Matthew 15:21-28 The Humanity of Jesus


If we are attached to a notion of Jesus that says he could do no wrong, that as God incarnate, there can be no sin in anything he does, then this is a very troubling story, because it is hard not to see Jesus acting in this story in a downright, cruel manner.  A desperate woman comes to him asking him for help with her sick daughter.  Initially Jesus gives her a cold shoulder.  Then he tells her, “I don’t treat your kind.”  And finally he calls her a dog — less than fully human.  Some commentators try to get around this idea:  Jesus always intended to heal the child, he just wanted to test her metal, or teach the disciple a lesson, or some nonsense like that.

But what we have here on display is the humanity of Jesus.   If he was a human being, that means he got tired, physically and emotionally, and this is one very tired Jesus.  You may recall the story we had two weeks ago in which Jesus hears about the beheading of his friend John the Baptist and then tries to go off by himself to grieve, to rest his body and soul.  But circumstances don’t allow that to happen; the crowd of 5000 needy people, like sheep without a shepherd, follow him along the shore, and he has compassion upon them, which means he opens his heart — he enters their pain.   

And soon after that there was Peter’s sinking in the dark water to attend to, and then the sick people of Gennesaret begging him to heal them.  So everywhere he looked there were people with needs, and the work of healing took a lot out of him.   The only people that weren’t asking him for help — the scribes and the Pharisees — were fighting with him.  

So Jesus needs to get away, and he travels by foot 30 miles to cross over into Gentile territory, an exhausting journey in itself, but he is willing to make the journey in the hope that as a Jew among Gentiles,  people will leave him alone here, allow him to rest, to find some peace.   But even here there is human need crying out to him for help in the form of this Gentile woman begging him to heal her daughter.

And he says no!!!  Enough already!!! Leave me alone!!!  

Who among us can’t identify with Jesus; our limits of what we can handle are far less than his, but he has his limits, too.

This is the man Jesus we’re talking about — an extraordinary man for sure through whom the power and wisdom of God moved in an extraordinary fashion, but a human being nonetheless, and there are times when the exhaustion that is part of being a human being gets in the way of his fully accessing that wisdom and that power, and this is such a time.  

So when the Gentile woman comes to this exhausted Jesus to ask him to help her daughter, at first he tries  ignoring her, hoping she’ll go away and when that doesn’t work,  he tries to justify his refusal to open his heart to this woman and her pain by appealing to some kind of divine ruling by God, saying “I have come only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel,”  which sounds good, but the problem is there is at least one precedent already of him responding to a Gentile and that was when the Roman Centurion had come to him asking him to heal his beloved servant, and the truth of the matter is that he simply feels too tired to open his heart again to another person’s pain, and he’s grasping at straws to justify the rejection of this woman.   And who can blame him?

As an aside:  There are a lot of churches in this world where you will not find a single openly gay person, and there are a lot of a Christians who don’t really know in any significant way a single gay person, which in turn makes it easy for them to condemn gay people.   And maybe the thing that is behind this condemnation is something similar to what is going on here in our story:  If you can convince yourself that God rejects gay people, then it provides you with a convenient out:  you don’t have to open your heart to them — be in relationship with them — you don’t have to have compassion for them — which means letting yourself feel something of what it feels to be gay and the pain of the rejection they experience — you don’t have to face the discomfort that might arise inside you from getting to know a gay person.  

Now the torment that was afflicting the woman’s daughter would appear to be what we today would call “mental illness.” The woman speaks of a demon that had presumably taken away her daughter’s pleasure, her joy, her very desire to be alive, taken away her capacity to make choices, filling her instead with a sense of horrid dread she is powerless to resist.

Mental illness is on our minds this week because of the suicide of Robin Williams. This uniquely gifted comedian and actor who had entertained and touched the hearts of all of us who we now know struggled with his own dark, demons of depression, reaching finally that place where he could not go on anymore.

Mental illness is commonly misunderstood.  Though less so than in times past, mental illness still carries a stigma.  When it strikes close at hand we tend to avoid talking about it, as though it were something of which to be ashamed.  

