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The sermon for the Holy Communion service on the eleventh Sunday after Trinity on the 20th of August 2023. Rachael Brind-Surch explores the tricky topic of blind spots, the problem with building our own personal Jesus, and how asking uncomfortable questions can open a whole new way of thinking about God.

The readings she is reflecting on are:

Matthew 15: 21-28

Isaiah 56: 1, 6-8

The Sermon:

Who is Jesus?

Who is Jesus to you?
If you shut your eyes and imagine Jesus who is it you see?

I suspect for each of us we will have a slightly different image or idea. An image which is shaped by which gospel stories we love most, the iconography of our upbringing and our own experiences of different faith traditions. 

Honestly, what all Christians can agree on regarding the nature of Jesus, and to some extent the nature of God, is pretty limited. It fits into a single paragraph of the Nicene Creed. Which we will recite a version of together in just a moment. And most of that concerns information about Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection, rather than any key insights into his personality, appearance, pastimes and even his influences. It doesn’t really give us a whole lot of detail about the human Jesus and how he spent his time prior to his death. This we find instead in the gospels. Which were not only, for many of us, written in a language we don’t understand, but also have many different interpretations, and explanations. Each focused on the theologian's own personal biases, traditions, and yes, their own interests. 

The Bible is in fact not always clear. The different gospel accounts can conflict and all of that makes it hard for us to get a true picture of the Man and God who was and is Jesus. As a result, in the words of the 80s electronic band Depeche Mode, each of us – to some extent, have built our own personal Jesus. Or at least we will have our own internal assumption of the Jesus we have faith in, or are invested in knowing more about.

Jesus meets a Canaanite woman

Our gospel reading today – is a great example of how this can happen. 

Because however we, in our inclusive, woman-led, rainbow-clad church, may picture Jesus, I doubt it’s in the way we see him this week. A Jesus who, rather than swiftly offering a gentle word of wisdom or reaching out a healing hand first ignores a kneeling, begging gentile woman advocating for her sick daughter. And then – when pushed – calls her a dog.

There is an attempt by some to make this a less shocking episode. The Greek for Dog used here specifically means a small household pet dog. So not quite as vicious as the full-throttle swear word we may find a modern equivalent for today. 

But even if it were the case that he meant it to be a more funny or endearing term. I would suggest that if any of us went to a doctor's office, with our sick child and got told “Don’t pout Poodle, I just can’t see you today’, we would be writing a strongly worded letter. 

But Jesus was Jewish. And Jewish people at that time did not keep dogs as pets. Socially dogs were on par with the likes of Pigs and seen as impure. Such pets were kept in Gentile households, such as those of the Romans. This is why Dog was a common racialised slur for Gentiles by the Israelite nation. It’s also noteworthy that whilst it's not to say that the Jewish population was any more patriarchal and misogynistic than any other society or place in the ancient Near East, that still meant that women were at best treated with suspicion and at worst open hostility [1]. After all the woman in this narrative – is not even given a name.

Theologians have tried really hard to square this circle and to come up with a number of explanations for an interaction which defies most of our own answers to the age-old question: What Would Jesus Do?

Jesus and the Canaanite woman holding the hand of her ill child
Illustration by Reverend Ally Barrett

In this choose-your-own personal Jesus adventure, there are three variations of Jesus on offer. Each gives their own insight into the character of Jesus and therefore – something of the nature of God. 

Option A: Testing Jesus

Option B: Rabbi Jesus

Option C: Unconscious bias Jesus

Option A

In option A it is suggested Jesus is testing the gentile woman’s faith and rewards her persistence and fortitude in the face of his mockery and rejection.

At his best, this Jesus can encourage us to be the kind of Christians who pray until something happens. Who stick to our faith even when we feel like we face a wall of silence from an unresponsive, uncaring God. 

At his worst, this Jesus seems callous. It seems fairly arbitrary to make a desperate mother jump through hoops to win healing. And the implication of this for our own prayers of petition is pretty alarming! Does it mean that if my prayers aren’t answered I’m lacking in faith?

Option B

So what about option B? Rabbi Jesus? This is where Jesus is wisely saying all of this with some kind of twinkle in his eye, a wry smile, maybe even slipping the Canaanite woman a crafty wink to indicate his plan. It is suggested that, as was the norm for other rabbinic teaching of the era, Jesus was acting in one way to exemplify how problematic such views were. This is all for the benefit of teaching the less enlightened disciples about the nature of his ministry as extolled through our Old Testament reading today. That God’s blessings do indeed extend to the Gentiles who worship God and to all those who call Them Lord. 

