St. Philip Lutheran Church
5 September 2021 + Lectionary 23b (Pent. 15)
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching
Think back for a moment to a childhood role model – maybe it’s a parent, a grandparent, a teacher, or even a pastor or religious leader. When was the first time you realized that your role model wasn’t perfect? There does come a point in our development when something switches: The once-perfect role model we looked up to, idolized even, isn’t so “perfect” after all. Maybe they said something we disagree with. Or we learned they vote differently than we do. Or they hold different beliefs about God, or religion, or the world.
When that happens, it shakes us up and leaves us feeling betrayed. We might want to disregard them entirely and find a new role model. In some cases, when harm or abuse has been inflicted, that might be the best thing we can do.
But in other cases, after some time to absorb the initial shock and process the new information, we realize that maybe we don’t have to discount everything that led up to that moment. Maybe there is redemption, even in their imperfection and shortcomings – something about our imperfect role model that makes them more human and more relatable.
I wonder if the same could be said about Jesus. So often, in Sunday School classrooms and confirmation lessons, we’re presented with an image of the “Perfect Jesus.” “Perfect Jesus” makes no mistakes. He’s the pinnacle of morality and always does the right thing.
But then, we grow up, and we read stories like this one, where Jesus responds to a mother’s desperate cry for help for her daughter with a rude insult akin to a racial slur. That’s a far cry from the “Perfect Jesus” of Sunday School.
In an attempt to reconcile the two, some biblical scholars and preachers have suggested that maybe Jesus was testing the woman’s faith. Did she believe “enough” in order to “deserve” what she was asking for? That doesn’t sit right with me at all, and I don’t believe for one second that Jesus or God would ever test someone’s faith to determine if they’re “worthy” enough.
So where does that leave us? Where are we left when our “Perfect Jesus” role model isn’t so perfect after all, tarnished by a moment of weakness and failure? In short, I think we’re left with grace.
In our creeds and confessions, we believe that Jesus is 100% divine and 100% human. If we really believe that second part to be true – that Jesus is 100% authentically human – then doesn’t that imply that Jesus is subject to the same failures and shortcomings and mistakes as the rest of us humans?
That might feel like the realization that our role model isn’t so perfect after all. But it also means, as one theologian reminds us: “[Jesus] struggles, he snaps, he discovers, he grows, he falters, he learns, he fears, and he overcomes. He’s real, he’s approachable, and he’s authentically one of us.” There is good news and grace in that.
Now, of course, that’s not permission to be rude or to utter hateful slurs about people who are different from us. But that’s also not where the story ends. The story continues with the woman’s brave and clever response: “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And Jesus’s response to that holds the key: “For saying that…” he begins. Or, in a more literal translation offered by biblical scholar and preacher the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney: “For that saying…” For that logos, in the Greek, that word…
This woman becomes the embodiment of the divine Word to the Word himself. She shows Jesus what it means to live more fully into his calling, and Jesus is changed by that moment.
And, for me, therein lies the grace: Where Jesus could’ve stubbornly dug in his heels and refused to listen to a point-of-view he needed to hear, Jesus is instead opened to a more expansive view of the kingdom of God. Jesus’s openness to being transformed in the face of his shortcomings empowers us to acknowledge our own shortcomings and to be opened to what God is doing.
One pastor puts it this way: “Because of [this woman’s] action, Jesus’s heart grows bigger. He realizes again how big his ministry and God’s mercy are, and he responds with a maturity that changes something within himself and empowers inclusivity. Indeed, the kingdom of God is wider and more compassionate that we might think it is or want it to be. As it is plain to see, God’s love and mercy show no partiality, and even Jesus needed to learn that too.”
Because of this woman’s witness, Jesus is able to be opened for the encounter that follows. “Ephphatha. Be opened.” I’ve always assumed Jesus is talking to the deaf man, or speaking a prayer of healing. But I wonder if Jesus is also talking to himself. Jesus sighs and says: “Ephphatha. Be opened. Remember what she taught you about your ministry and God’s mercy and love. Remember why you do this.”
If that’s the Jesus role model we wind up with at the end of this story, I’m okay with that. In fact, I prefer an imperfect, fully human Jesus who’s willing to own up to his own shortcomings and learn from them, rather than a made-up “Perfect Jesus” who we can’t relate to at all.
This is a story of the kind of Jesus who learns, with us, just how expansive God’s love is, who hears the call to be opened, and who responds with a grace that is even bigger than where it started.