If you grew up thinking that Jesus was God dressed up as a human being, only pretending to be human, this story might be troublesome. From this non-Jewish woman Jesus seems to have learned something about his own ministry, something that hadn’t occurred to him before this exchange.* He realizes he has been sent not just to restore the children of Israel, but eventually to restore all of God’s wayward children. Some Christians have trouble acknowledging this.
But of course, Jesus was not and is not God dressed up as a human being. He’s as human as you and I are. Just as there are today, there were tendencies among early Christians to forget about Jesus’ humanity. But what’s interesting about the official creeds of the Christians who came to be called orthodox (that is, the Christians who got the Roman emperors to enforce their viewpoints), is that they kept insisting on his full humanity. He wasn’t pretending to be human—he was really human, just as human as any of the rest of us. Yes, they insisted that Jesus’ life uniquely embodied and still embodies the fullness of God‘s life in a way that’s universally reconciling. (“In Jesus Christ all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven”—Colossians 1:19-20.) But this is happening, they insisted, not in spite of his humanity, but because of it.
And part of being fully human is not knowing everything at once, but growing in a gradual process of coming to realize things. It’s not a defect. Jesus was not born potty-trained. He grew in wisdom, according to Luke (2:52). He was remarkably insightful, by all accounts, but like the rest of us, he was always learning.
And this week’s episode describes a moment when Jesus learned something new about himself and the scope of his mission. That’s the most natural way to read it.
It’s an off-putting snapshot of Jesus, to say the very least. This non-Jewish woman approaches him with what looks like a very reasonable, humble request to heal her daughter. And what does Jesus do? He calls her a dog! (Some commentators try to soften the insult by pointing out that the word for “dog“ is more accurately translated “puppy.“ Really? Would you feel any better? You’re still being told that you’re not one of his children, not even a person!)
But instead of letting that insult drive her away, this woman runs with it: OK, let’s say I’m a dog. Aren’t even dogs entitled to leftovers?
And with that, Jesus can’t help recognizing a spirit every bit as nimble, courageous, and persistent as that of any rabbi, including Rabbi Jesus. (In Matthew’s slightly different version Jesus exclaims, “Great is your faith!“) What else can he do but grant her request? And he does.
You may still be wondering how Jesus could have been such a jerk. (Actually, “jerk“ was not the first word that popped into my head.) I wonder too. This snapshot just doesn’t fit my overall picture of Jesus. I really do live by the conviction that Jesus’ fundamental character humanly embodied (and still embodies!) the all-embracing love of God. If that’s true, then Jesus is definitely acting out of character here.
But it helps me to recall a recurring theme in the Bible that often gets overlooked in theology textbooks: Not just Jesus’ character, but even God’s character is renewed through genuine dialogue with the likes of us.
Examples: Genesis 32:22-30: Jacob out-wrestles God and forces God to bless him. God names him “God-Wrestler” (that’s what “Israel” means) and concedes that Jacob won the wrestling match: “you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Exodus 32:10-14: Moses chides an angry God into cooling off. God actually repents! Luke 18:1-9: Jesus tells a parable about a persistent widow who keeps nagging an uncaring judge (God?) into giving her justice.
Honestly, I think God is more consistent than these depictions suggest. So maybe they are intentional exaggerations. But I am still deeply drawn to this theme that God’s very character is actually renewed through genuine dialogue with the likes of us. It’s apparently downright biblical. So any doctrinal statements we are inclined to make need to make room for that.
So here’s Jesus evidently coming to a deeper realization of what his preaching really means through dialogue with this outsider: If it’s really God’s reign arriving among us here and now, then it can’t just embrace one group, however beloved that group might be. If it’s anything less than all-inclusive, it’s not from God.
That’s one insight I get from this story. But there’s another one that’s just as important. When was the last time you or I let dialogue with a perceived outsider draw us into a deeper realization of what we are here for? How often have you or I settled for visions of the common good that left some of us out of reckoning? There are always lots of people I would rather not deal with, but that’s a luxury Jesus discovered he didn’t have, and it’s a luxury that God never had.
In this story Jesus awakens afresh to a realization I suspect he already knew: if it’s less than all-inclusive, it’s not from God. I suspect we already know that as well. But we need to awaken to it afresh again and again, and we need encounters with people we have left out of reckoning to show us just that. Let’s welcome that inconvenience.
*Highly recommended: James F. McGrath, What Jesus Learned from Women (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2021).