There are certain ways that the church tends to focus on the humanity of Jesus, especially at certain times of the year. I’ve just spent a week and Bethlehem and have Advent and Christmas on my mind. At Advent we marvel that the fullness of God could be contained in a tiny baby with clutching fingers and curling toes. For some of the ancients, it was a scandal that God was nourished in and passed through intimate womanflesh. In Passion Week we contemplate the horror of a crucified God, tortured and executed by an unjust state, placed back in the arms of the mother who nursed him, and who watched him die. In between we make note of the signs of his humanity and mortality: his hunger, thirst, and naps, his friendships with their attendant joys and sorrows, weddings and funerals, and even sneaking off as a child and exasperating his mother.
I have not heard a lot of reflection or speculation on Jesus’s humanity beyond what is indicated by the holy texts. It seems we don’t like to think of his humanity in terms that make us uncomfortable, particularly those aspects of ourselves with which we still wrestle, like sexuality and sexual orientation. We don’t talk in the church about what it means that Jesus was an adult sexually mature human male who survived puberty with all of its impulses and urges. Did he suffer the indignity of his voice cracking when he told his mother he was about his Father’s business? Did he have that one pimple that just wouldn’t go away? To be human is to be at turns itchy and scratchy and dirty and smelly. The incarnation is a much more down to earth gospel than we may be comfortable imagining.
First, Jesus went to the beach, as you do. Because Galilee is hot—not as hot as Texas, I literally went to the Middle East to get a break from the Texas heat. But the Galil is hot, two changes of clothes a day hot—in August, but we really don’t know when this was. Even in the winter chill the beach is still a destination for some. If you look a map of Israel in the first century, you’ll notice not only that Tyre and Sidon are sea towns, but perhaps more importantly, they are outside of Herod’s territory. Jesus just wanted to get away and stay off of the police radar.
Here he is on vacation, low key famous, perhaps infamous, and here comes a woman calling, yelling, after him. Not just any woman, a Canaanite woman. Jesus was fully but not generically human. He was a first century Palestinian Jewish man who was religiously observant and a product of his culture, including its biases. Israel claimed God had given them Canaanite land, a notion the Canaanites did not share, and Israel occupied the land of Canaan every bit as much as Rome occupied Israel. Add to that the Israelite notions about Canaanites were no more generous than Roman ideas about the Jews. Perhaps more germane to us, as a Canaanite, specifically a Phoenician, she was a Gentile—like us—and Jesus is not shy about his opinions of Gentiles in Matthew’s gospel.
Initially, Jesus did not seem to understand his ministry to be to the Gentiles, to us. He says to his disciples earlier in this same gospel (Matthew 10:5-6): Do not go any way leading to Gentiles, and do not enter any Samaritan town, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. All of the ministry that follows is to be to his people. Not us. Jesus has decided who will receive the gospel and we are not on the list.
He also says (Matthew 5:47): If you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” That is not a compliment. (Matthew 6:7-8): When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them… That’s not very nice either. (Matthew 6:31-32): Do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. Whatever you do, don’t pray like a Gentile. And notice that in Jesus’s language, God is their heavenly Father, [not ours. At least not yet.]
Some of you may need to release the death grip you have on your pearls right about now. You might be thinking, “I believe in the Incarnation, but this Jesus is a little too human.” To be human is not actually such a bad thing—I say from experience. For to be human is to be made in the image of God with something of her capacity to love, and to be human is to learn and grow and change, to open up our hearts and minds, expand our beliefs and relinquish our biases. I believe Jesus shares some of this with us else he wouldn’t be fully human.
We are at our best as human beings when we listen to and learn from someone who is so different from us that everything in our culture and raising tells us she is other. This woman whose name isn’t important to the gospel—just her otherness—is in the land of her ancestors to which the Israelites and their Jewish descendants were more recent arrivals. But they see her as foreign—like Mexicans in Texas. She cries out that she needs help for her daughter. She is a desperate mother. Her child is afflicted by something that prevents her from living fully in the image of God. Something in her is broken in some way, physically, spiritually, emotionally, psychologically. And Jesus doesn’t say a mumbling word. He ignores her.
