The Surprise, the Scandal, of Jesus (Or That Time Jesus Gave a Woman the Cold Shoulder)

Then Jesus left Galilee and went north to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Gentile [Greek: Canaanite] woman who lived there came to him, pleading, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! For my daughter is possessed by a demon that torments her severely.”
But Jesus gave her no reply, not even a word. Then his disciples urged him to send her away. “Tell her to go away,” they said. “She is bothering us with all her begging.”
Then Jesus said to the woman, “I was sent only to help God’s lost sheep—the people of Israel.”
But she came and worshiped him, pleading again, “Lord, help me!”
Jesus responded, “It isn’t right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs.”

Matthew 15:21-26 (NLT)

We might be surprised to find that Jesus gave this woman the silent treatment. Then to make matters worse he denied her request with a put-down! As surprising as this might be, this incident had a much greater surprise for the earliest readers of Matthew’s account of Jesus.

What shocked people then was not what shocks us now. In fact when Jesus gave this woman the silent treatment, he did what anyone in that time and place would have expected Jesus to do. There was a common belief that God had given the land to the descendants of Israel. Here, however, was a descendant of Canaan. Beliefs lead to attitudes, and while there was an attitude of disgust toward foreigners generally there was an even worse attitude toward the indigenous peoples. This Canaanite was a reminder of the failure of the descendants of Israel to completely take the promised land.

That Jesus gave this women the silent treatment was not a surprise. Indeed the disciples thought she should be driven away, betraying the belief that her people should have been driven out hundreds of years earlier. What was shocking here is that Jesus engaged in conversation. What was even more shocking is that Jesus commended her faith and granted the miracle.

She replied, “That’s true, Lord, but even dogs are allowed to eat the scraps that fall beneath their masters’ table.”
“Dear woman,” Jesus said to her, “your faith is great. Your request is granted.” And her daughter was instantly healed.

Matthew 15:27-28 (NLT)

Let us take note that this descendant from Canaan gave no hint that she wanted to break with her people and identify with the descendants of Israel instead. The faith that Jesus commended was not faith in the Jewish religion, but in Jesus himself. That was truly shocking!

Let us take note also, that Jesus did not instruct the Canaanite woman to become Jewish, to identify with the descendants of Israel, to make their, and his, religion hers. Rather he does a good deed, an act of love; he healed her daughter. As shocking as Jesus’ cold shoulder might be to us today, the positive engagement with Jesus, and the affirmation of a Canaanite woman’s faith in himself is what was truly shocking at the time of the incident.

Some of our church members are following along with me in reading through the New Testament using the OneYear Bible. In our readings this past week there have been a lot of surprises on top of this incident with the Canaanite woman. Jesus walked on water leading the disciples to connect Jesus with the divine: “You really are the Son of God!” (Matthew 14:2 NLT). Jesus taught that character was more important than ritual purity leading the Pharisees to be offended (Matthew 15:1-20). The word for offence in the Greek is a word that has come into our English language; scandal. Jesus was not just full of surprises, he was full of scandal too. In a further surprise for the earliest readers, Jesus brought clarity about his identity with Peter’s confession that he is the Christ, the Messiah (Matthew 16:13-19). So surprising, so scandalous, and so dangerous, was this idea, that Jesus told the disciples not to tell anyone (Matthew 16:20). Then there was that weird incident we call the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9) where it was made evident that Jesus is greater than the law, represented by Moses, and the prophets, represented by Elijah. What, or who, can be greater than the law and prophets other than God? Again another surprise, another scandalous thought, another dangerous idea. Matthew will go on to tell us more shocking things than these, such as Jesus being killed, usually a sign that one is not the Messiah, and that Jesus rose from the dead, a sign that Jesus is not your usual idea of a Messiah. And never mind healing a Canaanite women, the Book of Matthew ends with a huge surprise:

Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:18-20 (NLT)

Everyone is invited to this party, including Canaanite women!

So what does this have to do with us today?

First, do we feel the shock, the scandal of Jesus? Or have we become rather blasé about it all?

Have we become so accustomed to the stories of Jesus that they have lost their shock value? Have we become so accustomed to the teaching of Jesus that nothing surprises us? Perhaps we need to put ourselves back into the shoes of the first readers of Matthew’s Gospel, or the people actually there with Jesus at that time, and be shocked.

Or are we not shocked by Jesus because he is not at the centre of our faith? Perhaps some of us need to pay less attention to Paul, or Calvin, or (insert your favourite Christian teacher here), and pay more attention to Jesus?

Or is it possible that we have just fallen into Christianity because we are Canadian and there happens to be a lot of Christianity in Canada? Or our parents and grandparents just happen to be Christians so we just happen to be Christians too? Is Christianity a religion we subscribe to, a box we tick off in a census, or is God the God who has shocked us and rocked our world in Jesus? If Jesus has truly shocked us we will not want to hold onto Christianity as a religion we practice, but to Jesus as the anchor for our souls, the wisdom for our lives, and the hope for our future.

Have we experienced the scandal of divine love?

Some think the idea of divine love is crazy and scandalous because of suffering. With all the troubles of this world and this life, how could anyone believe there is a God who is for us and not against us? Yet beauty has a habit of breaking through. There was great ugliness when hateful people strung Jesus up on a cross. Yet beauty broke through. That was a surprise.

Some think the idea of divine love us crazy and scandalous because divine judgement might seem to be more important and makes more sense. But in Jesus “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” becomes “’this is my body broken for you,’ and I’m not going to break your body. ‘This is my blood shed for the forgiveness of your sins’ and I’m not going to shed your blood.” That was a surprise.

Do we have the audacity to believe in divine love, that God is, and that God is for us and not against us?

