If we take the incarnation seriously, we must let Jesus grow in his understanding
Sometimes a gospel story about Jesus blows my mind. For example, the story recounted in Matthew 15:21-28.
Jesus and his disciples are traveling outside Galilee, into the region around the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon. There they encounter a Gentile woman, whose daughter has a severe mental disorder. She desperately wants Jesus’ help.
Jesus first responds to her with silence. When she continues to nag, he rejects her request, saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Jesus apparently does not see his mission as bringing healing and salvation to non-Jews. He intensifies the rejection by adding, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
In ancient Israel, dogs were regarded as unclean animals. You did not keep them as pets. Many Jews at that time considered Gentiles as the religious equivalent of dirty dogs. They were religiously unclean and had no place within God’s people.
Matthew reflects this ancient prejudice. The Gospel of Mark [see Mark 7:24-30] tells us the woman was Syro-Phoenician, indicating her ethnic identity. But Matthew calls her a Canaanite, referring back to the name this ethnic group had in the Old Testament.
In the Old Testament, the Canaanites represented a wicked people whom God displaced so Israelites could occupy the land of Palestine. The prophets denounce them for their idolatry, immorality, and violence. Calling the woman a Canaanite would raise all these negative associations in a Jewish audience.
The woman is a complex character. She may be a pagan, but she is a sassy pagan. When Jesus implies she is a dog, she responds, “Yes, Lord, yet even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
This woman does not accept her rejection quietly and passively. She has a mouth, and talks back. Jesus recognizes in her brazenness an expression of faith. And he immediately grants her request.
Why Does Matthew Tell This Story?
Well, as I said, this story raises many questions. In Sunday school I was taught that Jesus was meek and mild. In this story, however, Jesus comes across as somewhat narrow minded and rude. How can this story be the true Jesus?
First, a suggestion as to why Matthew tells it. Matthew is writing his gospel at a time when Gentiles are entering the church in droves. In another 100 years Christians will almost always be Gentiles.
Matthew may see in this story a hint of the future development of Christianity. The early disciples never expected to convert Gentiles. But when God started drawing Gentiles into the church, Christianity was forever changed. It became much more inclusive than anyone had ever anticipated.
Maybe Matthew wants his listeners to recognize that this strange transformation of Christianity was always a potential in the ministry of Jesus. He sees this story as evidence.
Taking the Incarnation Seriously
Still I are troubled by Jesus’ words and actions. Here’s how I have come to terms with it.
When we confess that God became a human being in the person of Jesus Christ, we Christians confess that Jesus was a real and complete human being, not some phantom man. God entered into the full dimension of what it means to be a human being.
One of the amazing things about human beings is how long it takes for us to become mature. We are born as helpless babies. We are like the acorn. A full-grown tree lies in the seed of the acorn, but it takes years for that seed to mature into the tree.
So it is with human beings. We are not physically mature until we are about 25. It often takes many people even longer to reach emotional maturity.
Furthermore, as we like to say, it takes a village to raise a child. Our families, our neighbors, our teachers, our church friends all have a share in our upbringing. As a result, we unconsciously absorb the customs, manners, the values, and the language accents of our native culture. Likewise we unconsciously absorb its assumptions and prejudices.
Acquiring those prejudices is not a sin, in my opinion. Sin arises when we come to understand that a particular prejudice is against God’s creative will and we then choose to affirm it and live with it instead of changing our minds and our behavior. Sin arises when we come to know the truth, but refuse to live by the truth.
None of us is born understanding God’s perfect will. We grow into that understanding as we grow ever deeper in our relationship with God through a life lived in faith. The challenge to grow in our thinking and in our attitudes never ends. There is always more to learn about God and his will than we have learned so far.
I see Jesus as no different from us in this respect. He was born into a Jewish family and grew up in a Galilean village. As a child, I suspect he absorbed many of the attitudes—and even prejudices—of Jewish life in his time, as we do in our own communities.
He may have begun his ministry believing God was calling him to revive faith among only the straying sheep of Israel. He may not yet have come to appreciate how God was calling him to a mission that would ultimately embrace the whole world.
