An amazing thing happened when Jesus met that Canaanite woman (Matt. 15:21-28). It’s not that Jesus healed the woman’s daughter and might have done so remotely. It’s not that he had close contact with someone his social and religious training insisted he avoid. What’s amazing is that when this foreign woman challenged him, he learned from her, he came to understand his faith and his mission differently, and he changed.
Until that moment, Jesus was concerned almost exclusively with other Jews. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he said. So when this Canaanite woman begged him to heal her daughter, he ignored her. When he finally did speak to her, he used a racial insult, equating her and her daughter with dogs. How uncaring in the face of this mother’s desperate need! Maybe the cultural prejudice in which he had been raised was still strong in him. Maybe he wasn’t able to get past the idea that his ministry was only for God’s chosen few. Maybe he didn’t yet understand the scale of what God was doing.
It’s hard to think of Jesus acting this way. We’ve been taught to see him as perfect – perfectly merciful, perfectly kind and generous and gentle and loving. Everything he does is right, we’ve been taught, a perfect example of God’s will in action. But he’s not pictured that way here. So scholars and preachers, even the gospel writers, like to make him seem that way. Jesus was testing the woman, they say, to prove the depth and determination of her faith. Or he was using her to test his disciples, they say, to teach them about the generosity of grace and the inclusiveness of God’s kingdom. But trying to picture a Jesus who’s perfect, faultless, and unblemished from the beginning doesn’t satisfy me. It denies his raw and real humanity and is hard for me to believe.
And anyway, who could follow a Jesus like that? If he’s perfect, I could never be like him, not in this life. Of course I’d fail somewhere along the way. In a crisis, of course I’d run away. Why would I try to follow a Jesus so perfect? Following him could only remind me of my limitations, my faults, my failures. It could only reinforce my sense of inadequacy.
But there’s another Jesus I might follow. I might follow the Jesus who met the Canaanite woman. That’s the Jesus who can be anointed by God’s Spirit (John 1:32), with whom God can be well pleased (Mark 1:11), and who still has room to grow in wisdom and in God’s favor (Luke 2:52). That’s the Jesus who has to keep struggling not to be led astray by his ego or by his tradition and who has to keep renewing his commitment to God’s will (e.g., Mark 1:29-39; John 6:15; Luke 9:51, etc.).
The Jesus I might have any hope of following is the Jesus who can meet someone outside his boundaries and let his boundaries fall, who can meet someone on the other side of his prejudice and recognize he was wrong. It’s the Jesus who can stand face to face with people his faith tells him to avoid and recognize his deep human connection with them, and who can allow his faith to be changed as a result. That’s the Jesus who can show me what a godly life really is – not a life perfect and unblemished but a life that grows and expands and changes as it matures, until at last it’s complete and free. That’s a Jesus who can show me what it’s like to be fully human and fully divine.
Living a godly life doesn’t mean separating the life I want to live from the life the rest of the world lives. It doesn’t mean maintaining a separation between the sacred and the profane. And it doesn’t mean living a life unstained by the world. It means recognizing that, as Robert Frost put it, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, / That wants it down” (“Mending Wall,” ll. 35-36). Something – call it God’s reconciling love (2 Cor. 5:19) – wants us to let the barriers that divide us fall, so we can recognize what’s holy and human in every other person, and value that person because of it, and act toward that person accordingly. That’s the kind of Jesus – the growing, learning, expanding, maturing Jesus – I might be able to follow.