Matthew 15:10-28 – The Human side of Jesus helps us become more…

A Reflection by Dan Spragg

What do you make of this text?! What do you make of Jesus in this text?! Be honest… It’s potentially one of those readings we don’t know what to do with. Jesus, especially in the second half of the reading, isn’t portrayed particularly well. It’s quite easy not to like it, or him. Maybe the Pharisees getting their noses out of joint yet again put him in a bad mood. Maybe the relentless questioning he encountered or the continual lack of understanding that the disciples showed was getting to him. Or maybe it was first thing on a Monday morning and he was interrupted on his way to get his morning espresso. Who knows!? Our usual holding of Jesus up on a moral pedestal is a little shaky here. I think it’s easy to react to Jesus in this story because Jesus is meant to be perfect, isn’t he? The perfect Jesus we hold to so often wouldn’t have let the Pharisees’ reaction or his disciples’ lack of understanding rile him up, would he? Jesus is meant to be one of endless patience and forbearance. A font of unending compassion and grace. Yet, we see in this passage Jesus getting frustrated. And, on top of that, we catch a glimpse of the Jesus who very much comes from a patriarchal and Jewish-centred worldview, who does not have time for a Canaanite woman from a risky place outside of Israelite territory. What we see in this passage ultimately I believe is a very human Jesus from a particular time and particular place. Which for some reason surprises us.

The debate has raged for approximately 1600 years on how we are to hold in tension both the humanity of Jesus and the divinity of Jesus. The incarnation tells us, as the beginning of John’s gospel says, that ‘God became flesh and dwelt among us’; that in the person of Jesus dwelt the Divine Presence itself. The idea of the incarnation says that Human nature and Divine Nature lived simultaneously as one in Jesus. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD formed a statement of faith that has been held up in orthodox Christianity ever since. The term used that describes this union of natures is the “Hypostatic Union.” The two natures are held unified in the Second Person of the Trinity—Jesus Christ. It states that Jesus is “perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man, of a reasonable soul and body.”

For the most part, this has been a useful understanding of God becoming flesh and dwelling amongst us. The humanity of Jesus helps us understand God as identifying with our existence. That God is not simply up there out of the way somewhere but rather that this God knows and cares about our humanity and all that goes along with it. There is because the two natures held together a kind of divine sympathy for the human experience. Especially with our suffering. These two natures held together have also helped us understand that we no longer need an intermediary between us and God, that Jesus becomes for us our ‘Great High Priest’ (Hebrews 4:14-16). As we highlight the Divine nature in Jesus this is where we understand Jesus as having lived a sinless life – this is where we get our understanding that Jesus is our perfect example. In our Western theology, this tends to be the emphasis we have focused on, which is why we react when Jesus isn’t portrayed so well. He is human and divine but his divinity qualifies his humanity quite a bit as far as the Western Church is concerned.

Now it might surprise us but the Western Church isn’t the only stream of churches in the world. The Eastern Orthodox tradition is very much alive and kicking and they have some slightly different understandings on the humanity of Jesus and its implications for us. One of their core concepts is known as Deification or Theosis, which refers to the process by which humans are called to participate in the divine nature through their union with Christ. Now I only have a basic understanding of this idea. Still, from what I know, this concept emphasises the transformative journey that we can go on becoming more like God, not becoming God in essence, but that we are able to share in God’s qualities and attributes. The idea is that we as humans are able to partake deeply in the divine nature just as Jesus did. Western thought tells us that Jesus was the only one who could do this and that the only way he could do this is because of his miraculous virgin birth through divine intervention. In Western theology quite often our humanity gets in the way of us living more like Jesus whereas our Eastern church whānau are much more open to the idea that there isn’t so much separation between our humanity and the divine presence. In Eastern thought Jesus becomes our perfect example not of a moral standard but of the life and existence that we too can have. There is an ability for us to participate in the divine life which highlights the importance of a personal relationship with God which takes us on a process of transformation where our humanity is not done away with but perfected by the growth of God within us.

