David Walker's Sermon - 20th August 2017
May I speak in the name of the living God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
What would Jesus do?
You may be familiar with this as a slogan, a catch phrase.
For some people it’s more than that. It provides them with an approach to ethics and morality, a way of living and ordering their lives. It’s been around for some time, probably much longer than you would imagine. It was first used in the 19th Century in a novel by one Charles Sheldon. This was populated by characters who, when faced with a moral dilemma, retreated to asking themselves what Jesus would do.
And it might have remained part of an obscure 19th century novel except for a revival in the 1990s, initially on the west coast of America, which quickly spread via tee shirts, bumper stickers, wristbands and, of course, the internet to become a mantra for certain Christians. More recently it was taken up by the Occupy Movement much to the distaste of our current archbishop of Canterbury.
I could critique it. The problems are many and possibly quite obvious – but, in the main, how can we be expected to know the mind of Jesus?
Nevertheless it can be tempting sometimes to try to put ourselves in his sandals when wondering how to respond in a particular situation.
WWJD may still be alive. For example in my house it means What Would Judith Do? But Jesus was capable of making all kinds of statements and decisions which seem contradictory, or just plain surprising, unpredictable and puzzling.
Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman is a puzzle. First ignoring her, then appearing to reject her, before finally acceding completely and fulsomely to her request for her daughter’s healing. What’s going on?
Let’s consider some options.
The first is that Jesus changes his mind. He is persuaded by the Canaanite woman’s argument. He sees that his ministry is much wider than he believed it to be.
Jesus has just been hounded by the Pharisees, his own people. They have followed him around, followed him from Jerusalem, trying to catch him out.
Not only do they not understand him, or accept him, they are actively campaigning against him. And they are devout Jews, the very people he has been sent to save.
No wonder he withdraws, and he goes to somewhere he knows they will not follow him, the district around the cities of Tyre and Sidon whose people have been the sworn enemies of the Jews for centuries. So, he’s here, probably not where he wanted to be, a bit tired, a bit frazzled. He’s travelled fifty miles, on foot, just to escape, and the disciples are probably getting on his nerves as well. They don’t help with their immediate response to the woman’s plea for help. ‘Send her away’, they say. She’s shouting at us.
At first Jesus doesn’t answer, then he says he wasn’t sent for this. He’s irritated. He reflects the annoyance of his own disciples.
When she appeals he answers her harshly. The gentiles are owed nothing by a Jewish Messiah. They are dogs.
But she comes back with a perfect response. ‘...even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table’. She’s quick, she’s bright and she’s not going to give in. She humbly affirms her faith in this man standing before her.
And so, Jesus relents. He sees the justice and truth of her argument. ‘Let it be done for you as you wish’. Her daughter is healed instantly.
He changes his mind, a human quality, a complete argument for Jesus’ humanity, someone who can be swayed by a just argument.
But there are theological objections to this. Is this is a denial of Jesus’ divinity?
How can an all-seeing and all-knowing omnipotent God be wrong?
The answer is because he is Jesus. He is God with us and shares our humanity. Do we believe that Jesus arrived fully formed and fully developed and that he didn’t have to learn anything, never had to develop as a human being? It took him thirty years before he was ready for his ministry. Thirty years of learning to read, learning the skills of his carpenter earthly father, learning about himself, and learning about his other, heavenly Father.
I could accept that as an explanation.
But there’s a second interpretation (and a third to come).
Jesus knew all along what he would do but he wanted to test the faith and understanding of those around him, and of the Canaanite woman.
He’s actually in a good mood, not at all grumpy. A little tired but overwhelmingly glad to have escaped from the Pharisees and the crowds. He doesn’t answer at first because he wants to see what his disciples have to say and he’s giving the woman time to think. When he does respond he is being a bit provocative, testing her out, being perhaps even being a bit playful with her. How far is she prepared to go? Has she really understood? Is she just jumping on his bandwagon? Does she understand what she is asking him to do?
