This passage is a microcosm of what I like to call the historical Jesus.
I’ve written about the historical Jesus before, most notably in mini-sermon #7 (the Racist Jesus), and for about two news cycles back in June (and forgive me if there were more), the idea of “what Jesus really looked like” was a hot topic.
Funny thing is, the historical Jesus has been a hot topic in religious circles for centuries upon centuries. There are scholars who devote their entire lives to parsing through the New Testament, trying to discern what can be attributed to the historical Jesus (or the man who actually walked around the desert in sandals), the idealized Jesus (how we, as Christians, have seen him at different points over the past two thousand years), and myth (take that as you will).*
*I would like to point out at this time that this is a simplistic and quick explanation of a specific form of Biblical scholarship, which is (in fact) highly complex and often rewarding. If you’d like to know more, I’d be happy to recommend a few books. Please contact Rev. Averill on the contact page.
For the purpose of this mini sermon, I would like to only consider Jesus’s personality traits and natural (or unnatural) prejudices. Any other considerations of the historical Jesus are for other mini sermons. They are not unimportant. However, I would need to write a book – and this is a 2000 word blog post.
Who was Jesus?
It is such a tiny question, so simple, and yet it’s so difficult to figure it out.
The first problem is that according to accepted Christian doctrine, Jesus is both fully God and fully man (known as the Hypostatic Union; for more see theopedia.com).
Christians therefore have performed mind gymnastics to try and figure this out in our individual minds (and anyone who teaches Sunday School knows how difficult this is to explain to a four-year-old) … and we’re quite good at it.
However, when trying to figure out the historical Jesus, sometimes we have to separate the divine from the human.
I would like to point out this this is not blasphemy. Simply, to understand how Jesus thought with a human mind, to understand his social interactions, we have to understand his culture, his time period, and various other influences that would make an impact on a young Jewish man who started his ministry in roughly AD27.
Jesus lived in a microcosm of Jewish and Hellenic (Greek) influences. He spoke with the phrases and the words other Nazarenes used. He told the jokes that the men around him employed. To live as human, he had to immerse himself in everything, small or large, religious or secular … and, of course, these influences affected him. They changed him. They shaped him as he grew up as the son of a carpenter in Galilee.
To be fully human, he could not be apart. This means that he was just as malleable to social pressures as you may (or may not) be – that he formed political opinions when he saw tax collectors squeeze the poor on behalf of Rome (and who, even when apolitical, doesn’t have some opinion of the current administration on Tax Day?) – that when a pretty girl drew water for him at a well, that his smile wasn’t perhaps a little brighter than it would of been if she had been plain …
This doesn’t in any way make him less godly.
But it does make him more relatable to the people he came to save.
It also makes the historical Jesus more difficult to decipher two thousand years later, when we are a very different people, a very different society, and a very different world.
Who are the players?
To understand the historical Jesus in this context, we have to know what and who was around him and influencing him.
When we open the scene, Jesus has been preaching to the crowds. We know from earlier lessons that he’s compassionate, that he loves the crowds, but sometimes he just wants to be alone. (Note: this is a very human sentiment.)
And that’s what he’s done here. Jesus wants privacy. He wants it so badly he goes to Tyre and Sidon.
To us who don’t know 1st century geography, these just seem like place names. However, Tyre and Sidon are outside of Palestine territory.
This is the one and only time Jesus specifically leaves Palestine — and why?
Because there are fewer people. The crowds (hopefully) won’t follow him. He can commune with his Father in Heaven, or perhaps take a nap without one of his followers waking him up for some (insignificant) reason.
So, naturally, when a woman shows up and wants something, Jesus wants his disciples to get rid of her.
- He wants privacy (as stated above)
- She’s a woman (this is a whole new package to unwrap, but a lonely woman wanting something would be generally considered a nuisance)
- She’s a Canaanite (see below)
The Canaanites are, to put it simply, detestable … at least according to the Jews of that time. The first and most obvious problem is that they are Gentiles. They are not Jews, they are not God’s people. Jesus didn’t come for the Gentiles, he came for his own people. Furthermore, he doesn’t really like Gentiles … after all, what was there to like?
Furthermore, Canaanites are the ancestral enemies of the Jewish people, dating back to Abraham if not before.
So, not only is she a Gentile, but she’s an enemy Gentile … and she is asking for help (her daughter is possessed by a demon; a common complaint that Jesus can deal with but which does take effort) … and Jesus just wants to be alone.
Jesus’s Negative Reaction
In a perfect world, Jesus would have stood up from where he was sitting, brushed off the sand from his robes, and gone and spoken to the Canaanite women. He would have been loving, compassionate, and everything we (two thousand years later) know Jesus to be.
But Jesus is a man. He has human prejudices.
Jesus doesn’t like the Gentiles.
Jesus doesn’t like the Canaanites.
… how do we know?
