How do we learn? I don’t have a specific answer in mind when I ask that question; I’m just putting it out there. How do we learn? Are you a visual learner? Do you understand more by seeing how something works rather than hearing about it or reading about it? Do you learn by doing? Or can you pick up an instruction manual, read through it, then go and repair a small engine? Some people can. I’m not sure how to classify my learning style; it may be a combination of all of the above, except for the repairing of the small engine, although you never know. But when I ask this question, it isn’t just about learning skills; I’m also asking how do we learn about the world, about life, about people?
One of my favorite movies from the 1980’s was “War Games,” starring a very young Matthew Broderick. He played an underachieving, high school genius, computer geek before any of the rest of us realized what computers were going to mean for our lives. With the help of some other computer friends, he hacked into the military thinking he was going to play some cool new war simulation games.
Well they were war simulation games, but the main computer thought they were real. The computer, known as Joshua, thought that attacks were being launched; and to make a long story short, it had to learn what the real outcome of nuclear war would be before it started an actual nuclear war.
This movie came out in the latter days of the Cold War with the
Union. It spoke to the greatest fear of my childhood, and probably
to the greatest fear of my older sister and brother’s generation as well:
nuclear war. Two weeks ago, when the tension and rhetoric with North
Korea was blisteringly high, I thought about
this movie. Spoiler alert: Joshua the computer does indeed learn and stops the
launch of a full-out nuclear war at the last, most dramatic, moment. The
computer’s last words of the movie are:
“A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?”
So the computer, Joshua, learned. We know that we learn, or are at least capable of learning. So here is my fundamental question: did Jesus learn? Did Jesus learn something from the Canaanite woman?
This is a hard question for many of us, because it smacks up against our understanding of who Jesus was. But we claim that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, so if Jesus was fully human, does that mean that there were things Jesus needed to learn?
Our passage starts with an explanation from Jesus about what really defiles. All we hear are his words to the crowds, but they were spoken after a confrontation with some Pharisees and scribes. The religious folks were upset that Jesus’ disciples did not perform the ritual hand washing before they ate that purity laws demanded. We wash our hands before we eat for the sake of hygiene. Observant Jews, however, performed hand washing and other ritual cleansing for the sake of those purity laws. To not perform the ritual washing was to be unclean; to be unclean, or to be defiled was to be separated from God.
Jesus turned their argument back on them. He called them hypocrites. He lifted up words from the prophet Isaiah,
“This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
Now we catch up to our passage. Calling the crowds around him, Jesus told them about what really defiles. It is not what goes into your mouth. It is what comes out of your mouth. Because what comes out of your mouth comes from what is in your heart. That is where you find defilement or cleanliness. Is your heart defiled? Is it unclean? Or is it close to God?
All of this is great. I’m cheering Jesus on with every word. But then he left that crowd and that place, and he and the disciples traveled to the district of Tyre and
This was a Gentile region. There a Canaanite woman, a Gentile, approached him,
shouting at him,
“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
We expect people to come shouting after Jesus, calling after him, touching the hem of his robe. But we don’t expect what happened next – nothing. Nothing happened. Jesus ignored the woman. He said nothing to her, just continued on as though she had not spoken or approached him at all. The disciples could not ignore her. They urged him to send her away. She was a bothersome woman who kept shouting at them, and she was getting more annoying by the minute.
Jesus spoke then, but his answer, although directed at the woman, was actually spoken to the disciples.
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of
But this Canaanite woman, this mother of a sick child, was undeterred. She knelt before Jesus, which in the Greek context would have been seen as an act of worship, and said,
“Lord, help me.”
The Jesus we think we know would have relented at that moment. He would have shown her the same compassion he showed the crowds. He addressed her at last, but what he said hurts to hear. Jesus told the woman,
“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
This woman, this Canaanite woman, this mother with a sick child, was undeterred. She did not slink away crushed and broken. If Jesus’ words hurt her, we do not glean that information from the text. Instead, what she did next was powerful. She turned Jesus’ words back on him.
“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
It was a bold statement for anyone to make, but it was especially bold for a Gentile woman, a Canaanite woman, to make to a Jewish rabbi. But this was a mother with a sick child, and she was undeterred. Jesus heard her. Not only did he hear her, he rewarded her persistence. Her faith, Jesus declared, was great! Her desire was granted. The woman’s daughter was healed instantly.
Sure it’s a happy ending. The woman got what she wanted. But why did Jesus respond the way he did? It seems especially ironic after his teaching about a person’s heart and what really defiles. If what is in our heart defiles us than is this what was in Jesus’ heart? Did Jesus’ heart hold racism? Sexism? The woman had to convince Jesus to help her daughter. What was in Jesus’ heart?
There are many theories as to what Jesus was trying to do with his response to this woman. One is that the story would not have sounded as harsh to the original hearers as it does to our modern ears. Perhaps the saying about the children and the dogs was from an ancient proverb; one that would not have been offensive to the people living in the time of Jesus. Maybe Jesus was using the word for dog affectionately, as if he were addressing a puppy. The Greek word for dog used here does make the distinction between a household animal and the wild, stray dogs that roamed during that time. The problem with this theory is that the Aramaic Jesus spoke did not contain this particular distinction.
There is the possibility that this was Jesus’ way of testing the woman’s faith. If she passed the test, then her request would be granted. He tested. She passed. But when did Jesus test people before he healed them or their loved ones? I can’t think of another example. He did not make the crowds pass a test before he fed them. He might have turned the tests that the religious scholars used to try and trap him on their heads, but he didn’t test the people who came to him for help.
Another possibility is that this story must be taken just as it is; harshness and all. Jesus was a Jewish man of his day. He lived in a particular context and that context included chauvinism toward women and suspicion of outsiders, others. One commentator I read, wrote, “His limited perspective is in part corrected by the clever retort of a desperately bold woman, who convinces him that Gentiles must also share in God’s bounty.”
Does that mean that Jesus learned? Does that mean that this woman pushed him to see with a new perspective? Does that mean that her persistence, her undeterred pleading changed his mind, opened his mind and taught him something?
Yes, I know that idea, that possibility makes us uncomfortable. Yes, I realize that pushes back against what we have been taught to believe and understand about Jesus. But Jesus was fully human. As one commentator put it, Jesus endured all of the tests and trials that all humans do, but he did not sin. Maybe not sinning does not mean that Jesus didn’t have something to learn. Maybe not sinning means that Jesus actually did learn. When confronted, he did not fall back on excuses or defensiveness to justify his position. Maybe he learned from this Canaanite woman, this Gentile, this other, saw that he was wrong and immediately corrected course. Maybe not sinning was that he learned, heard her and changed direction. He was open to her pleas, to what he could learn from her, and to what God was speaking through her.
Did Jesus learn? It seems to me that if he did, then that is our good news. Because it means that we still have much to learn. It means that not only is God still speaking, but may be speaking to us through the most unlikely of people; people who are undeterred in making us listen, undeterred in calling us to see. Jesus learned, and if Jesus learned, then so can we. May we be undeterred in faithfulness. May we be undeterred in learning. May we be undeterred in being willing to change and correct our course when God sends us a new lesson. May we be undeterred.
Thanks be to God!
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.