The whole thing is good natured on his part. But he’s making a point and he’s quite enjoying it. Sometimes it’s pleasant to have an argument where you know the outcome will be to agree and learn from each other. And at that moment Jesus is probably sick of the kinds of argument he has been having with the Pharisees where no-one ever agrees or learns anything from each other. We’ve had a lot of those lately!
I think I could accept this explanation as well. Apart from everything else Jesus is a great teacher, and great teachers challenge those around them to think and question and learn.
But then there’s a third possibility, which goes just a little bit further.
Jesus responds for the benefit of his disciples. They’ve struggled all the way. And we know that their struggle continues even to the passion and death of Jesus. But Jesus will always persist with them. This is his project. They are his project. He can’t and won’t do this on his own. Even though he is God incarnate.
He has told them – often. Now he shows them. He responds. And his initial response is the one they expected and most likely understood. He wants them to feel that – the sense of being right, the sense of understanding. And then he changes tack. And now what he initially said is turned on its head. He hasn’t done this to catch them out but to reinforce the rightness and righteousness of this new message, this new message of who he really is – because this is what the gospel is really about. And unless the disciples know this, know it deep down, know it through experience, through being shown, through it being exemplified, they will miss the point, and it’s too important for Jesus that they get it wrong.
Jesus’ first response is silence. He is waiting, waiting to hear what his disciples have to say.
Have they understood yet? It appears not. They urge him to send the woman away. How can he teach them? He has said enough to them. They need to hear it from someone else. Will this woman know how to respond? He provokes her. He was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. She asks him directly for help. But he provokes her again. He wants to hear more. ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs’. Will she be able to respond to that? ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table’.
She has got it! She does understand. Yet again an outsider has to come along and show the way. She has a real faith, and she knows who Jesus is, what he can do, not just for her and her daughter, but for all of us. How great is her faith!
This is going beyond what a traditional teacher would do, even a good teacher. He is not just explaining, but showing them in the most profound way. You think this is how I should respond, this is what I should say – no, let me show you the way. I’ll do it by getting someone else, someone who really needs my help, someone for whom it is a matter of life and death. I’ll get them to explain it to you.
That’s what I think Jesus has done here. Although the other possibilities are just as feasible. I don’t know the mind of Jesus and all I have are the words on the page, words remembered and written down many years later, translated from one language to another and then another. I don’t hear those words, how they were spoken, the inflections, the tone. I don’t see the body language, the eye contact.
But I think that Jesus has staged a profound demonstration of the gospel message.
What is the message?
Jesus came into this world as a Jew. He was hailed as the Jewish Messiah. But his message was for all peoples. He came to break down the walls between us, to cast aside the boundaries.
God has no boundaries. God’s grace is given feely to all. No qualifications. No restrictions. There is enough for everyone. The more you take the more there is. It is a gift that is beyond us, that we do not control. We can only acquiesce and accept it for ourselves. To lay any further claim on it is to restrict the power of God. To attempt to ration it, to make it exclusive to ourselves or to our own little group is to challenge God’s relationship with the whole of humanity.
We do not decide who can share in the love of God. Jesus knew this. His disciples learned this – the hard way. The Canaanite woman understood from the start. It is not for us to build up barriers around ourselves.
It is human nature to build our dwellings and put up fences, to gather the wagons around in a circle. We do this as individuals, and as social groups. We worry about immigrants, refugees; we create inequalities in our society; we discriminate against minorities and on the grounds of gender, race and sexuality. And we even do this in our churches.
God doesn’t want these boundaries. He doesn’t see the differences. And God’s church should be the last place we should see them. The only hands we hold out should those of welcome, the hands that God gives us and which are his hands on this earth. It is not for us to accept God’s grace only to deny it to others. We are not worthy.
The prayer we say immediately before we taken communion, sums this up
Most merciful Lord,
your love compels us to come in.
Our hands were unclean,
our hearts were unprepared;
we were not fit
even to eat the crumbs from under your table.
To which we add the words of the Canaanite woman, the one who really understood
‘Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’
In the end we should all know what to do because Jesus has shown us. WWJD. Not always obvious or easy to discern but always right.