There were commentators who viewed Robin William’s suicide as a kind of moral weakness, referring to it as an act of selfishness — that what he did showed a lack of courage.   

This  sort of reaction is understandable, particularly in light of the fact that every suicide invariably leaves in its wake years of suffering — grief, guilt, anger, you name it —  in the lives of those who are left behind.   

And yet, when people suffer through a period of severe depression, oftentimes the only thing that keeps them going — holds them back from doing what they really want to do, which is to end their pain — is the knowledge that in taking their own life they will cause great pain for the people they love.  This alone keeps them alive, and as such their endurance of their pain is an unheralded act of courage — a sacrificial act of great love.  


But there can come a point when the pain cannot be endured any longer, the same way a dentist drilling on you without novacane would become unendurable.  


We want to believe that there always is a choice, which is another way of saying we want to believe that we really can be in control of our lives if only we try hard enough, and so it is easier to view someone who is severely depressed and suicidal as simply someone who hasn’t stepped up to the plate and taken responsibility for their lives.  


But there are some things in life we simply can’t control.


Or perhaps we seek to comfort ourselves with the thought that people in the grips of mental illness are altogether different from ourselves, and in a certain sense this is true in that some people were born with DNA that destined them to suffer from mental illness pretty much regardless of how their lives are live out.  But it’s not true in that we all live on a continuum of mental health and illness, and there is that truth of “there but for the grace of God go I” — that given enough turmoil in our lives — enough things going terribly wrong — any one of us is capable of doing things that we would prefer to think we would never be capable of doing, including take our own lives.  


And maybe the desire to see Jesus as incapable of ever breaking under the stress of life comes from the hope that we could likewise be incapable of breaking if we belong to him.  


But we all have our breaking points.


A remarkable thing happens in the course of the story.   The woman gets through to Jesus by virtue of her humble persistence.  She reconnects Jesus to the infinite size and scope of the divine love.  We are told that her daughter is healed, and what exactly that means we do not know:  if she was mentally ill, imprisoned by severe depression or schizophrenia, was she permanently set free from the torment of these diseases?


If so, she is surely the exception.  Most people afflicted with mental illness, though helped by medications and therapies, never fully leave it behind.  It remains an ongoing battle.  


What of Robin Williams, who finally gave in to the darkness?  Or for that matter, my maternal grandfather, who I never got to meet, who also took his life?  Or Sarah’s beloved Aunt Jane?  What does this story say about them?


There is a form of Christianity that preaches the necessity of giving ourselves to Jesus as Lord and savior before we die, with the idea being that if we don’t do it in the prescribed way before we take our last breath, we are condemned to hell for eternity.   If this were so, then people who take their own lives would surely seem doomed.


But I don’t believe that the God revealed through the man Jesus would be so cruel.


I think the story speaks of the ultimate intention of God — that in the Kingdom of God all will be welcomed regardless of all those lines we would draw to separate us, and that all we be finally made whole.  


And if that wholeness isn’t experienced on this side of death, I believe it can yet be found on the far side.  So I hope to meet my grandfather and Aunt Jane in heaven; and I hope to laugh with Robin Williams there too.


This story is a kind of parable, and the place in this parable where perhaps God can best be found is in this mother who refuses to give up on her daughter.  Perhaps you mothers among us can identify:  she may be a shrinking violet in other areas of her life, but when her daughter’s affliction reaches a certain point she is willing to go wherever required in search of a cure for her daughter,  even to go where she is distinctly unwelcome, as she did as a Gentile woman among a group of Jewish men.   God is like this woman, and we are all God’s children.


Jesus came to seek and to save lost sheep, and in this interchange with this mother, he comes to realize that it is not only for the lost sheep of Israel that he has come, but for all God’s children, wherever they are found.  And as in the parable he told, the good shepherd seeks the lost sheep, UNTIL he finds him — and WHEN he finds him — not IF but WHEN — he lifts that lamb up on his shoulders and invites the angels to dance with him.  And so if the “finding” hasn’t happened before the death comes, then the searching will go on after death.