Sunday, 20 March 2011
Transformation (2): the vulnerability of God
Sermon on Matthew 15: 21-28 (The Canaanite woman)
Our Gospel reading this morning recounts a remarkable story, Why? Because it shows Jesus changing his mind and if Jesus was God then it might mean that God changes his mind. We traditionally think of God as omniscient but how can a God that is all knowing change his mind? And if God does change his mind then how can he be omniscient?
Well I think God does change his mind because God is a god who transforms. In particular he transforms human lives – as he does the lives of the Canaanite woman and her daughter. And transformation involves change not just on the part of the person who is transformed but on God’s part as well. I will try to explain.
First to remind you of the story: a woman – from Canaan – according to Matthew, more specifically Syrophoenicia according to Mark – but anyway clearly a Gentile rather than a Jew – approaches Jesus and begs him to heal her sick daughter. Jesus ignores the woman: or more precisely does not answer her. This is noteworthy in itself. Nowhere in the Gospels do we hear of Jesus ignoring someone. It sounds rude and out of character. But of course we also know that Jesus was constantly besieged by people with sick relatives or are who were sick themselves. Are we to suppose that he addressed all of these personally and healed them all? It seems unlikely.
But in this particular case Matthew makes it clear that Jesus heard the woman’s request yet ‘answered her not a word’. We learn that he had heard her request because, instead of talking to her, Jesus – again rather rudely it seems – talks about her to his disciples. Of course they as – they often seem to be – are irritated by people – like this woman – who persistently try and attract Jesus’ attention – and particularly when they are noisy with it as she was. The disciples urge Jesus to send her away and he seems to agree to do so. ‘I was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel;’ he agrees. Then somehow the woman manages to get close to Jesus – within touching distance – because she falls at his feet and repeats her request for help.
This time Jesus sounds even ruder. He doesn’t call her a dog directly but does so indirectly, by telling her that ‘It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs’. In other words he is saying that he only came to help the Jews not Gentiles like her – the dogs. Now her reply is pretty clever. She uses Jesus’ dog metaphor against him. By reminding him that even dogs need food. Jesus’ changes his mind about helping her and heals the woman’s daughter.
There are of course two things that are surprising about this story: firstly Jesus apparent rudeness and secondly Jesus’ persuadability. Let’s just briefly look at the rudeness. I think if we tell the truth as we see it we can often sound rude. Because truth is often uncomfortable. And note that the woman doesn’t seem affected by what we see as Jesus’ rudeness. Firstly when he seems to ignore her she doesn’t give up. Secondly when he calls her a dog far from taking offence and saying ‘Whoa there you’ve just called me a dog’ she accepts the description and uses it to her advantage. A) Her daughter is really sick. What’s a bit of name calling to her? B) She knows Jews call Gentiles dogs – what does that matter in the grand scheme of things? Incidentally I like dogs and think they are infinitely superior to humans in many regards but perhaps that’s a bit of a digression.
What I think is much more surprising than Jesus’ rudeness (or is it truth telling as he see it with a bit of hyperbole?) is Jesus’ persuadablity. Jesus is in effect persuaded to change how he sees and implements his ministry by the Canaanite woman. Instead of being sent by God to save the Jews, he now seems persuaded that he has been sent to save the Gentiles as well. This is a big change in direction for him. This is why this story is important for Matthew and the church he is writing his gospel for – a church mostly likely made up of mostly Jews - which is trying to sort out how its copes with Gentiles who want to be Christians
Why should we be surprised that Jesus changes his mind? Well perhaps it is because it implies weakness on his part and we want our heroes to be strong. In control of the situation rather than at the mercy of others.
Even as a 12 year old child visiting the temple Jesus seems to know what he should do and does it – in opposition to his parent’s wishes and presumably instructions. Throughout his ministry he commands and people obey him. He say let this happen and it does. Even the winds and waves obey him. OK he is tempted at times to do things other than what he ends up doing – as at the beginning of his ministry when he is tempted by the Devil in the Wilderness, or as at the end of his ministry - in the Garden of Gethsemane when he pleads with God that he might be allowed to take a different course – but he seems always to end up in control of his own actions and also what is going on around him.
