Rev. David Clark sermon: The Woman Who Changed Jesus’ Mind
What a crummy story! Why was Jesus acting so un-Jesus like, insulting a woman in need? For 2,000 years, we’ve been trying to figure it out.
Just a short re-cap, Jesus crosses the boundary to a foreign region and a woman comes yelling for Jesus to use his power to heal her daughter who is possessed by a demon—must have been a teenager. It’s so serious that she crosses all cultural, political and religious boundaries and seeks out help from Jesus. Jesus did what his culture and religion had trained him to do—he ignores her. The disciples urge him to tell her to go away and Jesus obliges. He refers to his self-understanding as messiah, the job description. “I came only for the lost sheep of Israel.” She actually bows down before him (a no-no for both cultures) and begs, “Lord, help me.”
We’d expect him to help. He’s done it before, especially when he is interrupted. He was so compassionate to the hemorrhaging woman who snuck up behind him and touched the hem of his robe. He took time out for the blind guy and the paralytic whose friends lowered him through the roof. But here he acts differently. “Let the children of Israel be fed first, for it is not right to give what is holy to the dogs.”
Say what? Not cool Jesus. He’s going out of his way to slam her and her suffering child. Sounds impossible, until I think about how some of my relatives, people who have big hearts and try to be good people, talk about immigrants. There is not enough, they are scavenging off the system, don’t give their kids health care, let them die, they shouldn’t be here in the first place. Don’t give them education, social services. There’s not enough. That attitude is as crummy today as it was 2,000 years ago. Perhaps God’s grace and providence are bigger than we can imagine.
One way of making sense of Jesus response is to say maybe Jesus, who was human, was suffering from something like compassion fatigue. He often escaped from the crowds to re-charge his batteries and in this passage he went to a foreign land presumably to do just that. He was helping people all the time and knew he needed to get away once in a while. I get that. When I go on vacation, when people ask me what I do for a living, I get a bit evasive. If I spent my time giving pastoral care to everyone on the cruise ship with a problem, I wouldn’t be able to give my best to all of you when I returned.
I’m sure you can relate, too. Have you ever been overwhelmed and snapped at someone you love? Sometimes we see all the problems, all the needs, all the requests for help that come to us and it gets overwhelming and we just want to be left alone and even become un-like ourselves.
Maybe the lesson is to pay attention. If even Jesus can be subject to this, we all can. Maybe it indicates how we need to take care of ourselves, and learn our own limits and be intentional about taking care of our souls so that we can present our best selves to others. Coming to church this morning, was a great idea! It puts you in contact with something healthy as you begin your week. It might open your heart.
A second way of reading the passage is to suggest that Jesus was speaking tongue in cheek, with a little wink and smile to see if she was really serious and had some perseverance. It was an object lesson. There is a long tradition in scripture of people reminding God of the divine promises as if God forgets from time to time. But it’s not so much that God forgets, but it helps people preserver and trusting in the promises that God has made.
Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that God is still acting, still working in this world. The problem isn’t that God isn’t paying attention to our prayers, the problem is that we give up too easily at the first hint that things aren’t going to go our way. Jan Richardson wrote this poem in honor of the Caananite woman who is so persistent.
Don’t tell me no.
I have seen you
feed the thousands,
seen miracles spill
from your hands
like water, like wine,
seen you with circles
and circles of crowds
pressed around you
and not one soul
Don’t start with me.
I am saying
you can close the door
but I will keep knocking.
You can go silent
but I will keep shouting.
You can tighten the circle
but I will trace a bigger one
around the life of my child
who will tell you
no one surpasses a mother
I am saying
I know what you
can do with crumbs
and I am claiming mine,
every morsel and scrap
you have up your sleeve.
Unclench your hand,
Let the scraps fall
for the life
of my child,
the life of
Don’t you tell me no.
Maybe today is the day to claim your crumbs, the promises God has made. Check to see if what you are asking for is in line with God’s promises. Maybe your prayer is “O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz, my friends all drive Porsches…” That isn’t one of the promises, but if you are looking for peace, healing in your soul, mercy, blessing, love, a community of support and care, then keep holding on to the promise. God is faithful. Don’t accept no for an answer, don’t give up.
The third option is to read the text on a flat level and see that the woman changed Jesus’ mind, which is kind of cool because Jesus debated a lot of well-trained theologians and he totally wiped the floor with all of them. But here, a foreign woman wins the debate and changes his mind.
She responds with the notion that there are crumbs and it’s enough. She gave him a reason to let compassion trump tradition. Jesus never talked in exclusivist rule-bearing terms again. From here on, he emphasized compassion. He said in the end, what we are judged on is how we treat the least and the lost, the hurting. He saw his mission as universal.
Jesus gave us a wonderful example. No matter what we’ve been taught, no matter who we’ve been taught to hate and demonize, we can let compassion rule the day and our hearts. Even if we have to let go of our interpretations of scripture, and culture, we need to keep drawing that circle wider. I like to think the point of the story isn’t so much about if Jesus’ mind changed, it’s more about if your mind can change, can you let go of stereotypes, insensitivities, dehumanizing language?
Did Jesus really change his mind? Who knows? The point is are you open to having your mind changed? The gospels retell this story so that it will have an impact on us—can we overcome what we’ve been trained to think in the name of love.
It’s a hard thing. I’ve had to do it a lot. I remember when I was a kid in Iowa watching Hogan’s Heros the sitcom about a WWII POW camp in Germany. I ran around the yard with my friends pretending to kill all the Germans in the whole wide world with my gun, peeew, peew. I hated Germans. Then someone told me that I was half German. I had a girlfriend who dumped me to date someone from Mexico, so I moved my hate to Mexicans—I didn’t eat, nachos for two years in protest before I figured out that was stupid. I had all kinds of prejudices against gays before my brother told me he was gay and I knew him to be a much kinder and forgiving person than any of my gay hating Christian friends. It just seems like every time I figured out what kinds of people to detest, something came along and changed me. So I stopped doing it.
I know I’ve had to change my mind about things. I think that’s what Jesus taught us good religion does. It responds with the ethic of love and compassion over strict doctrine and tradition.
No longer can we be about a rule-based religion that divides people from each other. We’re called to a compassion and love based faith that crosses boundaries, that reaches across behaviors and attitudes of others that we don’t understand. Maybe the reason the crummy story is in the Bible is to help us try to follow Jesus’ example and be open to listening and changing our minds so that compassion might rule the day rather than exclusion.
Pastor David Clark is interim senior pastor for the Redlands United Church of Christ. Rev. David Clark began his ministry in Redlands in 2013.
Rev. David Clark sermon: The Woman Who Changed Jesus’ Mind. Preached at Redlands United Church of Christ, Redlands, California. Former Indianola Iowa Pastor Rev. David Clark is now Senior Pastor of Redlands UCC.