Somewhat better? Maybe, but I find it hard to read into the text something so convenient that just isn’t there. It’s not in the account of this story found in Mark and it’s not in the Matthew account we read here. And if the woman is not in on it. Then Jesus is using a desperate mother as a means to an end in addition to insulting her.

Option C

So now we reach option C. Unconscious Bias Jesus. Where Jesus, like any of us, is a product of his own context and time. As a full human as well as fully God, he is susceptible to the same biases and cultural baggage which each of us comes with. He uses the offensive slur not out of malice but out of ignorance, until he is won over by her knowledge of his role as the Son of David and by her clever subversive wordplay around Dogs and scraps which force him to reassess his assumptions. 

By listening to her, he grows in understanding and proceeds to make reparations for his initial behaviour, he is moved to action, not just empty words, healing her daughter instantly. Then if we read on we see that in just a few verses time he performs a repeat of his miraculous provision of food, as seen in the feeding of the 5000, but this time explicitly for a crowd of gentiles. We see him quite literally feeding the Gentiles just as he had offered food to the children of Israel.

It may not surprise you to learn that my preference and the preference of womanist theologians is option C. But that doesn’t mean I’m right. It doesn’t even mean that version of Jesus answers all my questions. 

I mean is cultural context really an excuse to verbally abuse, well, anyone?  

And what does it say about the kind of crimes so often written off because it was ‘a different time back then’?

Even in times when slavery was a standard feature of our socioeconomic society, we still had abolitionists. 

And did Jesus just forget the words of Isaiah?
Did he forget that his house would be called a house of prayer for all people? 

Honestly, you see my conundrum. 
No matter which way I twist him and poke him not one of these ready-made options answers all my questions!
But perhaps that’s the point. 

Another Option all together

When we come to the Bible, to Jesus, to God with only our judgements and assumptions, even the ones we think are good, we make Them smaller. 

This can mean a God who is easier to swallow, who is safer. But it is also limiting. 

Perhaps coming to the bible looking to find our own personal Jesus isn’t a great idea. 

And perhaps this is something we can be guilty of no matter where we fall on the great spectrum of belief. I know which of the options makes me most comfortable – but are we here to be comfortable, or are we here to have a dialogue with God and to learn more about God?  

Of course, we can have our own favourite stories, or verses which mean more to us. 

But when we stop and look at what we believe of Jesus in the creed 

That he was conceived of God's spirit.
That he was made both fully man and fully God. 
That he died and rose again. 

If our answers are clean-cut and easy to box up and label… we may have missed some of the most mysterious, ineffable and interesting parts of the God we worship and the Jesus who we have faith in. 

When we look to rush to answers, I wonder if we don’t miss some of the wisdom and possibilities and insights, we find through being open to the variations and options and insights of other perspectives. 

Even the ones that trouble us, 

Even the ones which leave us with questions.

When I read today’s gospel reading, I can see the threads of a God who is complicated, a God I am curious to know more about. I see the hallmarks of a personality trait within this God that can trace the footprints of, all the way back to the Old Testament. 

A God who engages and wants to hear from humanity and wants to be where the people are. 
The nation of Israel challenged and bartered with and questioned their God. 
Abraham does it.
Moses does it.

And the name Israel literally came out of Jacob having a wrestling match with God.  

And, even more importantly, that God, the creator of everything, was receptive to this, They listened and changed Their mind. 

Here we see that this level of access and dialogue was not just for Israel.

Here we see this aspect of God’s personality revealed in Jesus, the man, as he too changes his mind. 

Not in a capricious, mercurial way, but as a result of an encounter in which a woman's voice, a gentile woman's voice, is able to be heard and appreciated and conceded to, by a God who is invested in our conversations. Who can be affected by us and can grow closer to all Their creation, in all its diversity as a result. 

Our God may be big enough to hold the whole world in Their hand.

But our God is also big enough, to listen to the voices he disagrees with and humble enough, to change his mind. 

And that, in spite of my follow-up questions, excites me.

It challenges my blind spots and assumptions that power and authority have to look like certainty or having all the answers.
Or that perfect looks like never being wrong. 
Or that the Jesus we might be trying to be a bit more like may have been kind of messy and human.

And for a messy, imperfect gentile human like me.
Like so many of us sat here.

That feels like very Good News. 


[1] Dr Rev. Wilda Gafney, Drag Queens and Did Jesus Just Call that Woman a B—-? Last accessed 20th August 2023