The Education of Jesus
August 16, 2020 Matthew 15: 22-28 The education of Jesus
I don’t know about you, but I don’t recognize this Jesus. A mother is desperate to find healing for her daughter, and out of his mouth come stinging words. His words are narrow and nationalistic, even insulting. Is this the Jesus we know?
There’s even more happening in this story to challenge our perceptions and expectations: this mother, who is a non-Israelite, an outsider, a foreigner essentially comes to the front of Jesus’ classroom and takes over the instruction, schooling Jesus in the lesson of the day, which turns out to be this:
God’s is an expansive love, and reaches across every barrier and boundary. She’s got diagrams at the chalkboard, a wide circle, a bridge, an open door, well-reasoned explanations, an articulate voice. She’s teaching what he’s supposed to be teaching, educating the Jesus we thought was educating us. What’s happening here?
Back and forth they go with their dialogue in this encounter. By the end of it we have one of the longest exchanges between Jesus and another person in the entire gospel, longer than Jesus talking with the disciples in the feeding of the five thousand, or with Peter walking on water, or with Herod or Pilate during his trial. Back and forth their exchanges go, six times. The woman. Jesus. The mother. Jesus. The woman. Jesus. And she gets all the best lines . . .
One of which has its way to the yearning hearts and whispering lips of the faithful across the ages in the church’s worship liturgy. Kyrie eleison. “Lord, have mercy.”
And another remarkable sentence, a diminutive, but towering come-back to Jesus: even the dogs eat the crumbs under the table. That one many of us recognize from what’s known as the “prayer of humble access”; it appears in one of our communion liturgies, beloved by many, a prayer inherited from the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer: “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.” It is a beautiful prayer, but it is not, technically speaking, a biblical prayer.
The biblical prayer, drawing upon the language of this exchange, would be “We are worthy to gather up the crumbs under thy table.” Are we worthy of God’s mercy? Or unworthy? It is a heavyweight of a theological question. The mother of a sick child, with faith as feisty as it comes, weighs in on the matter, essentially asserting that yes we are.
“It is not right to give the children’s food to the dogs,” Jesus says. “Yes, but even the dogs gather up the crumbs under the table.” Jesus concedes her point, and with words he never puts together anywhere else in any of the four gospels: “great” and “faith,” he affirms her strength, her tenacity, her intellect, her power, her feisty claim to mercy, her prayer of kyrie eleison as not a plea but a directive. Woman, he says, great is your faith—let it be done to you as you wish.
Education by Jesus appears to have become the education of Jesus . . . by a Canaanite mother who is simply practicing good theology about human worth and the assurance of God’s mercy. But does Jesus really need to be taught these things?
He demonstrates over and over in the gospels his willingness to cross boundaries, break down barriers, challenge rules, even defy authority to demonstrate the reach of God’s love. The fact that he is even here, in Tyre and Sidon, modern day Lebanon, having this conversation with this non-Israelite woman is evidence. If he’s come only to the lost sheep of Israel, as his words claim, why has he left Israel to hang out with Canaanites? Something’s up here.
Step back a bit further, and we’ll notice that the gospel of Matthew opens with a genealogy of Jesus, one that is exceptional for one specific reason: in a listing that would customarily identify fathers in the lineage but not mothers, this genealogy includes five women. Intriguing in and of itself.
But there’s more: three of those women are non-Israelites, including King David’s own great-grandmother, Ruth, and her mother-in-law, Rahab, a Canaanite. Jesus, we learn right away in the gospel of Matthew, is part Canaanite. Matthew seems to go out of his way in this genealogy to present this fact to his readers.
Just beyond this generous genealogy, we read that the first to kneel in homage to the Christ child are not Israelites but foreigners—the magi from the East. On and on this goes . . .
Later Jesus will encounter another foreigner, a Roman soldier, asking Jesus for healing for his servant. His confidence in Jesus is so pronounced—a kind of certainty recognizable in today’s story—that Jesus is led to observe: “Not even in Israel have I found such faith.” Those are not the words of one who believes God’s mercy is reserved exclusively for Israel.
Later two non-Israelites struggling with their inner demons are healed by Jesus, set free to live again. Finally, at the very end of the gospel, serving as the bookend opposite that opening genealogy: disciple all nations. Not just your nation, your tribe, your people. All people, everywhere.
Jesus is not a nationalist, believing God’s love is restricted to one people, one tribe, one nation. His statement about being sent only to Israel is entirely subverted by the pattern he establishes through the whole gospel of extending the love and mercy of God to whomever, wherever. There’s something else at work in this encounter.
Jesus’s way of educating includes a wide—and sometimes wild—variety of forms: parables, proverbs, puzzles, questions, riddles, woe sayings, enactments, blessings, sermons, stories, signs.
And, we might suppose, the education style of Jesus might include a form that was not uncommon for teachers in antiquity, including rabbis: pitching a false proposition just to have it dismantled by the student. The rabbi might say something like “God loves you if you are righteous.” That’s not true, the class would protest. Prove it, the rabbi would say. Examples would ensue to challenge the notion. There’s Moses. And Sarah. Look at King David, or Rahab. God loves the unrighteous, they would argue in reply.
Okay, the rabbi would conclude. God loves the righteous, and the unrighteous. All heads would nod. In philosophy, the process is known sometimes as thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. In the Proverbs, it’s known as iron sharpening iron. The learner teaches; the teacher learns.
Maybe Jesus is setting up a false proposition with his student—really his co-teacher, the Canaanite mother, in front of the attentive disciples, giving her all the best lines in the process, until she wins, rather decisively, in front of God and everybody. And by means of her educating Jesus about the breadth and depth of God’s mercy, Jesus is educating his followers and all who will overhear about . . . the breadth and depth of God’s mercy. Nowadays we call it team teaching.
Martin Luther once said, The world wants to know: Is there a merciful God? Does God truly love not only the righteous, but also the less righteous, and the unrighteous? Does the kindness, the caring, the forgiveness, the healing touch of God extend even to me? Luther said that is what the world wants to know. Is he right? Is that what the world wants to know? It’s certainly what the woman wants to know. The disciples—they stay right there, listening in on this tense exchange. I think they want to know, too. Do you want to know? I certainly do.
Does God’s mercy reach to the refugee, the asylum-seeker, the power-hungry politician, the homeless woman, the jobless man, the ungrateful and the selfish, the lonely and hurting? Does God’s heart reach into your home, to hold you and your loved ones in mercy? Is he with children and parents and teachers and administrators as they cross a threshold into a school year like no other, freighted with apprehension and uncertainty?
Putting together two words he’s never put together before and never will again, Jesus says to the mother, the foreigner, the outsider to the faith, great is your faith. As if to suggest that this woman alone could have co-taught this class with him, in which the lesson for the day is that yes, there is a merciful God whose steadfast love extends to all, to you, to me, to the whole hurting, hopeful world. Woman, great is your faith. Be it done for you as you wish. And her child was healed.