I’ll pause here to let you collect yourself a bit.
It’s shocking for many Christians to think about Jesus not only learning something new but then changing his opinion in response to this new thing. We might not want to think about Jesus in this way, but I believe change and growth happened for him as it does for all of us.
There is a story recorded in both Matthew and Mark that is, to me, an account of Jesus wrestling with an idea and changing his mind. While Mark is my favorite Gospel, I actually prefer Matthew’s account of this particular story.
Here’s the setting:
Jesus has been engaged in a discussion/conflict with the Pharisees about rules and traditions. Jesus’s disciples don’t wash their hands before they eat (this is about ritual purity and not hygiene. Please wash your hands, not so God will love you, but because not washing your hands is gross), and the Pharisees use this as an opportunity to accuse Jesus of not following the traditions of the elders. Jesus responds that it’s not what we consume that makes us clean or unclean; it’s what comes out of us, from the heart, that reveals what’s ultimately true about us.
Then, Jesus leaves the region-a Jewish region-and heads into Gentile (i.e. non-Jewish, unclean) territory. And it’s in this place that Jesus has an encounter with a Syrian woman (Matthew calls her a ‘Canaanite’ woman, which is a designation that is loaded with significance, but we can’t unpack that here. Perhaps another time).
Here’s the story:
From there, Jesus went to the regions of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from those territories came out and shouted, “Show me mercy, Son of David. My daughter is suffering terribly from demon possession.” But he didn’t respond to her at all.
His disciples came and urged him, “Send her away; she keeps shouting out after us.”
Jesus replied, “I’ve been sent only to the lost sheep, the people of Israel.”
But she knelt before him and said, “Lord, help me.”
He replied, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.”
She said, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table.”
Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith. It will be just as you wish.” And right then her daughter was healed. [Matthew 15v21-28, CEB]
Notice what happens here. This non-Jewish woman begs Jesus to help her daughter. She’s desperate, as any parent who loves their child would be. Right? Allow yourself a moment to slip into her shoes. She’s frantic. She’s heard about Jesus’s reputation as a healer. And she’s willing to make a scene to get his attention.
And Jesus ignores her. Well, he ignores her until his disciples are so annoyed that they ask him to send her way. So, Jesus simply says to her, essentially, “I’m not here to help your kind.”
Wait, what?!? Jesus actually refuses to help her because she’s not Jewish. Shocking, yes?
But there’s more. She kneels before him-I can just picture her collapsing into a pile of grief and despair at Jesus’s feet-and pleads for help.
Jesus’s response? He tells her, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.” The children are a reference to the Jews, Jesus’s own tribe. Guess who the dog is, here? This woman. This non-Jewish woman. Some say this reference to “dogs” was a common Jewish slur used to belittle Gentiles. Today, we would likely say this language is racist. And here in Matthew 15, these words come from Jesus himself. To protect Jesus from his own words, some suggest that this was a test for his disciples; that Jesus only says this to challenge their bias toward the woman. I don’t think so. I think what we have here is a real, human Jesus. A Jesus who grew up in a particular time and place, who was shaped by the values of his culture and tribe. After all, to truly be human is to be informed and shaped by those things.
What happens next is staggering. The woman, undaunted, responds by essentially saying, “Sure, but even the dogs get the crumbs from the table!” She pushes back on Jesus. She challenges the stereotype. She demands that he see her as the living, hurting, desperate human being that she is.
And Jesus’s response is to change his mind. Her faith, her perseverance literally causes Jesus to change his posture toward her. This is a moment when an encounter with “them” changes Jesus’s own understanding of this woman, and Gentiles as a whole. He goes on to heal and feed thousands of Gentiles immediately following this encounter.
Think about this: Jesus had an experience with an actual human being that changes his mind and his posture toward an entire group of people.
What in the world does this have to do with us?
It’s easy to fear and condemn all Muslims, until you actually get to know a human being who happens to be Muslim. Then “those people” have a name, a story, a family, and that experience actually makes it impossible to write off the over one billion people who are part of that particular faith tradition.
It’s easy to be homophobic, that is until you actually meet someone who happens to be gay. And then the stereotypes collapse, and you realize you have things in common and you actually like this person. Then it’s really hard to hate an entire group of people, because you know and care for someone in that group.
It’s easy to be a progressive/conservative and to blame conservatives/progressives for all of the problems in our world. Then you get to know someone who’s conservative/progressive, and you find out you both like football and tacos, and you both really do want what you feel is best for the world. And while you may not agree on all the steps to reach that goal, you can begin to see them as a human being, trying their best, just like you.
Distance is the problem. We fear and condemn from a distance. Then, when we find ourselves in proximity to “those people” and we hear their stories, those walls begin to crumble.
Jesus had an experience of another human being that actually changed his mind.
Experience is a game changer.
It was for Jesus. It can be for us, too.