What the flipping heck is Jesus up to? Seriously, did you just hear what I just heard. Even if we read it in our best Churchy voice, we can’t miss it. It’s shocking. Stop, stare and open mouthed shocking. Jesus is being vile. I can’t think of a better word, vile. We should be shocked. This is the least Jesusy Jesus we ever meet. Usually, it’s the disciples telling people to get lost, and here Jesus is telling them to get rid of this woman. Far from finding time to talk to her like he usually does, Jesus first completely ignores her and then tries to get her chucked out. Then he insults her in the worst possible terms. Jesus calls the woman a bitch and refuses to help. Who is this man and what has he done with our Jesus? What is he up to? It may be there in the pages of the Bible, but this episode is truly shocking. It is the antithesis of everything we know about Jesus.
And maybe that’s the point. Because it is so unlike the Jesus we know, he must have had some really important point to make here, something really important to teach us.
So, let’s try and see the incident through Jesus’ eyes, the Jesus we know from the rest of the Gospels. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has just been teaching his disciples about hypocrisy, and specifically the hypocrisy of the religious leaders, the scribes and the Pharisees. He has been talking about the difference between sticking to the rules and actually following God. The difference between washing your hands and cleaning your heart. He has been speaking out about those who purportedly have faith in God but practice favouritism, exclusion, contempt.
Then this woman appears. We are used to women approaching Jesus; the haemorrhaging woman, the woman at the well, Mary with her oil. But they shouldn’t approach him, they really, really shouldn’t. Jesus, a Rabbi, shouldn’t be seen dead talking to a woman in public, even his own sister. And this woman. This woman is a Canaanite. Jesus and his friends have strayed into an area that is unclean, an toxic waste zone – the Canaanites are everything that the people of Israel are not. Canaanite is a charged term - they are ancient foes of the Jews, idol worshipping enemies. This woman is the wrong gender, the wrong ethnicity, the wrong heritage, the wrong religion, and her daughter is possessed by a demon. She is everything the disciples define themselves over and against. And yet here she comes, yelling, shouting, demanding a bit of Jesus.
What is Jesus supposed to do?
Of course he’s supposed to try to ignore her, of course he’s supposed to try and get rid of the shameless foreign baggage, of course he’s supposed to abuse her and call her names. That’s what you do, isn’t it?
Of course we know differently, we know that this is not how Jesus sees things, we know that this is not how God sees things.
So why does Jesus behave like this? I think it’s to shock the disciples, the disciples who were so often slow to understand. Who would nod sagely as Jesus spoke words of mercy and grace, but react so quickly to reject and eject the very people Jesus was talking about. Jesus behaves like this to hold a mirror up to the disciples’ own prejudice and hatred, to show them what they are really thinking. To jolt them into understanding deep down what he was saying.
And we can nod sagely and be smug. Of course Jesus would welcome the Canaanite woman. Of course he’d heal her daughter. We know what Jesus is really like. We don’t have attitudes like that. We don’t think like that. We’d never think like that.
I’ll tell you what’s shocked me this week. Shocked me even more than the story of Jesus and this woman. Stop, stare and open mouthed shocking.
The Manor Hotel, with which the Church shares a boundary wall and a gate, has been closed since the start of lockdown in March. A rumour has circulated round Flitwick this week that the hotel is being used to house immigrants. It isn’t. I’m in touch with the hotel manager and am back and forth to Church so often that I know the only people coming and going at the hotel are the manager himself and the security guard. Yet this rumour has spread across social media and by e mail like wildfire; that the Manor Hotel is being used to house immigrants. Shocking. As though that is the worse thing that could possibly happen in this town. As though by giving people of the wrong ethnicity, the wrong heritage, the wrong religion, a roof over their heads, we would somehow be at risk, defiled. That by hearing the cry ‘have mercy’. Hearing the destitute, the displaced, the desperate pleading ‘Have mercy,’ and responding, we would somehow be polluted.
How smug are we now? Can we nod sagely and say ‘yes, we understand Jesus, we know what he’s really like. Silly old disciples with their outdated attitudes.’ No, we can’t. Not if we claim ‘all lives matter’ yet are prepared to see people drown at sea. Not if we claim ‘all lives matter,’ just so long as those lives are hanging on by a thread some where other than on our shores. Not while we use terms like swarm, invasion, parasites. Not while we think that mercy somehow is limited to those we know, those who are like us, those who somehow deserve it. Not while we think that love and our call to love is finite; that exclusion and contempt are just fine as long as they are applied to immigrants. Not while we think they are dogs not worthy of the crumbs from our table. Not while we think the Canaanite’s woman and her child deserve help but parents and children in boats in the Channel do not.
We are just as bad as the disciples. Jesus holds the mirror of our own behaviour up to us and says ‘What are you going to do about it?’
I tell you what I am going to do. I am going to challenge that behaviour in myself. I am going to challenge those attitudes whenever I see them. Every time I see a meme saying that there is no such thing as white privilege, I will challenge it. Every time I see a post claiming that refugees are taking what somehow belongs to us, the crumbs from our table, I will challenge it. Every time I see or hear language that dehumanises, excludes, I will challenge it. For Jesus’ sake.