Recently a pew sheet from a suburban church said:
Today’s Gospel passage portrays a very human Jesus—a Jesus who in at first rejecting so rudely the pleas of the Canaanite woman for healing for her daughter reveals the prejudices of the conservative Judaism of his time. No doubt learned implicitly as part of his upbringing in family and village community. A Jesus who needs to learn to see things differently; to broaden his understanding of the scope of God’s compassionate love. When you stop to think about it, it is quite remarkable that it is a woman, and a Gentile at that who challenges Jesus to get him to change his mind! It flies in the face of all the norms of patriarchal, Jewish culture. This nameless woman, with her wit, it might be said teaches Jesus to see her and his mission in a different light and he is open to so changing. His is not the rigidity of one who assumes they know it all and have nothing new to learn or understand, but rather the openness that comes with a gentle and compassionate heart.
At first glance most Christians would dismiss this as blasphemous. The idea that Jesus was controlled by the immoral unjust prejudices of his age and culture, that he did not understand the compassionate love of God and that he needed a Canaanite woman to teach him the ways of God, is an attack on the incarnate Son of God.
But it is important to get past that visceral reaction and weigh what is being said. Orthodoxy must be an expression of the Bible. The Bible must not be squeezed into our orthodoxy. So our reaction should not defend orthodoxy but ask what does the gospel passage reveal to us about the real Jesus?
Does this pew sheet’s portrayal of “a very human Jesus” do justice to the gospel account? We need to remember that Jesus was fully human. He lived in time and space, in a particular culture and family. He spoke the language of the day and lived in society in such a way that drew very little attention to his divinity. His physical appearance, diet, clothing were never commented upon as different to anybody else in the culture of his time.
We are taught in the Scriptures that Jesus came into the world as a baby not a man. He needed to grow and learn. He did not arrive in the world with a full and complete divine knowledge of all things. But as Luke records “Jesus increased in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and man” (Luke 2:52).
Furthermore, even as an adult, Jesus did not claim to know everything. So in Mark 13:32 we read: “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” And if God himself changes his mind in the Old Testament could not the Son of God change his mind?
The episode with the Canaanite woman may seem unusual. Jesus seems a little off-handed if not rude in his response. The event may alter our preconceptions about Jesus and how he relates to people.
But that is just the problem with the pew sheet’s view. Instead of altering his view of Jesus to fit in with the real one, the author has altered Jesus to fit into his view. Not the view of orthodox Christianity but the view of liberal and feminist Christianity.
Jesus was human but that does not mean that he was a sinful, mindless and uncritical proponent of an evil culture. His humanity did not include sinfulness. His capacity to see through the culture of his day, to criticise it publicly and to live quite differently is recorded on most pages of the gospel. In particular, his understanding of God his father was extraordinary, even from his childhood (Luke 2:49). We cannot know precisely what Jesus did or did not know but it is hard to believe that he was in any way short in the subject of the compassion of this father’s love. It was after all his father’s love that brought him to earth.
But was Jesus’ view of his mission too narrow? Was his mindset governed by the implicitly learned prejudices of the conservative Judaism of his day? Did Jesus need somebody, on this occasion a Gentile woman, to teach him?
From the arrival of the wise men from the East, Matthew makes the inclusion of the Gentiles, part of the gospel message. At least from his baptism Jesus knew that he was the servant of the Lord prophesied in Isaiah (Isaiah 42-53). That prophecy includes more than Israel—it includes the Gentiles i.e. the nations.
In the healing of the Centurion’s servant in Matthew 8, Jesus comments that the Kingdom includes Gentiles. Like the Canaanite woman, the Centurion does not accept Jesus’ initial response but reasons with him. This dialogue enables Jesus to point out not only the inclusion of the Gentiles but also the saving faith of a Gentile in contrast to the lack of faith amongst the Israelites. If this happens back in chapter 8, the Canaanite woman is not changing Jesus’ mind in chapter 15.
Rather we see in the event of the Canaanite woman, one of the characteristic ways of Jesus relating to inquirers. He responds to them with almost strange indifference to draw them out and demonstrate both to them and to the disciples some great truth that clarifies his mission. It can be seen in Jesus’ frequent meeting of questions with questions (e.g. Luke 10:26), or in his treatment of Nicodemus in John 3, or his response to the Greeks in John 12, or to the disciples’ request about food in Matthew 14:15, as well as the Canaanite woman’s request in Matthew 15.
It is not Jesus who needs to widen his vision and learn from the Canaanite woman. It is the disciples who need to understand his worldwide mission and the faith that saves. Jesus uses these interactions to teach and push the boundaries of other peoples’ understanding.
To present Jesus as the non-rigid open inquirer of truth is to make a Jesus in the image of a modern liberal thinker. It is important that Christians are made in the image of Jesus rather than Jesus made in the image of us.