Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.
This passage when read in isolation often leads to contemporary commentators suggesting that Jesus learned, from the pagan woman, to move on from his Jewish racism.
Leaving aside the problems in suggesting that Jews were racist and had power over the dominant pagan culture surrounding them (which is nonsense), a careful reading of Matthew shows that the editor, and Jesus himself, were concerned to expand the notions of who is included in the Kingdom – even in a work written for a Jewish audience. In Chapter 8 Jesus heals a Centurion’s boy (another can of worms) and commends the Centurion’s faith. After this encounter Jesus foretold people coming to the Kingdom’s feast from all the corners of the earth – hardly a position of prejudice against Gentiles. Matthew wove pagans into his genealogy and mysterious foreigners followed the star to the newborn Jesus. In his early ministry (Chapter 4) Jesus included people from Syria and from ten Gentile cities. In Chapter 8 Jesus healed two demon possessed Gentiles. So, if this woman was teaching Jesus about being open to Gentiles she’d not understood him very well!
Instead it might be rather more interesting to see Jesus’ teaching the woman and helping her increase her self confidence. As a tutor at the Scottish College I can be provocative to encourage students to reach beyond themselves, to see their potential, and to push back in argument as they find a stronger sense of ministerial identity. Perhaps Jesus was doing this with the woman – he commends her faith and delights in her answer.
This isn’t to say that Jesus didn’t learn. He learned carpentry from his father and Aramaic on his mother’s lap but never ceased to be the eternal second person of the Trinity. In his humanity, Jesus certainly learned but did not need to learn moral truth from anyone. He was, and is, moral truth. The only instruction that Jesus needed was from God’s Eternal Majesty – and this He always heard clearly.
Eternal Majesty, you guide us through Your Voice, enfleshed in Jesus, made present by Your Abiding Spirit, help us to learn when we’re pushed and provoked, help us to see you both through and beyond our cultural assumptions, that we might share our faith in Your immortal truth. Amen.
The Rev’d Andy Braunston is the Minister for Digital Worship and is a member of the Peedie Kirk URC in Kirkwall.