Human Like Us

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, September 9th, 2018

I considered filing today’s gospel reading under ‘Readings I’d rather avoid’ – you see, to my mind, it involves Jesus as we would prefer not to see him. 

But what, specifically, makes me so uncomfortable? 

This gospel story illustrated in 'Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry', A French medieval book of hours.

This gospel story illustrated in 'Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry', A French medieval book of hours.

Let’s just quickly recap on the reading. A Syro-Phoenician woman comes to Jesus. Her daughter is sick – or in the language of the time, ‘has a demon’ and she implores Jesus to help her. 

First of all, Jesus had gone to some lengths to avoid being troubled. He and his disciples had found a vacation rental in the region of Tyre. He was less well-known there and was hoping to remain anonymous. Although the passage we hear doesn’t mention the disciples being there, the same story is recounted in St. Matthew’s Gospel, so I’ll refer to both the Mark and the Matthew versions.

As I say, Jesus and the disciples had got out of their hectic ministry in Galilee for some well-earned R&R, so one can imagine that they were not thrilled that word had got out where they were staying. When the woman comes to their house, their first thought is presumably to hope she will go away and stop bothering them. 

But, in the Matthew version, she persists. So the disciples, acting a little like a gang of heavies, round on her, basically telling her to get lost. And then, when she still continues to plead with him, Jesus first of all invalidates her claim by telling her he only helps out Jews (which she’s not) and then delivers a tart, insensitive put-down that compares her and her kindred to lowly domestic animals.

Yes, if you’ve ever read this passage and wondered what on earth it means, with this rather opaque (to our ears) saying about letting the children be fed first, this is what it means. The children being fed refers to the Jewish people – and the non-Jewish people, like this woman, get the scraps that are tossed to the dogs.

So, you can see why this makes us slightly uncomfortable. Because when you ask yourself the question, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’, it would typically involve welcome, inclusion, kindness and healing.

So, there are several ways we can deal with this curiously uncharacteristic episode.

  • First, we can ignore it, pretend it didn’t happen. 
  • Second, we can ignore it because it’s in Matthew’s gospel and Mark’s gospel and they were trying to communicate to a Jewish audience and trying to get them on side. 
  • Third, we can remain shocked, and disappointed at Jesus. 
  • Fourth, we can use it to justify the exclusion of anyone outside the Judeo-Christian fold OR… 
  • Fifth, we can take a good long look at it, understand what’s really going on here, and learn a lot about the person of Christ.

Unsurprisingly, I’m going to go with the last option. And to do so requires us to hit rewind and skip back to an earlier season, and the start of Jesus’ public ministry as a thirty-something.

Picture Jesus in the desert wilderness. Forty days and forty nights. The period of time we call ‘Lent’. This is the way the Lent story pans out: Jesus is tempted yet without sin. The Devil is there with his cloven hooves and forked tails. Jesus says, “Get thee behind me, Satan”. Jesus resists the temptations, and is cool, calm and collected. Very much in control.

Jesus was fully divine and fully human. OK. So far, so good, nothing too contentious. Why then do we have such a problem with Jesus being human? Why do we find it so hard to imagine that Jesus, when born into the smelly, dingy stable, was as well as being a placid, contented, radiant infant, also a puking, crying, messy infant? Why do we find it so hard to imagine Jesus as a wilful, headstrong teenager giving his parents worry and hassle? Why do we find it so hard to imagine Jesus getting drinking with tax collectors and prostitutes and actually enjoying their company? Why do we find it so hard to imagine Jesus experiencing physical attraction? And why do we find it so hard to imagine Jesus tormented with indecision and mental anguish? 

Perhaps we fear that if we allow Jesus to become too human, he will become less divine. 

The narrative, then, of Jesus’ time in the wilderness is all too easily made terribly neat and pious. It becomes a sort of pre-programmed part of the cycle: where Jesus calmly eliminates the devil and moves onto the next stage. 

The Temptation of Christ by the Devil (1860) by Félix-Joseph Barrias

The Temptation of Christ by the Devil (1860) by Félix-Joseph Barrias

We tend (or at least I do) to see Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness as a set of external events played out in front of him: perhaps not quite scary crimson men with horns and forked tails but nevertheless the presence of an entity being obstructive and seductive in turn.

It’s much easier to imagine Jesus remonstrating against an external entity - disciplining a wicked felon if you will - than it is to understand this whole business as going on inside Jesus’ head. But if our own minds are constant battlefields of conflict going on all the time - competing conversations going on at unsociable hours, as it were - then why not for Jesus, too?

I don’t want to suggest that I hear voices, but I certainly am aware that my desire to do the right thing is often being challenged in my own heart and mind by the competing desires of selfishness. And I personally derive strength from the fact that Jesus went though all of this stuff, too. And that he didn’t find it any easier than I or we do, and may have found it much more difficult.

Duccio di Buoninsegna - Appearance on the Mountain in Galilee

Duccio di Buoninsegna - Appearance on the Mountain in Galilee

The other thing I want to reflect on, and I haven’t heard it reflected on although it may well have been, is that the reason we know what Jesus went through in the desert is because he told his friends about it. What could be more human than that, to admit his frailties to his friends? I want to emphasize the significance of this: that Jesus was quite prepared to admit to his friends that he had been overcome with self-doubt, with a desire for personal comfort and quick fixes; with ambitions for great power; for misusing his influence. 

I still feel slightly uncomfortable saying those kinds of things: it still kind of goes against the grain to even consider the fact that those thoughts went through Jesus’ mind: that’s why we find it easier to think of the whole temptation narrative as being perpetrated by an external entity acting upon an entirely focused Jesus. 

I want to suggest that there’s something similar going on in today’s gospel reading. I offer this way of reading the story with the Syro-Phoenecian woman. What we see in Jesus’ snubs, ignoring and disdainful responses to her was the very real playing out of a human response to her entreaties. 

“Ignore her, she’ll go away, she’s not even Jewish”. 

Although we see Jesus here in his most fully human, right next we see him in his most fully divine. He is overwhelmed with compassion for the woman, utterly persuaded by her persistence and humbled by her faith. What we are witnessing here is Jesus becoming, living into, his Christ-like calling. What we are party to is Jesus thinking he knew the answer, listening to his heavenly father and listening to his calling, and realizing that his immediate reaction had been wrong and that his calling to be the Christ told him that the answer was something different. At that point, the exclusionary world, at that time, of the Jewish religion was broken open and the definition of God’s chosen people was widened to include everyone. All. All. All. No exceptions. 

The lesson for us is that Jesus was open to a new approach, and prepared to learn that his initial reaction was not right. Being open like this mean that he was receptive to a revelatory experience and it changed him and renewed him. 

I read something yesterday that said that the phrase ‘over-educated’ was an oxymoron. I hadn’t ever thought about that before, but it is absolutely right. You can’t be overeducated. There is no time or place or stage of life where you shouldn’t be eager to learn new things and be prepared to swallow your pride and admit that you might have been wrong about something. If we ask ourselves, what would Jesus do? Well, this is what he would do, because he did it in this gospel story.

So, this week, keep a lookout for the Syro-Phoenician woman as you go about your week. I don’t who it will be in your life, but you will surely meet her. Maybe tell me next Sunday who it was. And when you do meet her, remember what Jesus did.

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