I don’t know how you can hear this story as any way other than well, Jesus, doesn’t come off too well, at least not initially. Commentators have often tried to find a way to suggest otherwise, implying that Jesus was simply testing the poor woman, or maybe giving his disciples some kind of lesson; that his intentions were good from the outset. But I think that’s crap, and it arises from a need to make Jesus less than fully human — impose on him our notion of perfection.
The fact of the matter is that Jesus is rude to this Gentile woman; that he tries at first to ignore her, and when that doesn’t work, he becomes increasingly insulting, using essentially a racial slur, referring to her and her kind as “dogs” unworthy of sitting at the table with Jews.
If we back up a bit and look at what Jesus had been going through prior to this story, the fact of his meanness becomes pretty understandable. He’s been pouring himself out to countless people who have come to him for healing. He’s been battling with the Pharisees who are constantly trying to undercut his ministry. And then there was the word he recently received regarding his cousin John getting murdered by Herod, leading him to want to get off by himself for a time to mourn. The crowds, however, just kept following him, requiring his attention. Last week we heard about the nice relaxing stroll he tried to take on the water, only to be interrupted by Peter’s need to be saved from drowning.
Once more Jesus tries to get away, traveling to the region of Tyre and Sidon where there aren’t many Jews, and he assumes he won’t be known, and people will just let him be. But somehow this Gentile woman hears about his being in town, and she comes begging on behalf of her demon possessed daughter. At first Jesus tries ignoring her, hoping she’ll take a hint, but no, she just gets all the more in his face, and finally it’s like, “Listen, Dog, what part of No don’t you get!”
The guy is just so stressed.
Read by itself, this morning’s Old Testament lesson can be a bit deceiving since it skips over what Joseph had to go through to get to the point where he was ready to reveal himself to his long lost brothers and forgive them. For three long chapters prior to this passage, Joseph jerks his brothers around, withholding his identity from them. He has what will appear to be stolen goods planted in their pack donkeys, tormenting them with burdens of fear and guilt. He holds the youngest brother Benjamin hostage, terrifying the older brothers that they will end up having to tell their father once more that his youngest has been lost. He does all of this, of course, because it takes him that long to get past his anger and hurt from what they did to him long ago.
When we are stressed, our relationships with the people in our lives take on the quality of what one philosopher has called an “I – it” relationship. We relate to other people as though they are an object, not a “thou” with a soul.
The people we interact with in public become “its;” reduced in our perception to the roles they play and nothing more — the clerk, the waiter, whatever. The notion that they have lives apart from these roles, that they have feelings and longings and pain all their own — none of this occurs to us.
But we can do this with people closer at hand as well. We come to see those nearest to us one-dimensionally, entrapped by the dynamics of our particular relationship. There is no mystery, no surprise. All seems predictable.
So initially, Joseph views his brothers as objects, exclusively in terms of the capacity they once demonstrated so wretchedly for cruelty and deceit.
When our middle name becomes “Stress” (Jeffrey Stress Edwards) we see others one-dimensionally. This guy’s a “jerk”, this one’s an “idiot”. Oh, and this one? she’s a “liar”.
The flip side of this is that we refuse to see the shadow in the people we decide to designate as the “good ones.” (For instance, if you have a preference for one of the two presidential candidates, take note of your tendency to impute only bad motives to his opponent, and to make excuses for any political deception perpetrated by your guy.) There is, in truth, light and darkness in all of us.
It is this tendency, I think, that is at work when people hear this story about Jesus and refuse to acknowledge the mean-spiritedness he is expressing in the present moment — to deny the fact that he is relating to this woman as an “it”.
When we begin relating to the people around us as objects, we can be pretty certain that God has become an “it” as well. No longer the great holy mystery — the one in whom we live and move and have our being — now God gets reduced to nothing more than the one who withholds what we want; the one who won’t give us a break, keeping us in a perpetual state of guilt for not doing more even though we are exhausted.
I read this simple but illuminating definition of stress this week by a contemporary writer on the spiritual life named Eckhart Tolle. Stress, he said, is the desire to be somewhere other than in the present moment.
Well this certainly seems to fit for Joseph. For three chapters he has been avoiding the present moment which requires that he relate directly to his long lost brothers. When he finally does open his heart to the present moment, allowing his brothers to be once more his brothers and not merely objects defined by their cruelty of long ago, well, it opens Joseph to a great deal of emotional pain. He weeps so loud again that everyone can hears his wailing through the locked doors.
And stress as the desire to be somewhere other than the present moment also describes Jesus as well. He just wants to get away from it all, particularly the needy woman who is in his face.
The advice that went along with this definition of stress was, first of all, to simply become aware of it. It’s helpful in the course of our days to ask ourselves, “What is my relationship to the present moment?” As we become aware of our desire to flee, we can try, as best we can, to return to the experience of the moment, reminding ourselves that the present is all we really have, and that if we are fleeing from the present, we are fleeing from life.
I find these two stories hopeful, because both Jesus and Joseph do not seem so very different from myself, and yet in the end, love conquers all. The Gentile woman is so intensely in the present moment that she calls Jesus back to it as well. Last week we heard the story of Jesus calling Peter fully into the present when he invited Peter to step out onto the water. Here, it almost seems as though this Gentile woman is playing the part of “Jesus in disguise” on behalf of Jesus himself, leading him into a grace-filled moment that permanently changes his understanding of the dimensions of God’s grace.
This is comforting, because I know there is hope for me, even in those places in my life where love has not yet conquered all. In the great by and by, God intends to have God’s way with me, and with all of creation.
The best place to start in embracing this great love is in returning to the present moment.