But Jesus also had an amazing ability to grow. We see how different were his attitudes towards tax collectors, prostitutes, and the Samaritans from the attitudes common among his people. As he grew in his understanding of his heavenly Father’s character, he came to understand God’s love for them as well.
When he met the Canaanite woman, he confronted the genuine need of a Gentile family and the genuine faith that was there in that family. His mind saw how God’s work was bigger than he imagined.
He saw the wrongness of the prejudice he had grown up with. He changed his mind and his behavior into something more inclusive than before. He confers healing on the woman’s daughter.
God’s Circle is Wide Indeed
If Jesus can change his mind, if Jesus can grow beyond the attitudes and prejudices of his own culture, why can’t we? That is the question this story poses for me.
Over and over again, life confronts us Christians with that question, as we confront needs and faith outside our own church community. Over and over again we are challenged to broaden and deepen our understanding of what God is up to in the world. Especially as to whom God is calling to belong to his people. We discover that God’s family circle is far larger than we assume.
Something like this has happened for many Christians in the last century through the ecumenical movement within Christianity. When I was growing up in the 1940s and 50s, I remember well being taught in my church that only Baptists were real New Testament Christians. Only we had a full understanding of the Bible.
All other Christians were somewhat suspect. They might be Christians in name, but if they were true New Testament Christians, they would be Baptists.
This is why I grew up just a little bit suspicious of Christians from other denominations, especially if they baptized babies. The Baptists of my upbringing were not alone in holding to a prejudice that they and only they understood the Bible. Many Roman Catholics also believed that they were the only true church and Protestants would be going to Hell.
And even some Presbyterians (the denomination I now belong to) believed that Christ did not die for everyone, but only for that select few (who by the way were largely Presbyterian) that God had predestined to salvation.
But as we look at the Christian world today, we find a broad recognition of one another as fellow Christians. Catholics talk of us Protestants as brothers and sisters in Christ, even if separated ones. A year or so ago the Presbyterian Church and the Catholic Church signed an agreement to recognize the validity of each other’s baptisms.
Christians recognize as never before that God’s family is a wide family. God’s family includes people as diverse as Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Mennonites, Copts, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox. All this is, I believe, the fruit of the Holy Spirit, at work especially in the ecumenical movement of the last 100 years.
Recognizing Faith Wherever It Occurs
Now in our increasing world of religious pluralism, we Christians are facing the even deeper question of how we affirm the real faith we may discover in the religious lives of people who adhere to other religions than Christianity.
How do we respect such faith without denying the distinctive beliefs that set us Christians apart from other religions?
For me that is a profound challenge. I am a Christian to the core of my being. I confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior not only for me, but for the whole world. I do not believe that it makes no difference at all what religion we practice.
The various world religions hold some very different understandings of God and his ways in the world. Those differences have profound practical consequences. So I believe the search for the truth is of supreme importance.
But like Jesus in our gospel story today, when I encounter genuine faith in people of other religions, I now ask how can I affirm such faith without compromising my own?
This brings us to, what in my opinion, is one of the deepest challenges Christians are going to face in the 21st century. How do we hold firm to our own beliefs and practices without denying to others the freedom to practice their faith in the way their conscience dictates?
This is becoming an important struggle in America. In some cases, we hear Americans declaring that America has always been and must remain a Christian nation. Such a stance compromises, I believe, our American commitment to religious freedom.
In other cases, we hear secularists declaring all religions are dangers to the human spirit. They argue that all religion should be banished from public life. This, too, in my opinion, compromises religious freedom. It banishes religion to the realm of private opinion and denies it can have any voice in public affairs.
In this story from Matthew 15, Jesus speaks and acts like the first-century Galilean Jew that he was. He is as faithful to his understanding of his heavenly Father and his will as Jesus could be as a human being. In his faithfulness I believe that Jesus was perfectly sinless, as Christianity has traditionally affirmed.
Yet when confronted with the sassy Canaanite woman’s own peculiar expression of faith, he broadens his perspective and affirms faith wherever he finds it.
Jesus was able to change his mind, his attitudes, and his behavior. My question is: Why can’t we?