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Our Gospel reading this morning is a very odd sort of story, isn't it? Here we have Jesus telling his disciples that what goes into your mouth doesn't matter, it's what comes out of it – what you say, even, perhaps, what you think – that matters. And then he goes and says something that everybody, certainly today and, I suspect, throughout a great deal of history, finds incredibly offensive.
Well, the first bit is easy enough to understand. Jews and Muslims both have very strict dietary rules, and believe that breaking them makes you unclean, and unfit to be in God's presence. And they also have strict rules about washing yourself before worship, being clean on the outside before, one hopes, being made clean within.
But Jesus was able to see, as his followers couldn't, that what you eat doesn't actually matter. Many of the rules – about not eating pig, or shellfish, for instance – made sense in an era where there was no way of refrigerating food. Eating them might give you a tummy-upset, but it wouldn't be the end of the world if you did. What goes into your mouth, says Jesus, eventually passes through and comes out the other end, but what comes out – well, that just shows what kind of a person you are!
And then a few days later – we don't know the exact date, that wasn't the kind of thing that the first gospel-writers thought important – a few days later he's off in a non-Jewish region, and he is so incredibly rude to the woman who comes begging for healing. What is going on?
Of course, the traditional explanation is that he was testing her. Well, that may or may not be the case, I don’t know, but it’s what people often say because it’s what they think Jesus is like.
The difficulty is, of course, that we can't hear the tone of voice he was speaking in. Did he snap at her, which is a bit what it sounds like? He had ignored her for some time until the disciples asked him to deal with her or send her away. Was he trying to be funny? I wonder how you “hear” him in your head when you read this passage, or one of its parallels.
I tend to hear him as being thoughtful, trying to work it out. You see, in the time and place when he was brought up, he would have learnt to assume that the Jews were God's chosen people, and nobody else mattered. Some things, it would appear, given the situation in Gaza today, never change. But the point is, Jesus didn't know any better, which I think today's Israelis ought to.
It might sound strange to say “Jesus didn't know”, because after all, He is God, he is omnipotent and so on. But we believe – or at least we say we do – that He is also fully human. Unlike the various gods and goddesses of Greek myth, he wasn't born already adult, springing fully formed from his father's forehead, or something. He was born as a baby.
Think about it a minute. A baby. Just like (if there's a baby in the congregation, point to it) or my younger grandson. My younger grandson is eleven months old, and just learning to crawl and to pull himself up to standing. And, of course, he has to learn what he may and may not play with, and what is and is not appropriate for him to put in his mouth – although he is beginning to outgrow that habit. And I bet Jesus had to do the same. He will have chewed on Mum's wooden spoon when his teeth were coming through, and when he was of the age to put everything in his mouth – and later, he will have discovered that it makes a lovely noise when you bang it on the table, and have to learn that not everybody enjoys that noise!
And so on. He had to learn. We are told he grew in learning and wisdom. Remember the time when he was a teenager and got so engrossed in studying the Scriptures that he stayed behind in the Temple when everybody else had packed up and gone home – and then, when his parents were understandably cross, he said “Oh, you don't understand!” Typical teenager – and, of course, Jesus was learning the whole time about the Scriptures, about who God is, and, arguably, maybe a tiny bit about who He was.
And here, perhaps, he is learning again. We can't rely on the Gospel-writers' timelines, they tend to put episodes down when it suits their narrative. And here is Jesus, perhaps having slipped away for a few days' break into Tyre and Sidon, where he was less likely to be disturbed than in Galilee. And then this woman comes and will not go away.
We don't know anything about her, other than that she was a foreigner – Mark says she was Syro-Phoenician, Matthew, here, calls her a Canaanite. Either way, she was basically Not Jewish. An outsider.
You know, the Bible is full of stories about outsiders coming to know and trust Jesus! Just off the top of my head you have the centurion whose servant was healed, the other centurion who Peter went to after his dream to tell him it was okay to do so, and the Ethiopian treasury official. Oh, and Onesimus, Philemon's slave. Philemon himself, come to that, but I think by the time the letter was written, it was becoming more widely accepted that non-Jews could be Christians, as well as Jews.
But at the time, these people were outsiders. No good Jew would have anything to do with them. And Jesus ignores the woman, until his disciples ask him to get rid of her. And even then, he doesn't heal her daughter. Instead, “It's not right to take the children's meat and give it to the dogs!”
But I wonder. Do you remember the wedding at Cana, which we are told is his first recorded miracle? And his mother came to him and said “Disaster! They've run out of wine!” His first reaction was basically, “So what? What's that got to do with me?” but then he went and got the servants to fill those huge amphorae and the water turned into wine. He changed his mind. His first reaction was not to do anything, but if there is one thing he appears to have learnt, it is to listen to the promptings of the Spirit.
And in this case, too. The woman, consciously or not, said exactly the right thing: “But even the puppies are allowed the crumbs that fall from the children's table!”
And to Jesus, that was God's answer. Yes, he could and should heal this woman's daughter. So he did. With the comment that right then, her faith was probably greater than his!
You know, the first time I heard this sort of interpretation of this story, my immediate reaction was “No way!” Jesus couldn't be like that – he couldn't have got things wrong! You may be thinking the exact same thing, and I really wouldn't blame you!
But, you know, it wouldn't go away. Like a sore place in one’s mouth, or something, I kept on thinking about it and thinking about it. Why was this so totally alien to my mental image of Jesus?
Then I realised that, of course, it was because I was confusing “being perfect” with “never being wrong”. There’s a difference between being mistaken and sinning! And, as I said, Jesus had to be born as a human baby, to learn, to grow. And he may well have learnt, consciously or unconsciously, that as a Jew, he was one of the Chosen, and thus superior to everybody else. But he had already learnt, as we found in the first part of our reading, that keeping the Jewish Law wasn't what made you clean or unclean – so perhaps it wasn't such a huge leap to discover that being Jewish or not didn't actually matter. God still loved and cared for you, whoever you were.
And in the end, I found this thought very liberating. It made Jesus far more human. I realised that, while I had always paid lip-service to the belief that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, in fact, I’d never really believed in his humanity! For me, he had always been a plaster saint, absolutely perfect, never making a mistake, never even being tempted. I realised I’d envisaged him overcoming those temptations the gospel-writers talk about with a wave of his hand, not really tempted at all. But, of course, it wasn’t like that! St Paul tells us that he was tempted “in every way that we are”, and if that doesn’t include really, really, really wanting to do it, then it wasn’t temptation!
But if Jesus could be mistaken, if he sometimes had to change his mind, if being perfect didn’t necessarily mean never being wrong, then that changed everything! Suddenly, Jesus became more human, more real than ever before. The Incarnation wasn’t just something to pay lip-service to, it was real. Jesus really had been a human being, with human frailties, just like you and me. He had had to learn, and to grow, and to change. Suddenly, it was okay not to get everything right first time; it was okay not to be very good at some things; it was okay to make mistakes.
And, what’s more, it meant that the Jesus who had died on the cross for me wasn’t some remote, distant figure whom I could aim at but never emulate, but almost an ordinary person, someone I might have liked had I known him in the flesh, someone I could identify with.
As I have frequently said, these Sundays in Ordinary Time are when what we think we believe comes up against what we really believe. Do we really believe that Jesus, as well as being divine, was also human? Do we think of him as having had to learn, to grow, to change. Do we think of him as having made mistakes, having to change his mind, having to – to repent, if you like, since that basically means changing one's mind because one realises one is wrong?
And if that is so, if Jesus is not some remote plaster saint, but a human being just like us – how does that change things? How does that change our relationship with Him? And how does it change things when we make a mistake?