The crucifixion of course changes all this. At his crucifixion Jesus is at the mercy of others. He no longer issues commands that are instantly obeyed. In fact he issues no commands at all after he has been arrested. He is led rather leads. He has pain and suffering inflected upon him rather than bringing relief and healing to others. He cannot control what is happening to him. And this means that the worst happens, he’s killed.
But the story of the Canaanite woman comes during Jesus’ ministry when he is more clearly in control of his destiny. Might his persuadability, his apparent weakness, be a foreshadowing of things to come? Of course for Matthew the story helps explain why Christianity – whilst growing out of Judaism – became a religion for all. But perhaps it also tells us something more important – something about the persuadability and the vulnerability of God.
You could of course argue that Jesus changing his mind in the face of a rather clever remark by both a woman and a gentile – i.e. someone of the lowest possible status in first century Israel – tells us nothing about the nature of God. All we are seeing is an aspect of Jesus’ human nature and we know that most human beings change their mind all the time. Well I do at least as my friends constantly tell me.
But if we look back in the Old Testament we find at least at the beginning lots of stories of God changing his mind, largely in response to human pleading, much as in the story of the Canaanite woman.
Perhaps the most famous of such stories is the story of Abraham pleading with God not to destroy the city of Sodom after God has decided to do so. You’ll remember that Abraham – like the Canaanite woman- uses persistence and clever rhetoric to get God to change his mind. Like the Canaanite woman Abraham has to repeat his request several times. Like the Canaanite woman Abraham uses God’s own words against him to persuade him. Perhaps then it is less surprising to find Jesus can change his mind and yet be God.
Moreover I think that petitionary prayer makes no sense if we don’t think that God can change his mind. I know some people think that the point of petitionary prayer is to bring us into line with the mind of God, to align us with what he has already decided. I do not believe this. If Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, did not believe that his father could take away the cup why then did he beg him to do so.
But back to the story of the Canaanite woman. We can sometimes get so bemused by the apparent rudeness but also by the symbolic significance of the encounter for Jesus’ mission that we forget this is actually a story of a healing. At the heart of it is a sick little girl. We forget about her because she doesn’t really figure in the story. She is off-stage as it were. But nevertheless she and what happens to her are crucial to the story.
She presumably was not worrying about whether Jews called Gentiles ‘dogs’. She had no interest in the symbolic significance of her mother’s clever irony for Matthew’s church 100 years later or so. What for her mattered was that she was sick and now was well. And for that to happen Jesus had to change his mind.
All transformation comes out of sacrifice. All Jesus lost here was, in reality, some apparent authority. A leader who is indecisive risks losing followers. But in the end for people’s lives to be transformed something has to be given up. Sometimes, as here, something quite small. Sometimes as at the crucifixion something very big indeed. All transformation also involves a loss of control on the part of the one doing the transforming. So Jesus has to lose control to heal the young daughter of the Canaanite woman.
The Gospel is full of encounters between Jesus and ordinary people like the Canaanite women whose lives are transformed by the encounter. Not many of the accounts of these encounters show Jesus affected by the encounter. It is almost as the gospel writers are afraid of describing the impact on Jesus of what he does for people. And yet we know that what he does, does affect him. In the end it leads to his suffering, his death, his resurrection, his own transformation. In each of the encounters with ordinary peoples we might expect to see a foreshadowing of the ultimate transforming event of all time: Jesus’ crucifixion.
Rowan Williams speaks of the ‘vulnerability’ at the heart of transformation. This vulnerability is not only necessary on our part – those of us who need to be transformed – but is demonstrated by God who does the transforming. Our God is not just a ‘great big god’ he’s a ‘great big vulnerable god’.