Today’s is a challenging gospel reading.
Not just challenging because Ephphatha is nearly impossible to say…eph-pha-tha? But because of Jesus’ actions…today Jesus’ behaviour really stops us short. Did Jesus really just say what we think he said?
Jesus ever patient, ever meek, ever mild (or so we generally depict him sitting amongst adorable lambs) did he really just reject this women who came to plead for her daughter and call her a …what? Because the word here isn’t ‘puppy’. It’s beyond belief!
And I mean that literally, because I go through a lot of resources for these sermons and there is a lot and I mean a lot of attempts to justify and explain what Jesus does here. To try and rationalize how Jesus could possibly have behaved like that.
26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Jesus own people are referred to as children, the Syrophoenician woman…a dog. There it is…plain as day…Jesus is insulting, dismissive and frankly racist. What are we supposed to do when Jesus doesn’t act like…Jesus? The letter from James today is more on par with what we would expect to be Jesus like behavior and teaching.
2My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, 4have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?
Of course, one could argue that James is talking about the poor in their own Christian assembly…who were Christian, not foreigners and gentiles. Perhaps one could argue the law only applies to our own people? It’s easy to dismiss and say of course not!
James means anyone…not just the Christians. But I’ve heard this argument before. Why are we providing for refugees, when we have poor people here in our own cities? Why should I donate if I can’t afford what I want to have? If someone wants something they should pull up their bootstraps, worked for me! If so and so wanted to be a part of our church they should behave respectfully at least make the effort to dress nice.
We all make distinctions… we all judge people based on ourselves and what our society deems acceptable. Need proof? Just think for a minute about the stereotypes we know of people…how people are treated who are outside the social powerhouse (that is white, upper middle class).
You don’t have to look very far…recall the severe backlash ANY person in a Hijab or Turban receives when terrorist groups are active, regardless of what their religion. Recall the surge in anti – Asian hate crimes, and personal attacks when COVID was traced to China…and it wasn’t just Chinese people…but anyone who looked ‘oriental’ because it’s all the same in the eyes of hate.
We are just as guilty as the people in James’ letter, saying to the one who is like us…’have a seat here, please’ and to the other ‘sit at my feet’…calling another dog. Like us Jesus was fully human, just as he was fully divine…and it is hard to figure out how those two go together. So, we create a one size fits all Jesus, some one who is God and all powerful, yet a perfect version of us humans. In essence, history has created a stereotype of Jesus.
Think of the paintings you have seen of Jesus, mostly blond, blue eyed and white. Really? The man was a middle eastern Jew! How many blond, blue eyed middle eastern people have you seen? Think of our Christmas carols…Jesus, meek and mild in the stable. Newborns are not usually meek and mild…especially I’d imagine if bedded down on straw in a drafty stable.
Think of how you imagine Jesus…among the children? The good shepherd? How often do you recall him flipping tables in righteous anger? Telling people off? Rolling his eyes at the perpetual incomprehension of the disciples? Telling his mother she isn’t family. Jesus, Homeless and itinerant.
We don’t like to remember Jesus like this. We like him clean, pleasant, and in essence… the ideal. But the ideal of what? Because I cannot think of anyone who is even a bit like that.
The Jesus of paintings and stereotypes resembles the perfect Victorian child, seen prettily dressed and not heard…more than it resembles me or anyone I’ve met. Fully human and fully divine, this white washed version weve created is neither.
Whereas Jesus in our gospel today…abrasive, thoughtless, concerned more with his own people though he may be…seems far more human. And relatable…whether we admit it or not. Which is what makes this gospel reading powerful. Because if we can admit that Jesus does, fully and comprehendingly, call this woman a dog and say that by healing her daughter he is stealing from his own people.
Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Then that means her response to Jesus…changed him. Changed his mind. Changed his ministry.
28But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
After this encounter Jesus went to the region of Decapolis…Greek…gentile territory and immediately healed a man there. Another Gentile…another dog. But! But! With mercy and compassion. Jesus’ ministry expanded from a mission to the Jews, his own people…to a mission for all. Now perhaps it would always have ended up that way…but this moment was a turning point. An epiphany for our Lord, when how he saw and how he related to people changed. And if he can change. So can we.
We do have distinctions among ourselves as the letter from James reminds us:
4have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?
It may be, as in the community James wrote to, between rich and poor, or it may be as with Jesus in cultural and racial distinctions. We are all fully human, we are all transgressors…and we can all change. As our quote from Proverbs reminds us:
2 The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.
God made us all and we are all beloved…and sometimes we need reminding of that. I do not think that seeing Jesus’ humanity lessens his divinity, but rather makes him an even closer and more relatable divinity. If Jesus can see the error of his ways, accept and internalize criticism from even the most unlikely source. Then so can I. We are called to be imitators of Christ…that doesn’t mean that we are perfect, it means we are willing to listen and to change.
This may be for some one of the most challenging of readings in scripture bring up scary and difficult questions about Jesus as God and as human. They may also be some of the most important…if Jesus as fully human was never wrong, never mistaken, never doubtful or fearful…then how was he human at all. As is though, Jesus was fully human in all ways and that I think brings hope to us all.