Right about now I want to pull Jesus to the side and have a few words with him. In my prayers, I say all those things. It helps me and doesn’t hurt him. Since he doesn’t acknowledge her, his disciples take a cue from him and urge him to get rid of her because she keeps yelling, after them. Not one of them asked if he would or could help or why he wouldn’t. Then Jesus says what he has said before, I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. The gospel doesn’t say that he says those words to her. He just says it loud enough for her to hear. She is undeterred. You could say that she persisted.
She kneels at his smelly, dusty, human, man feet to beg the man from another culture who hasn’t said one word to her to help her daughter. She begs him again, Lord help me. The gospels use “lord” (capital L) as a religious title for God and therefore Jesus, but it is also the title of slave masters, which is why I don’t use it in my prayers. At the same time she is the image of the faithful Christian petitioning her Lord—though from the Israelite and Jewish perspective she would have been considered an idolater—she is also a free woman abasing herself at the feet of a man from the historic enemies of her people like a slave. Her people worshipped Baal and the Phoenician god Melkart. Yet here she is at the feet of Jesus, calling him Lord.
Finally Jesus speaks. I would help you but… He doesn’t say that part aloud but I can hear it behind the gospel text. He says, It isn’t fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. She and her daughter are dogs in his proverb and in his mouth. Ancient Israelites and Jews in the first century and rabbinic period despised dogs. They were unclean scavengers that ate dead flesh. An orthodox rabbi once told me he’d even never heard of an orthodox rabbi who owned a dog. Jesus has for all intents and purposes called this woman a bitch and she leans in to his proverb to turn it back on him. She said, Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their lord’s table. She uses the same word, lord, throughout I believe challenging him to show what kind of “lord” he will be. Loving God or slavemaster?
In that moment, something happened to and in Jesus. He starts looking and sounding like the Jesus we know and love. He praises her faith—faith in him as Lord? Faith that as a man who had his own mother he would do the right thing? Faith that whatever it was she had heard about the man called the Son of David was true? Faith that there was more to him than the first impression suggested?—He healed her daughter in that very moment.
She left that place with her daughter (whom we never see and don’t know was even present) restored to wholeness, and Jesus left that place walking towards a whole new understanding of his ministry. The closing words of this gospel, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” teach us that Jesus has made room at the table for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike, because, I believe, of this woman.
In spite of the open welcoming arms of Jesus, everyone hasn’t always been welcome at the table, not in the United States, not in the Church. We have a history of genocide here, particularly in the West, including right here in Texas; the attempted eradication of Native Americans was largely successful for many tribal communities. And we have our own holocaust, the Maafa, the Middle Passage during which two million Africans died before they reached these shores in chains and another 10-15 million died on forced marches between the dock and auction block. Twelve to seventeen million who didn’t survive long enough to be enslaved. (The Digital History Project from the School of Education at the University of Houston)
And we have our own history of white supremacy in the Church, nor all of which is history. The creation and deployment of white jesus remain an enduring witness to a theology and world view that not only misrepresents Jesus and his Afro-Asiatic people but conflates whiteness and divinity.
Our history is an open wound bleeding all over our hopes and dreams, so long untended that its infection is poisoning the whole body. We have not learned from Israel who survived a holocaust, Germany who perpetrated a holocaust or Rwanda who survived and perpetrated a holocaust that you have to confront it. Tell the stories, learn from them, lament them. In the language of the church, confess, and repent. Silence about our sins breeds the corruption that lies about or denies who we are and what we have done.
One of the truths we have to tell is that the bible is a slaveholding document from a slaveholding era. We have to tell the truth that the bible justifies the Israelite’s terrible ethnic biases and even ethnic cleansings, against other peoples in the name of God, and that we used that language to justify slavery an these shores and wiping out our own Canaanites. And, we have to tell the truth that Jesus never condemned slavery, used the language of slavery as though it was normal, and in some cases, healed or raised folk who then went back to being slaves. [That’s really hard for me because I sing with my ancestors: Before I’d be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.].
Yet, this same Jesus also shows us what it is to be human, to wrestle with ancestral legacies of bias. The Syro-Phoenician woman and her daughter are not the only ones who emerge from that encounter changed. Jesus goes forward to proclaim a gospel in which all are welcome to the table because as one social media commentator put it: She taught him that Syro-Phoenician lives matter. Amen.
Post script: For a recent humorous take on Jesus’s humanity, see this Darin Bell comic.