Jesus could be a real jerk sometimes.
Case in point: the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15.
You remember the story. After months of popular acclaim in Galilee, the Teacher and his disciples have attracted the attention of some very powerful people—and made some very powerful enemies. Religious leaders, dispatched from Jerusalem on a mission to challenge Jesus and refute his teachings, hound their steps. Word reaches them that their friend and ally, John the Baptist, has been brutally executed at the hand of Herod. And all the while, the crowds press in on them, hungry for the hope and healing that have become Jesus’s brand among the harried people of Roman Judea.
That’s when this woman appears. The ancient storyteller identifies her first by her race: she’s a “Canaanite,” one of Israel’s most ancient, most reviled enemies. It’s an odd word, one that had largely fallen out of popular use by the time this gospel was written near the end of the first century, which forces us to consider whether the storyteller was engaging in dog-whistle politics. After all, in audience members’ minds, “Canaanite” would have conjured up images of the Exodus and God’s command to exterminate the inhabitants of Canaan as they carried out their takeover of the Promised Land.
The Canaanite woman is further identified by her behavior: she’s shouting at Jesus, to the great annoyance of his disciples. “Lord, get rid of her,” they implore. Never mind that her shouts are cries for help, or that her daughter is “terribly demonized.” Their request seems reasonable, given that Jesus’s only reaction to the hurting woman thus far has been silent indifference.
The Teacher indicates his agreement with his disciples’ sentiments by uttering one of the most uncharitable sayings attributed to him in the canonical gospels: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Let’s not forget that the health and wholeness of a child is at stake here.
When the woman breaks through the protective cordon of disciples and makes her case directly to Jesus, he doubles down, topping it off with a racial slur: “It is not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The irony of Jesus raising the question of what constitutes virtuous behavior while calling a woman and her sick child “dogs” in the same sentence seems to have been lost on him.
The woman, desperate enough to collaborate with Jesus in her own debasement, offers a clever retort: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” The Teacher finally responds in the way we expect, granting the woman’s wish, commending her faith, and finally offering healing for her ailing daughter. The storyteller confirms that it was done instantly, just as Jesus commanded. All’s well that ends well.
But wait. This is Jesus we’re talking about here—and he’s supposed to be the very model of moral conduct, the Exemplar. We can’t fall back on some consequentialist, “ends justify the means” legitimization of behavior that is, on its face, bigoted and cruel. And we can’t overlay our post-incarnational conceptions of Jesus’s character on a text that pre-dates them. In other words, we can’t argue, “Jesus was pure in thought, word, and deed; therefore, his conduct here must be righteous.” (Well, actually, we can do this. We’ve been doing it for centuries, ignoring the clear, face-value meaning of one of the most ancient accounts of the character and works of our Teacher for the sake of dogma. If we’re going to keep it up, we ought at least to blush a little when we do it.)
So what can we do with this story?
Here’s a modest proposal: if the answer to the question “What would Jesus do?” is, at least in one instance, “Act like a big ol’ racist jerk,” we should perhaps consider how that affects our conception of God and our doctrine of the incarnation.
And here’s a hypothesis, for your consideration: What if this story is really about the divinity and humanity of Jesus? What if it answers longstanding questions about how Jesus can be both fully God and fully human, and what it meant for God to become incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth?
Here’s what I mean: A lot of people ask God for help every day—millions, perhaps billions. Many of them ask for healing, for themselves or for someone they love. Sometimes God answers those requests with a “yes.” Most of the time, however, God doesn’t answer at all, and the only response the supplicant ever receives is silence. It is God’s nature, it would appear, to reject most requests of this type. What if Jesus is simply expressing this divine aspect of his nature in his encounter with the Canaanite woman? What if he simply acting God-like—uncomfortable as that may be, for us—in his initial tight-lipped dismissal of her plea?
And what if what finally compelled Jesus to act was not something inherent to his divinity, but something inherent to his humanity? In the last decade, neurologists have discovered that empathy, our psychological identification with the feelings of another, is hard-wired into the human brain. Simply witnessing another person suffering triggers massive, cascading reactions in our own nervous system, lighting up the pain receptors in our own brains and activating the vagus nerve, which connects the brain to the heart, lungs, stomach, and liver. That tightness you experience in your chest when something shocks you, and that sour feeling you get in your stomach when you witness something grotesque, are caused by this neural cascade. Though these responses can be dulled or interrupted—wealthier people often experience less intense vagus cascades than poorer people, tellingly—the research shows that feeling compassion for another person is one of the most human things we do.
What if Jesus experienced those physiological responses too, as the Canaanite woman fell to her knees before him—that tightness in his human chest, that aching in his human heart? What if that cascading reaction to her pain in his very human nervous system crashed into his divine conceptions of what would be a “right” or “good” or “appropriate” response—and overwhelmed them? In other words, what if Jesus’s human nature moved him to respond compassionately to the Canaanite woman in a way his divine nature couldn’t or wouldn’t?
What might that say about Jesus? What might it say about God?
And perhaps most importantly, what might it say about you and me as we wrestle with our uncanny ability to ignore the suffering of others all around us? What if our own inclination to avoid the gaze of the homeless person collecting change on the corner has less to do with our humanity and more to do with the image of God we bear? What if our casual refusal to address concretely the 100,000 deaths last year in Syria or to help the 350,000 LGBT kids who were homeless last night in America derives less from our “sinful human nature” and more from our proclivity for acting like God?
In other words, what if the answer to the world’s massive compassion deficit isn’t being more like God at all? What if it’s being less like God? What if it’s being more like human beings?
It’s a provocative hypothesis, I know. It may even be heretical. But if testing it out in the world makes me even a little bit more responsive to the suffering of my neighbors, I have a feeling Jesus won’t mind.