The image of Jesus?

Consider this pew sheet from a suburban church:

Today’s Gospel passage portrays a very human Jesus—a Jesus who, in rejecting so rudely at first the pleas of the Canaanite woman for healing for her daughter, reveals the prejudices of the conservative Judaism of his time, no doubt learned implicitly as part of his upbringing in family and village community—a Jesus who needs to learn to see things differently, to broaden his understanding of the scope of God’s compassionate love. When you stop to think about it, it is quite remarkable that it is a woman (and a Gentile at that) who challenges Jesus to get him to change his mind! It flies in the face of all the norms of patriarchal Jewish culture. This nameless woman with her wit, it might be said, teaches Jesus to see her and his mission in a different light, and he is open to so changing. His is not the rigidity of one who assumes they know it all and have nothing new to learn or understand, but rather the openness that comes with a gentle and compassionate heart.

At first glance, most Christians would dismiss this as blasphemous. The idea that Jesus was controlled by the unjust prejudices of his culture, that he did not understand God’s compassionate love and that he needed a Canaanite woman to teach him God’s ways is an attack on the incarnate Son of God.

But it is important to get past this visceral reaction and weigh what is being said. Orthodoxy must be an expression of the Bible; the Bible must not be squeezed into orthodoxy. So our reaction should not be to defend orthodoxy, but to ask what the gospel passage reveals about the real Jesus. Does this pew sheet’s portrayal do justice to the Gospel account (Matt 15:21-28)?

We need to remember that Jesus was fully human. He lived in time and space, in a particular culture and family. He spoke the language of the day, and lived in society in such a way that drew little attention to his divinity. His appearance, diet and clothing were never seen as different.

Scripture teaches that Jesus came into the world as a baby, not a man. He needed to grow and learn. He did not arrive with a complete divine knowledge of all things; as Luke records, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). Furthermore, even as an adult, Jesus did not claim to know everything (Mark 13:32), and if God himself changes his mind in the Old Testament, could not the Son of God have changed his mind?

The episode with the Canaanite woman may seem unusual. Jesus appears a little offhand, if not rude. The event may alter our preconceptions about Jesus and how he relates to people. But that is just the problem with the pew sheet’s view: instead of altering his view of Jesus to fit the real one, the author has altered Jesus to fit his view—not the view of orthodox Christianity, but that of liberal and feminist Christianity.

Jesus was human, but he wasn’t a sinful, mindless, uncritical proponent of an evil culture. His humanity did not include sinfulness. His capacity to see through his culture, criticize it publicly and live differently is recorded on most pages of the Gospels. His understanding of God his Father was extraordinary, even from childhood (Luke 2:49). We cannot know precisely what he did or did not know, but it is hard to believe that he was, in any way, short on the subject of his Father’s love and compassion. After all, it was his Father’s love that brought him to earth.

But was Jesus’ view of his mission too narrow? Was his mindset governed by the implicitly learned prejudices of the conservative Judaism of his day? Did Jesus need somebody (e.g. a Gentile woman) to teach him?

From the arrival of the wise men from the East, Matthew makes the inclusion of the Gentiles part of the gospel message. At least from baptism, Jesus knew he was the servant of the Lord prophesied in Isaiah 42-53. This prophecy includes not just Israel, but the Gentiles—the nations. In the healing of the Centurion’s servant, like the Canaanite woman, the Centurion does not accept Jesus’ initial response, but reasons with him (Matt 8:5-13). This dialogue enables Jesus to point out not only the inclusion of the Gentiles in the Kingdom, but also the saving faith of a Gentile in contrast to the Israelites’ lack of faith. If this happens in chapter 8, the Canaanite woman is not changing Jesus’ mind in chapter 15.

Instead, we see in the event of the Canaanite woman one of the characteristic ways in which Jesus relates to inquirers. He responds to them with almost strange indifference in order to draw them out and demonstrate both to them and to the disciples some great truth clarifying his mission. This can be seen in Jesus’ frequent meeting of questions with questions (e.g. Luke 10:26), in his treatment of Nicodemus (John 3), and in his response to the Greeks (John 12), the disciples (Matt 14:15ff) and the Canaanite woman (Matt 15). It is not Jesus who needs to widen his vision and learn from the Canaanite woman; it is the disciples. They need to understand his worldwide mission and the faith that saves.

To present Jesus as the non-rigid, open inquirer of truth is to make a Jesus in the image of a modern liberal thinker. It is important that Christians are made in the image of Jesus, instead of making Jesus in the image of us.

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