Thursday 17 August 2023

The Jesus You Know

I call it “the stained glass Jesus.”

You probably know what I mean. The Jesus that appeared in old stained glass windows, solemnly looking ahead or with eyes raised heavenward or benevolently gazing  at the disciples or some other biblical character. A mostly benign figure, unsmiling, but still kindly, the very essence of divine perfectness. The Jesus that goes so well with soaring arches, high ceilings, polished wood and tall spires. The Jesus of tradition. The Jesus who reminds us of where we’re going (we hope).

There's nothing wrong with that Jesus. I love that Jesus. He speaks to me. Sometimes.

But I also love the very human Jesus who I think laughed and played, probably told a good joke, smiled a lot and wasn't always perfect. To me, that Jesus — down to earth, rough and unpolished, flawed and conflicted — goes well with the world we live in.

I love that Jesus. He speaks to me.

This is the Jesus in Matthew 15:21-28 who tries his best to ignore a Canaanite woman pleading for help, and then, when she won’t go away, he informs her that he's not here for her, he's here for “the lost sheep of Israel.” It’s not fair to take the children’s food and feed it to dogs, he says. Yes, Jesus said that, according to Matthew. Apparently short-tempered and exclusive, this Jesus doesn't seem to want to have anything to do with her.  So she points out that even the dogs get crumbs from their master's table. All she wants is what might be a "crumb" to Jesus, the healing of her daughter. Jesus acknowledges her faith and heals her daughter.

Now, before you’re tempted to dismiss this as “not the Jesus I know,” fake news or, worse, justification for excluding others (definitely not any Jesus I know), consider why the author of Matthew might think their audience needed to hear this kind of a story.

Connect this scene with the one before it, in which Jesus challenges the pharisees' criticism of the disciples not observing the appropriate cleanliness rituals. It's not what goes into your mouth that defiles you, but the words that come out of it, he says, challenging both tradition itself and the use of it to hurt and exclude. Then Matthew gives us a demonstration of that by having Jesus cruelly reject this woman's pleas just because she’s Canaanite, a traditional enemy of Jews. Matthew wanted their audience to feel the hurt of the woman, and they would have. And her power, too.

The point isn’t just the action, but the result: Jesus learns. And if the very human Jesus can learn that God is for everyone, then why shouldn’t you and I? The crowds have followed him everywhere, the pharisees challenge and test him, there are so many sick to heal. And there are the prejudices and traditions he grew up with as "a good and faithful Jew." If Jesus can learn and grow, then so can we, can't we?

Sometimes you have to break a window to be able to see clearly.