Teaching Jesus

Scripture can be found here...

Why church? Why do we come to church on a Sunday morning? Do we come to listen? To learn? Do we come to sing? To pray? Do we come to commune? To join in worship? Do we come because we believe it’s the right thing to do, whether or not we join in those other activities? Do we come because that’s what we’ve always done, since we were little? Do we come because, mom or dad or grandparents or godparents said, “Come on, sleepyhead, it’s Sunday!”? Or, do we come because, above all, we believe it’s our responsibility to bring our children, our grandchildren, the next beloved generation?

Our reasons for being here on a Sunday morning are as varied as we are. I’m sure we all have different combinations of motivations bringing us in these doors. But one reason we’ve all heard, and one we’ve probably all embraced at different moments in our lives is: It’s all about Jesus. We come to learn about Jesus, and we come to learn from Jesus. Jesus is our first and most important teacher when it comes to learning about God, and church would seem to be the right place for us to do that learning, either as Christians or as people who are interested in what Jesus has to say.

In the name of honesty: If we hope to learn from Jesus, the passage I’ve just finished reading, presents us with some challenges. We’ve just read a story about Jesus in which, first, he’s trying to get away from people, and second, in which he pretty rudely rebuffs a mom who’s come to him for help for her daughter.

Let’s set the background. Just before our passage starts, Jesus has been in a conflict with the Jewish religious authorities. Never forget: Jesus is a Jew, and more often than not, the gospels portray his relationship with the higher-ups as full of conflict. Today, his reaction to that conflict is to get outta Dodge. More specifically, he removes himself to safer territory by going to Tyre, a Gentile region, where those religious authorities have no authority whatsoever. When we meet Jesus, he’s gone into a house, fervently hoping to stay out of sight and out of mind. But that’s not in the cards for him. “He could not escape notice.” A woman hears about Jesus and comes into the house. Her daughter is suffering from an unclean spirit—demon possession, which means, unpredictable, frightening behavior.

This woman wants Jesus’ help, but she has three strikes against her. First, she’s not Jewish; she belongs to a different ethnic community and religious community, which means it would be very unusual—bold, you might say—for her to even approach Jesus. Second, her daughter’s behavior is frightening and upsetting and the kind of thing that usually makes a person a pariah in their community. And third, she’s a woman. This is still an era where “normal” is the male head of the household taking responsibility for things like talking to the famous healer when he comes to town.

And when she talks to Jesus…well. You see what she does. “Bold” is the right word, but also, “humble.” She bows down at Jesus’ feet. She begs him. “Help my daughter. Help my child.” We realize that she does what any parent—any mother—would do if their child’s well-being were threatened, if their health were compromised. She goes to the doctor’s house after hours, when he’s settled in for a nice dinner and a glass of wine. She is desperate.

Jesus’s response is shocking. “My healing is for the children of Israel, my Jewish kin. Not for some Gentile dog like your daughter.” This is the Jesus we want to learn about? This is the Jesus we want to learn from?

A lot of different explanations have been offered for what Jesus’ does next. The one a lot of us grew up with is: Jesus was testing her, testing her faith. But, in this gospel, that would be wildly out of character for him. So far, he has healed everyone who has come his way… and, up until this point, he has never once tested anyone’s faith in order to agree to heal them. Of course, up until this point, they’ve all been fellow Jews.

Another explanation is that Jesus is sensitive to the fact that the Gentile woman before him is of a higher social class—that he offers healing freely to all who are poor, but not to this woman’s privileged child. But—that doesn’t hold water, because Jesus has already freely healed those of higher social status, like the synagogue leader’s daughter. Again, the only difference has been the religion and ethnic background of the people being healed.

And others say, well, he’s tired. He’s cranky. But that’s true other at times as well, and in those cases…. Jesus quickly finds his way to compassion for the people. He heals them.

There is no “good” explanation for the cold, unkind way in which Jesus says “No” to this woman, and, by extension, her suffering child. The only explanation seems to be that Jesus believes what he says, that he is called to care only for the children of Israel. The children get the food, not the gentile dogs.

This woman doesn’t take “no” for an answer. “But sir,” she says, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And in that instance, something shifts in Jesus. The best way I can understand it is, some new understanding of his mission opens up inside him. Maybe it’s that he heard his words echoed back to him in the woman’s clever retort, and they made him cringe. Maybe he suddenly had a vivid image of this poor suffering child scrabbling under a table for crumbs, side by side with actual canines. We don’t know. All we know is this: In this moment, Jesus the teacher, becomes Jesus the student, because this unnamed gentile woman, has changed his mind.

Years ago I led a small group in a study on Marcus Borg’s book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. And we had a really fascinating conversation about some hypothetical questions: Did the Jesus we meet in the gospels know the theory of relativity? Did he know that the earth circles the sun and not vice versa? Did he know about the circulatory and nervous systems, how the brain works, what the thyroid gland does? What does it mean when we make the faith claim that Jesus is fully God and fully human? Does it mean that Jesus knew things his contemporaries didn’t, because God knows all? Or does it mean that, in Jesus, God limited Godself in certain ways (such as being born of a woman). How does it make us feel to ponder the idea that Jesus might have grown in understanding? That Jesus might have learned things, not just as a baby and child, but also as an adult who already had God’s powers for healing?

I do believe that we come to church to learn about God, specifically, by learning about Jesus. But I also believe we come here to take our place in the story—Jesus’ story, God’s story, the story of God’s covenant people throughout the ages. That story always involves a community of faithful. That story always involves hearing from God, and learning how we are to live in faith. Today that story includes a celebration of our blessings, and a special blessing for the work ahead of us. It includes a story about Jesus that contains a startling twist for him—and maybe one for us too. And today that story reminds us: God’s table is for all, not just for some. That there is no limit to God’s welcome based on ethnic or religious differences; that there is no limit to Jesus’ ability to hear and heed the pleas of desperate people. And it’s a good thing, because we fall before Jesus, too, bold and humble with our requests. We beg Jesus for what we desperately need. And the beautiful promise of the gospel is that Jesus doesn’t leave us on our knees begging, but lifts us up, and pulls up a chair—for all of us, every ethnicity, every creed, everyone a child of God—and bids us, come to the table; come, and eat.

Thanks be to God. Amen.