Last Sunday all over the world lectionary preachers were handed a challenging text from Matthew’s Gospel. The text was that little part of chapter 15, where Jesus is busy just doing his thing: using gardening metaphors to see if he can get anywhere with his hardheaded disciples and generally trying his best to manage the increasing demands of publicly saying things people find distasteful.
You know, the usual.
The way Matthew tells it, Jesus was headed out of town, away from the press of the crowds and the demands of constant lesson planning, when he’s stopped in his tracks by a Canaanite woman shouting at him.
The disciples worked hard to try to keep her protestations contained, civil and orderly, but she wouldn’t give up. She kept shouting, trying to get his attention. In fact, she was really starting to annoy the disciples, so much so that they asked Jesus if they could employ some harsher crowd control to get her gone for good.
Still she persisted. When she finally got his attention, the Canaanite woman and Jesus had a pretty tense exchange, where he called her a dog and she shouted back at him.
This is a difficult text, there’s no way around it. In my imagination I could hear the collective groans of pastors everywhere when they began sermon preparation last week. Where is the blue-eyed blond-haired gentleman who gives people snacks and plays with children? Why is Jesus rewarding someone who is making a scene? How do we explain Jesus being pretty mean to a desperate woman who needs help?
As is the case every week, there are nearly as many interpretations of this text as there are pulpits. Some preachers say Jesus planned the exchange just that way: he was trying to give his disciples an object lesson. Some said that while the Canaanite woman was not as polite as she should have been, Jesus overlooked her rudeness and cut her some slack.
I imagine a whole host of preachers decided to go with the Genesis text. Or on vacation.
But when I read the text, I’m curious about this: what if Jesus was wrong? I mean, what if Jesus, distracted by his less-than-stellar disciples and stressed out by the Pharisees’ ongoing attacks, just wasn’t thinking about his choice of words or behavior?
What if he’d become such an important voice in the Jewish community that he just forgot that the typical response of a well-known Jewish man to a desperate, shouting Canaanite woman was not the response that exemplified the gospel he came to teach?
Some people will certainly take issue with this idea because, well, we wouldn’t want Jesus to be wrong about anything. I myself, however, find the notion of the Son of God learning to see the world through new eyes rather refreshing.
Jesus, the person of privilege in this exchange, learned a lesson from a Canaanite woman, who had lived for so long in the shackles of societal constraint that it took utter desperation to make her raise her voice.
Maybe the lesson Jesus learned was this: the Canaanite woman needed something in her life to change. Jesus could enact that change, but she knew that no real change ever happens without love and compassion. And love can’t show up until we know each other, until we look each other straight in the eyes and really see one another. The Canaanite woman made Jesus look at her and really see her, person to person, a shared humanity.
I think Jesus had his eyes opened wide that day. And, reading this text with modern eyes, I’m wondering if maybe we could tag along for the lesson.
Is there anything around here that needs to change? As a matter of fact, there is.
Following the recent shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., our whole country is asking hard questions about unjust systems we have tolerated and continue to prop up, systems that, among other things, make being a young African-American man in our country a fear-filled and dangerous prospect.
People are dying. We’re fueling hatred and violence in an attempt to maintain the status quo, and voices of protest are finally loud enough to catch our attention.
Something needs to change. But where to start?
Mike Trautman, pastor of Ferguson’s First Presbyterian Church, reflects: “If this incident has shown us anything, at the very least it’s that we need to be doing more outreach to one another. We reach out now in a time of trouble? We should have been doing it 10 years ago.”
“We don’t know each other well. When things were good, we just did our own thing,” he said. “Do we really know each other? Do we really trust each other? Have we worked together to make Ferguson a better place? The answer is unfortunately in front of us. We haven’t done the kind of work we need to do.”
Mike Trautman is right. Change doesn’t happen without love. You can’t love anything or anyone you don’t know. It all starts with eyes locked, hands clasped, me seeing you and you seeing me, a shared and common humanity in which we are bound together by our shared experience of grace.
It seems to me that if Jesus could learn to see the world through new eyes, we might want to give it a try, because when we begin to look at each other differently, hearts change, behaviors change.
Even systems change.