By Debie Thomas
The Jesus I grew up with was perfect. He had to be, because the theology we constructed around his deity required it. “Perfect Jesus” was technically human, but his incarnation fell several steps short of actual human-ness. He never messed up, never fell short, and never had to say he was sorry. He always had perfect reasons for saying the things he said and doing the things he did. So, if he happened to speak with harshness rather than compassion? If he behaved in ways that were ethnocentric and rude? If he called a hurting, pleading woman a dog? Well, he had perfect reasons for doing so.
The problem with “Perfect Jesus,” of course, is that he doesn’t exist. The Jesus who appears in the Gospels is not half-incarnate. He is as fully human as he is fully God. Which is to say, he struggles, he snaps, he discovers, he grows, he falters, he learns, he fears, and he overcomes. He’s real, he’s approachable, and he’s authentically one of us. The “Good News” is not that we serve a shiny, inaccessible deity who floats five feet above the ground. It is that Jesus shows us — in real time, in the flesh — what it means to grow as a child of God. He embodies what it looks like to stretch into a deeper, truer, and fuller comprehension of God’s love.
Our lectionary readings this week place a lot of emphasis on “opening.” The prophet Isaiah describes a time when “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped.” The Psalmist praises the Lord who executes justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry, and “opens the eyes of the blind.” St. Mark describes Jesus placing his fingers in a deaf man’s ears and saying, “Be opened.”
But the heart of the lectionary this week describes a different kind of opening. In the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman, it is Jesus himself who has to have his eyes opened and his ears unstopped. It’s the Son of God who must face his own blind spots, his own rudeness, his own prejudice, and allow himself to “be opened” to the full, glorious, and uncomfortable implications of the gospel.
As St. Mark describes the scene, Jesus is far from home in the region of Tyre and Sidon (that is, Gentile country) on vacation or sabbatical. As far as we know, his friends aren’t with him, and as the text makes clear, he wants to be left alone. (“He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.”) We don’t know for sure why he’s keeping to himself, but we can assume that some combination of physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion has led him to seek solitude. After all, he has recently been mocked and rejected by his own townspeople. For days without respite he has fed the multitudes, healed the sick, liberated the demon-possessed, and confronted the Pharisees — all while putting up with his perpetually clueless disciples. For any number of understandable reasons, Jesus needs a break.
But a break isn’t what he gets. Instead, he gets a Syrophoenician woman — an inconvenient outsider who barges into the house where Jesus is staying, bows down at his feet, and begs him to cast a demon out of her daughter.
Anyone needing to uphold a “Perfect Jesus” has to perform some serious theological gymnastics to justify what happens next, because it’s profoundly disturbing. Jesus looks down at the pleading Gentile woman, ignores her suffering, and dismisses her with words that make me wince: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Are there ways around the awfulness of this moment? Maybe. Maybe Jesus is bone tired, and wants, just for once, to take care of himself before taking care of anyone else. Maybe he’s fed up with people begging him for gifts and favors. Maybe he’s simply describing the reality of his mission: the healing he offers is for the children of Israel first. Maybe his ethnic slur is just a test, a deliberate provocation to prove the woman’s devotion.
These are all possibilities, but I don’t think they do justice to the power of this story. What makes sense to me is that the Jesus we encounter in this lection is fully human — a product of his time and place, shaped as we all are by the conscious and unconscious biases, prejudices, and entitlements of his culture. Moreover, he is God incarnate, a holy Son still working out the scope and meaning of the divine vocation his Father has given him. He knows he’s meant to share the Good News. But even he needs to “be opened” to how radically good that good news is.
So the Syrophoenician woman schools him. Turning his slur right back at the man who insults her, she replies, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
It’s a brilliant response, not least because it cuts to the very heart of Jesus’s boundary-breaking, taboo-busting, division-destroying ministry of table fellowship. After all, he’s the Messiah who eats with tax collectors and prostitutes. He’s the rabbi who breaks bread with sinners. His disciples are the ones who earn the Pharisees’ contempt for eating with unwashed hands. The table is where Jesus shows the world who God is.
And so the table is precisely where the outsider, the Gentile, the outcast, the “Other,” calls him out. As if to say, “Lord, where’s my Good News? Where’s my place at the table? When will the goodness be good enough for me and for my daughter? If you are who you say you are, how can you be content while anyone goes hungry in the vicinity of your table? The good news is here somewhere, latent and waiting. I know it’s here; you already have it. Now let it come to fruition. Look harder. Push further. See better. Believe that there’s enough good news to go around. Expand the circle. Dissolve the boundaries. Widen the table. Preach your Good News to me.”
Here’s the best part of letting Perfect Jesus go, and letting Real Jesus win our hearts instead: Real Jesus accepts the instruction of the woman who challenges him. He allows her — the ethnic, religious, and gendered Other — to school him in his own gospel. To deconstruct his bias and entitlement. To break the barrier of his prejudice. To teach him compassion. The Jesus who never loses a verbal contest with anyone else in Scripture sits back in amazement and concedes the argument to an audacious, female foreigner: “Because of your teaching [in the Greek, your ‘Logos’] the demon has left your daughter.”
Jesus changes. He allows a perspective foreign to his own to move him from an attitude of prejudice to an attitude of inclusion. He allows himself to be humbled, rearranged, and remade. Barbara Brown Taylor describes the moment this way: “You can almost hear the huge wheel of history turning as Jesus comes to a new understanding of who he is and what he has been called to do.” The Syrophoenician woman’s faith and persistence teach him that God’s purpose for him “is bigger than he had imagined, that there is enough of him to go around.”
I can almost hear Jesus’s rueful laughter when he goes immediately from this encounter to his healing of a deaf man in the region of the Decapolis. Placing his fingers in the Gentile man’s ears, Jesus looks up to heaven, sighs, and says, “Be opened.” He sighs. Is the sigh ironic? Is it Jesus sharing the joke with God? As in, “Okay, Father, I get it. Listen. Learn. Be opened. I hear you. I’m working on it.”
What would it be like to follow in the footsteps of a Jesus who listens to the urgent challenge of the Other? Who humbles himself long enough to learn what only a vulnerable outsider can teach? What would it be like to stop limiting who we will be for other people, and who we will let them be for us? What would it be like to insist on good news for people who don’t look, speak, behave, or worship like we do?
Be opened. Be opened to the truth that God isn’t done with you yet. Be opened to the destabilizing wisdom of people who are nothing like you. Be opened to the voice of God speaking from places you consider unholy. Be opened to the widening of the table. Be opened to Good News that stretches your capacity to love. Be opened.
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