Jesus tells her that it's not fair to give the children's food to the dogs.

It is an understatement to say that Matthew 15:21-28 is a difficult passage.

We believe that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. I often find myself wondering how this played out. I could certainly be wrong, but I think that being completely human requires learning and discovery as one matures through life. I don't think that God Above uploaded everything in Jesus' head Matrix-style. I think he learned who he was, what his mission was, and everything else in fits and starts over time.

Which brings us back to this passage. From the exchange, it would seem that Jesus thinks that his mission is only to his people. Yet the Canaanite woman persists even when Jesus harshly draws a cultural line. Her daughter's life is on the line. She kicks the door down and she teaches Jesus that perhaps his mission is wider than he first believed. Jesus is genuinely surprised by the woman's faith and he heals her daughter. A good argument could be made that the Great Commission can be traced back in part to the Canaanite woman.

There is something still uncomfortable about the passage; particularly the fact that Jesus calls this woman a dog. There is a rabbit trail that we could chase involving cultural biases and what happens when we find out our presuppositions are not true. Perhaps when we circle back to this passage in three years we'll delve into that.

Yet there is something else that catches me as I read this passage. The more I reflect on this encounter, the more I marvel at God's humility. We talk all the time about how God lowered God's self to be human, but consider the humility demonstrated to allow the events of this passage to transpire:

The God of Israel, who many would consider to place men above women, allowed the Son of God to put in his place by a Canaanite (which was one of Israel's archenemies in the Hebrew Bible) woman. Encounters in this day and time were honor/shame exchanges. When two faced off, the victor would walk away with the loser's honor and the defeated party was only left with shame (my professors will likely cringe at such a simplified version of an honor/shame culture). In the eyes of many of his contemporaries, Jesus would have brought shame on himself just by engaging with this Canaanite woman. Then she changes his mind. Jesus kind of gets shown up here. From the perspective of some readers (both 1 Century Palestinian and modern), this woman punched Jesus' Man Card five times, tore it up, and then did a little victory dance on top of it.

Yet the point is not honor/shame or winners/losers. It seems to indicate that in God's Kingdom, there is not this hierarchy. When Jesus learns from this Canaanite woman, it decimates the idea that one people is greater than others in God's Kingdom. It destroys the notion that male is greater than female.

That lesson happens organically in the life of Jesus as he is shown more and more of God's will and follows it. God Above could have zapped that message into Jesus' head. It's fascinating to me that this is not what transpired. The Way of God was to learn and grow. It was to learn from someone that many in the present day would have (incorrectly) seen as a dog. It is a Way of humility.

And I am reminded again that is the Way that we follow.

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