Well, we just have to read the passage. Matthew 15:24: [Jesus] answered, “I was only sent to help the lost sheep of the House of Israel.”
Between the lines: you are not a lost sheep of Israel. The Canaanite woman may be lost, but she’s not of Israel, Jesus is not her shepherd, it’s not his job to go help her, he has enough to deal with.
She tries again, but then Jesus gets extremely insulting and derogatory. He says that he wouldn’t take children’s food (the children of Israel can be implied here) and throw it to the dogs (Matthew 15:26).
A dog is more than a dog
This is where we need to step back from the text and evaluate how we feel about dogs and how Jesus would have felt about dogs. You may think it’s ridiculous, a dog is a dog … but I’m afraid that here (as in most places) when animals are mentioned (sheep, camels going through the eye of needle, for example) something else is going on.
To many of us in modern day America, we love our dogs. People spend millions of dollars on their pets, there are designer bags you can get to carry around your chihuahua.
Dog therapists are now a reality, dogs can inherit property. Many think of the family dog, it’s part of The American Dream.
There’s the idealized view of the dog of childhood who is a boy’s best friend (or a girl’s) … How many animated films prominently feature dogs? If you can’t come up with an immediate answer, that’s because there are more and more being released each year. It’s nearly impossible to count.
… On the frontier, dogs were used for protection. Most people at least know of someone who has a genuine guard dog. We go up to dogs in the street and ask to pet them. I know I’ve silently cooed over police dogs in airport because they’re so majestic and beautiful and have a purpose… and I know I’m not the only one.
To the blind community, dogs are not just a pet or friend, but a companion and a guide. These dogs are heavily respected in society, they have been trained for a purpose, for the betterment of others. You can admire a seeing eye dog from afar, but it’s common knowledge not to go up and touch the dog because it would interfere … it’s not just respect for the owner, but respect for the dog and his/her purpose.
Dogs are still used for hunting in certain parts of the country, they’re bred to help feed the family with specific hunting or foraging skills … they’re bred to win prizes as sheep dogs as well as in dog shows.
Back in 2008 or so, it made the news cycle that then-Senator Obama had promised his daughters a dog if he won the presidential election. The “First Dog” actually has his own wikipedia page.
I remember a very clever Pepsi commercial during the Superbowl over a decade ago that featured Britney Spears … Bob Dole … and Bob Dole’s dog.
To conclude from all of that: we have a positive association with dogs here in America (and in the West, actually) … but that was not the case in 1st Century Palestine.
At the time calling someone a dog (or comparing them to a dog) was a very specific racial slur. In and around 1st Century Palestine, it wouldn’t be uncommon (if you were a Gentile) to be called a “Gentile dog.” Within about a century or so, the racial slur shifted in the area, and new Christians — who insisted they were not Jews — were referred to as “Christian dogs.”
So, when Jesus goes on about throwing the food of the children (of Israel) to dogs … he would (in modern terms) essentially be inciting twitter throwback, social media cancellation, and would find that his disciples are denying him on the local news channel … if he were saying such things here, now. That’s how bad it would be, how potentially incendiary. CNN would run an hour long news special. It would be bad — really bad. Christianity would fail before it had ever really begun.
Judge Him Not or You May Be Judged
Of course, that was then and this is now. At the time Jesus lived, Jesus had the moral high ground, even if he wasn’t in Palestine. He was in the right. He almost certainly saw nothing wrong as viewing Gentiles as lesser than the Children of Israel.
But … of course … however reprehensible Jesus’s words may be as a historical figure … the point of this story is not that he ran away from the crowds. The point of this story is not that he called a woman he’d never met a “dog” based on her race and religion (although it is historically interesting and it helps us understand what happens). The point of this story is that Jesus listened to the Canaanite woman… that he changed … that he reevaluated the situation at large.
He was, after all, only human. He was a product of his culture, of his time, his race, his religion … his upbringing, the political landscape …
… the fact that Jesus is (at first) shown in such a negative light signals that this is probably a true story. This confrontation (or something very similar) most likely happened. It isn’t a story that later built up around Jesus or was attributed to him … this is a representation of who and what the historical Jesus was.
Was he perfect? No, of course not.
Should he have called the Canaanite woman a dog? No, definitely not. He never even apologizes or acknowledges she might be something other than a dog.
Does that mean we should repudiate him? Absolutely not. We learn from his mistakes, as he himself learned from them. Jesus came to realize that God had sent him to that place and time as a human being to save everyone … not just the Jewish people. It just took him a bit of self-journey to get there.
Jesus was a human man. He wasn’t perfect. He never pretended to be. … but he’s not in the business of being perfect. He’s not in the business of being a paragon. He’s in the business of being human so that he understands us. He’s in the business of living through his flaws, great and small, just as we should.
Jesus was only human (although also fully divine) … just as I am fully human, just as you are fully human, just as your enemy is fully human.
Think about it.