I remember once I had a friend, a work-mate, who was a Jehovah’s Witness. Lennie was a very annoying man, there were so many things he couldn’t do, like drinking coffee or swearing, that it was rather hard to know how to have a conversation with him at all. Mind you, this was a pretty blokey sort of environment we were in. There was something about Lennie you couldn’t quite put your finger on, something that said not only is this guy a bit different, but that he was OK with that, it actually suited him to be a bit different.
Then, after I’d known Lennie for a while, he asked me one Friday if he could drop around home for a chat. He seemed fairly set on the idea, so eventually I told him that he could. And that, of course, was when I found out he was a JW. Lennie came in to my room with a shoulder bag full of tracts, and he told me the one thing wrong with being a JW was that he was expected to do some missionary work, there were a certain number of contacts that were expected of him every year, a sort of quota he had to meet. And would I mind just taking a couple of tracts, even if I didn’t want to read them. So long as he could put me on his stats.
So I gave him a glass of water and we talked about this and that, and I guess I mentioned that I had a rather different take on what God was like and didn’t really want to talk about his version, which made him a bit downcast for a moment, though it did seem to me that Lennie took rejection fairly well. And after a while he picked up his shoulder bag and asked me whether it would be alright if he came around again same time next year, so I said why not?
It was the beginning of an interesting relationship. I can’t say Lennie and I ever agreed about much, and I can’t say he didn’t have some totally whacky ideas – but along the way I learned to take Lennie seriously, and I learned he had a point of view that was worth thinking about. Lennie stretched me. He annoyed me, and provoked me, and he made me challenge some of my own assumptions, question a few of my stereotypes. In his own, always slightly shambolic way, Lennie had claimed a sort of kinship with me, and he helped me to see the world from a different angle.
There are three big temptations, I’ve found, for people who are trying to discern where God is, and where God wants to take them in their lives. Three temptations to rigidity that limit our growth both as individual Christians, and as a church.
The first one is thinking we already know all the answers We already know what God is like, and what God wants of us. And if we fall for this one, we stop growing altogether. We no longer look for clues as to what God might be telling us, how God might be challenging us. We already know it all.
The second temptation is to think that there are some people who are so far off the beaten track that we don’t have to listen to them. Some people we can write off, nothing valuable to contribute. Give them a label, like ‘fundamentalists’ or ‘JWs’, it means we don’t have to waste valuable time and energy decoding their nonsense. And so we retreat into a ghetto of the like-minded.
And the third temptation? It’s the worst of the lot, the idea that the truth doesn’t change. God’s word to us is the same this year as it was last year, right? After all, Jesus is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, incarnation of the God who is the same yesterday and today and forever. Not only that, changing course must mean the course we were on before was wrong. God doesn’t change, so we can’t either. And so we practice the religion of an idealised past.
And these three temptations, I think, are based on a view of Jesus that’s mistaken, and an idea of God’s relationship with us that’s mistaken as well. Because today’s Gospel reading shows us a picture of a Jesus who’s very human, Jesus on a learning curve.
Today, Jesus is on holiday. He’s headed north, and for the first and only time in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has crossed over into Gentile territory. Mark tells the same story and he says it more explicitly – Jesus is staying in the seaside resort of Tyre where he has rented a little cottage and is trying to stay anonymous for a bit. Maybe he just needs a little well-deserved time out. Except this foreign woman recognises him and starts demanding stuff.
Mark’s Gospel calls her a Syro-Phoenician, which more or less just tells us where she comes from. Matthew calls her a Canaanite, which is a bit of a stretch since there hadn’t been any real Canaanites for a thousand years or so. It’s a bit like describing a woman from Norway as a Viking. It’s a put-down. Matthew is rubbing it in a bit, not only is this lady a foreigner, she is well and truly outside the circle of God’s covenant relationship, one of the pagan peoples God commanded the Israelite armies to dispossess and exterminate. God doesn’t talk to us through them.
And Jesus gets it wrong. Not just a little bit wrong. Jesus gets it totally wrong.
Remember, this comes straight after Jesus has been explaining to his disciples that the Jewish food laws aren’t what’s really important. ‘It isn’t what goes into your mouth that can defile you’, Jesus tells them. ‘It’s what comes out of it’. Yet, what comes out of Jesus’ mouth when this desperate woman asks him for help? Absolutely nothing. Sheer, devastating, hurtful silence. Jesus ignores her, as any well brought-up Jewish male would have. A woman, and a foreigner. In that culture, to engage in conversation with somebody is to recognise them as an equal. And Jesus doesn’t.
Then, when the disciples pester him to get rid of her, he explains, ‘I was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel’. It’s easy enough to see why Jesus might have understood his mission in those terms. He knows that God is doing something new through him. He knows his mission is to help people break through the boundaries that keep them in relations of oppression and to learn that God’s forgiveness and love has no limits. But there are still limits to his own understanding of all that that means. And when she refuses to take no for an answer, then comes the word that really defiles: ‘it’s not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs’. Excuse me? Actually, I’ve read commentaries that suggest this wasn’t a particularly insulting thing to say. Jesus uses the diminutive form of the word for dog. Little dogs. But, you know what? Even allowing for 2,000 years of changed values, Jesus is telling this woman that she is a little less than human, that she is not his concern.
Then this woman – unnamed, I guess, because she is a woman, and a foreigner, engages Jesus in a verbal contest, she gets the better of him in one brilliant metaphor that shows, not only does she understand the claim of the Jewish people to be first in the queue, but she knows that God’s love is bigger than that. ‘Even the dogs get the crumbs that fall from the children’s plates’, she tells him. And that’s the ‘aha’ moment. That’s when we see the penny drop. That’s when Jesus learns something new about who he is, and where God is leading him.
And Jesus changes course. Again the travel itinerary is clearer in Mark’s Gospel, which Matthew is using as a source at this point. Jesus stays on around the region of Tyre, in Gentile territory, and his very next act is to restore the power of hearing and speech to a man who was deaf. Gentiles, in other words, who had not been worth recognising as human, are now being brought into the conversation of God’s love. And then comes the feeding of the 4,000, not just a clumsy editor’s mistake in repeating the miraculous feeding of the 5,000 but the same miracle of love now demonstrating the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s covenant. A boundary in Jesus’ thinking has been crossed. Those who were outsiders are now on the inside.
Jesus has been changed. The encounter with this unnamed lady – St Whoever – turns out to be a crucial turning point. Jesus has been forced to listen to somebody his upbringing had taught him to ignore, and to act with compassion in a situation where nobody would have blamed him for moving on. His choosing to listen and to heal, to change his mind even at the cost of being shown up by this pushy nobody – this is the real model of discernment that we should be following.
Real spiritual discernment is not about certainty but about openness. Real discernment is about recognising God’s leading even when it comes to us through outsiders and nobodies. And real spiritual discernment means recognising when our thinking needs to be stretched, when we need to change course, to recognise a deeper sense of what it means to be faithful in a new context.
Of course God’s love doesn’t change. But just as creation is a work in process, so God’s engagement with us, and God’s word for us, is always fresh and new. There are surprises around every corner. Who’s pushing you out of your comfort zone today, offering you a new vision of what God might be calling you to be? Who’s inviting you to grow, challenging your view of what it means to be Christian, what it means to be a church? And how are you going to respond?