Second, do we continue the shock, the scandal of it all?

Does it ever surprise people that we are for them and not against them?

In Conclusion.

It is possible that we have made Jesus, and Christianity, boring. What has been shocking in our society is not Jesus and the idea of divine love, but unmarked graves in religious residential schools and pastors whose sins have found them out.

Let us get back to the most surprising, the most shocking, the most scandal ridden person in all of human history – Jesus. Let us follow in his footsteps with some surprises of our own.

What Jesus Said About Our Biggest Influencers. (And How What Jesus Said Has Helped Me As a Father of a Gay Child)

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me…

Matthew 10:34-37 (NRSV)

These may be the most surprising words of Jesus. It seems out of character, not Christlike. However, when read with everything else, of course Jesus said it.

Let us remember that Matthew in presenting Jesus to us has already pointed out that the current leadership, both political and religious, is lacking. Jesus is the better leader. Matthew has told us that Jesus faced opposition from those other leaders, and his disciples will face the same. Which leads to the next point Matthew makes as he continues to introduce Jesus to us, namely, we face a choice. Given the leadership credentials of Jesus, will we follow him? Given that we may face opposition, will we follow him?

We can follow the status quo leadership and experience the status quo, or we can follow Jesus and experience big disruption in our lives. To paraphrase Jesus as he speaks about the division that following him brings, even to families: “Follow me and it is going to get messy!”

Thinking of what Jesus said about our love for him being greater than for our families, when we see the word love we may jump to the idea of “having affection for,” or “having compassion and concern for.” Is Jesus asking us to have greater affection for him, or concern for him? It seems to me that Jesus can take care of himself. As for our sons, when they were younger, not so much.

Family relationships and love within family relationships are about more than affection, compassion, and concern. They are about being formed, influenced, and affected by. Our families probably have greater influence on us than anyone or anything else. My Mum had an expression which I often heard growing up, “you get like the people you live with.” If we are not careful we will pick up attitudes and habits without even knowing it, which can include judgemental attitudes, overly pessimistic or overly optimistic attitudes, misuse of alcohol, and bad financial habits to name a few.

When Jesus says love me more than your family, he does not mean have more compassion and concern for him than your family, but allow your relationship with him to have greater impact on you. What he is in effect saying is “Don’t fall into being just like your family, lean into me and be more like me instead.” We tend to have a deep relationship of influence within our families, even when we don’t think we do. Jesus wants us to have a deeper relationship of influence with him and experience a greater impact from him. He is the wiser and greater authority on life than our family members. The way of Jesus is way better than the ways of your family.

Some will read these verses about disruption coming to family and will think “see we are following Jesus well because my devotion to Christianity has brought division to my family.” There is no more obvious example of this than when a child comes out as gay. Some well meaning Christian leaders call upon parents of gay children to try to get them to change their minds, to straighten them out. If that does not happen, don’t allow a significant other into you home for that will send the wrong signal. If they get married, don’t attend the wedding because that will send the wrong signal. If they do get married, don’t allow your child to bring their partner for Christmas dinner, again because it will send the wrong signal. Following this kind of advice will obviously bring disruption to family relationships and indeed one’s child will pick up the signals and will likely not want to show up for Christmas dinner thank you very much. This family disruption is proof, for some, that one is following Jesus well. “See I love Jesus more than my child!”

Moving further along in Matthew we come across some words of Jesus that have been very meaningful for me:

He left that place and entered their synagogue; a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” so that they might accuse him. He said to them, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.

Matthew 12:9-14 (NRSV emphasis added)

The religious teachers were quite adamant that to be godly one must never work on a sabbath. Yet Jesus points out that even they knew that sometimes it is better to ignore their own teaching on righteousness in order to do the right thing. The sheep needs rescued. The religious rules just don’t work in this instance. Following the religious rules is unwise when there is a sheep in a pit.

There are a whole group of people in a pit. They hide, sometimes for years, sometimes forever, something very important about themselves from religious parents. They try to change themselves and despair when they can’t. Some are kicked out of their homes. Some take their own lives. The religious rules make gay children, teens and adults alike, feel not at home at home, not at home in their home church, and not at home with themselves.

I know what the Bible says about same-gender sex (which happens to be way less than what it says about the Sabbath), but people in a pit need our help, and I know what Jesus said about that.

It has been important for my wife and I that our gay son feels at home at home. Being the father of a gay child has not been difficult. Being the father of a gay child and being a Baptist has. Having a gay child has not led me to have all the answers, but it has led me to good questions, and to a greater awareness of some really bad answers. With so much being said among Baptists in our day on such matters perhaps part of the solution going forward is for less pontification from religious leaders like me, which ends up sounding like Pharisees pontificating about the Sabbath, and more giving parents and those who are gay alike the resources and space to figure it out. When it is your sheep that falls in a pit you have the eyes to see the wise thing to do. The Bible says that sometimes the religious rules just don’t work. Or at least Jesus pointed it out.

The way of Jesus is way better than the ways of our religion. Let us put Jesus and the way of Jesus at the centre. Sometimes religion doesn’t and sometimes religious leaders don’t. Let us not unthinkingly fall into religion and the religion of the religious leaders but let us lean into Jesus.

So in introducing us to Jesus, Matthew begins to present us with a choice; to put Jesus at the centre of our lives or not. We may think we do, but family and/or religious leaders may be there instead.

(Some time ago I put together a series of videos on my experience of being a pastor and the father of an openly gay child. The project is unfinished, and in hindsight could be better, but it is what it is, I did what I could, and if it helps anyone, it can be found here. The full sermon from which this bog post has been taken can be seen here.)