I believe there is quite a bit of value within the Eastern Church’s concept of Theosis. I believe this because it seems to be that there is more room for our humanity within it. Our Western Church tradition has often rallied against the valuing of our humanity often stating that humanity is fundamentally flawed and the only hope of redemption is a kind of transaction with God where ‘if’ we believe certain things and can maintain a kind of moral standard of life, by resisting our human nature, then we might be worthy of being with God. In Eastern thought as far as I can tell, our humanity is held up as beautiful and we are invited on a journey of becoming more of who we are meant to be – our essence is maintained and perfected as we grow more and more into our God-likeness described in Genesis 1.

Ok, so keeping all this in mind I’d like to head back to the text for a moment. The passage today comes to us in two parts. The first is an observation of a sort of teaching moment that Jesus has with his disciples. Speaking into a context where there are many rules around what was considered clean and unclean, and whether or not you followed them was enough to determine whether you were going to receive the blessing of God, or at least not be punished by the religious elite; Jesus seeks to teach that actually what made the most difference was what was present within one’s own heart. What really mattered was the state to which one’s heart was overflowing with things of God, or with destructive things. Whether you ate the correct foods or remembered to wash your hands before dinner was not what determined if you were on the right track. Jesus tries to make this point but the Pharisees get offended – because he was calling them out – and his disciples show their ignorance and take their time in understanding what he was talking about. It’s not surprising that Jesus then leaves that area and goes somewhere else! Maybe he’ll have better luck elsewhere! And here’s the second part of today’s passage. On the journey from A to B Jesus encounters a persistent Canaanite woman who has a sick daughter and who believes that God, through Jesus, can heal her. This is the encounter that makes us uncomfortable because Jesus is rude, dismissive, patriarchal, and racist, at least he is at first. But as the story goes on we see a change occur where the woman confronts and challenges Jesus’ view of the scope of God’s mercy and love. Jesus says God only has mercy for Israel and everyone else may as well be dogs. The woman says otherwise, that God’s mercy while being held by Israel at this point actually is overflowing and enough for all. Which we see causes Jesus to have a change of heart.

And, a change of heart is the point. What we see happening in real-time here is Jesus having a lived experience of heart change. Jesus teaches that our hearts are the place in us where our hurt, brokenness, and lies we believe about ourselves and others, reside and dwell. The implication of this is that we need to focus on this and not on a concern for external elements about what is good or bad. Look inward and do the work that needs to be done. And then, Jesus, in a very human moment, lacking a certain amount of caffeine, has an encounter where his patriarchal and Jewish-centric culture rears its ugly side. And in this, he is challenged and confronted by this ‘unclean’ outsider, and his heart is changed. This woman showed Jesus that God’s mercy is far more generous than being reserved only for a select few but is available to anyone who is willing to declare Jesus is Lord. Jesus shows us a glimpse here of what it means to have a change of heart and be open to growing more into God’s ways. Even Jesus it seems participated in a process of becoming, of reshaping thoughts, beliefs, and understandings to take on more of God’s very nature.

The weight of this story is contained in Jesus being willing to change and respond to God’s presence and work in someone who his culture considered a nobody. The weight of this story is the journey of knowledge moving from the head to the heart through an encounter of challenge. This story seems a little bit like Jesus living out something else he had taught earlier, that went something like, ‘blessed are the humble…’ If we are followers of Jesus, then we are called in this story to follow the example of letting our hearts be changed by being open to being challenged and confronted by a different perspective. A perspective that may have something to teach us about who God is and how all of us are included in God’s work of restoration and reconciliation.

Jesus’ humanity here shows us not perfection to strive for – which is impossible – but rather his humanity shows us a very real example we can relate to. Our humanity is not to be squashed and degraded but rather is the vehicle in which we discover God with us at work. This shows us the scope of God’s grace, that through our human imperfection if we are open, we can change and grow more into the nature of God. God’s nature grows in us as we open our hearts to deal with that which is broken. Jesus truly shows us today what the incarnation meant. That God indeed draws near to us as fully human with grace abundant and that we just have to be open to receive.