All Too Human Jesus
By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
September 5, 2021
Mark 7: 24-37
When I was in my mid-teens, my sister and I were friends with another brother and sister down the street who were from a troubled family and were kind of trouble themselves. The brother was younger than I was, and I was a recent Christian, so I thought my job was to take him under my wing. So I assured him of my friendship, gave him “wise” advice; but whenever he just wanted to play or hang out, I was always too busy. So one day I was walking down his street, minding my business, and I heard the boy say “hey.” I turned around, and right into a punch he threw right into my nose. He was nearly a foot shorter than me so he had to really aim up, but it was a good shot. And I’m holding my nose and saying, “Why?” and he says with angry tears, “Because you said you were my friend, but you really aren’t!”
It was one of those painful—in this case literally—reality checks where you see yourself through someone else’s eyes and realize you are not all you imagine yourself to be. Where you realize you aren’t so perfect or so superior. Where you realize you’re human.
We’ve all had those experiences where we find out, much to our shame and dismay, that we have feet of clay. By the way, that expression is from the Bible, did you know that?– specifically from the Book of Daniel. King Nebuchadnezzar has a dream and the Jewish prophet Daniel has to interpret it.
In the dream the king sees a statue with a head that “was made of pure gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of baked clay.” Daniel warns the king that the statue symbolizes the king’s Babylonian Empire, that looks grand and amazing but because its people are always divided—the people being the feet partly of iron and partly of baked clay–ultimately the Empire cannot stand. Its feet are made of clay.
And so are ours. We can put on a grand façade, and one hopes we are always improving, always getting better, but we have to always be aware that we have shortcomings, flaws; that we always have room for improvement. If we can’t recognize that, then our feet of clay will cause us to stumble, with the strong likelihood that we can’t get back up again.
Over the years I’ve found out that a lot of my heroes had feet of clay. Lincoln freed the slaves but did not think black and white people should live together in America. Dr. King was a civil rights hero but he had multiple affairs and his neglect of his family left Coretta and his children scarred. We could go on and on. The lesson that resonates from it all is that to be human is a complex matter and whatever types of perfection we hold up for ourselves, we will surely and inevitably fall short of them.
Some of you are aware that I am a long-time student of Aikido. One of the lessons I’ve learned from my sensei over the years is that when he looks at us, he doesn’t look at how perfectly we do our techniques. What he is interested in is what we do when we do our perfect technique and it fails. How do we recover? What’s our Plan B? That’s how he judges how well we’re doing at aikido. More than how well we’re doing—it’s how he judges how well we know aikido. Because the real knowledge is not in immediate success, but in how well we recover from failure.
Also true in life.
Jesus and his disciples have travelled north, far north from their natural habitat of Galilee. They have travelled to what is today modern-day Syria. It was was then known as Tyre and Sidon. They have essentially travelled entirely out of Jewish territory and into Gentile, mostly Arab territory. Jesus has gone there for a break from the intensity of the demands on him in his home country. He tries to hide away in someone’s home, but he discovers even here, in a Gentile land, the stories about him have spread and the Bible says “he could not escape notice.”
A woman comes begging Jesus to help her daughter who is possessed by a demon. Now I admit there were times when I was raising my kids that I thought my daughter was possessed by a demon, but apparently this is the real thing. Imagine how horrific that would be for this poor woman. Imagine how desperate she was, that she would hunt down the Jewish prophet from Galilee and beg him for help. She literally falls at his feet and begs.
And Jesus says to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is
not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
I want you to let that sink in for a minute. Because Jesus just
called this woman a dog. What Jesus is saying is something he has said before. He has come first to rescue the lost children of Israel—the Jews. He is a Jew himself. So he says to her, I’m here to feed the children— my people. Should I waste my time taking care of your people, who are like dogs?
Listen, I know none of us like to hear this, but here it is: Jesus is showing a strong prejudice against Gentiles. Jesus is being a racist.
I have friends who actually will not preach this passage. They’ll just skip over it when it comes up in the lectionary.. They don’t like to see the Son of God showing this deep, very human flaw. And these days you can see why. Prejudice is a live, ongoing reality in our nation and in the world. And by the way, we all have prejudices. It is human to have prejudices. But that doesn’t make it right. It is the source of the racial tension we see straining black and white relations. As we look at all the Afghan refugees who are arriving now in our country, we know they will also face prejudice, insults, suspicion and fear. Later in the Book of Acts, Peter will preach to and convert a Gentile centurion and his family despite the prejudices of the early Christian community, who were Jewish, against Gentiles. He will say, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” No partiality. God is not prejudiced, Peter says, so we shouldn’t be, either. Most of us know instinctively that to be Christian means that you should not be prejudiced and that you should show no partiality.
So what is up with Jesus here?
I’ve heard some people try to frame this as “Jesus is teaching his disciples an object lesson here about racism and prejudice.” But if that’s the case, it’s a cruel way to go about it. This woman and her daughter aren’t objects to teach a lesson about—they’re real people. And Jesus treats this mom badly,
at least at first.
Other people say this is a made-up story to address the problem of prejudice and racism in the early church—but that could have been done without making Jesus look bad in the process. Jesus could have just said, “Racism and prejudice are bad” and that would have settled it. Instead, we have this embarrassing story of a very human Jesus.There’s an adage in Biblical interpretation that most scholars abide by. It is this: if you run across a Biblical story that is embarrassing, and would have been embarrassing even when the writers wrote it, then it’s probably really true.
It probably really happened. Because the Gospel writers aren’t going to make up an embarrassing story about Jesus. So it looks like it
We have been taught our whole lives that Jesus is perfect, by
which we mean he is beyond all our human shortcomings. The Bible does say Jesus is perfect—but not the way we mean. We mean that everything we do wrong, Jesus does right. We imagine him to be some kind of super-human who never makes the mistakes that you and I make. We imagine he’s the athlete who makes a goal whenever he gets the ball and never ever fumbles. That’s what we mean by perfect.
But that’s not what the Bible means when it calls Jesus perfect. The Bible means that he is perfectly obedient to the will of God. Throughout the Gospel story we see Jesus get angry, insult people, become impatient with his friends, be intolerant of opinions he disagrees with. Famously on the night before his crucifixion, we see him frightened for his life
and begging God to let the cup pass from him. To the Gospel writers Matthew, Mark and Luke, it was important to show Jesus’ human side—to show him struggle with the same temptations, frustrations and shortcomings that all us humans have—and yet still be perfectly obedient to God. To show us that if Jesus can struggle with and overcome all the flaws and shortcomings that mark the human condition, then we can, too. Jesus was God, sure; but he was human, after all. And how he struggles with his humanness is supposed to help us struggle with our own humanness.
French theologian and philosopher Jacques Ellul says this: “No matter what God’s power may be, the first aspect of God is never that of the absolute Master, the Almighty. It is that of the God who puts himself on our human level and limits himself.” Jesus is God made human, inevitably limited by human frailty.
So the question is not, Does Jesus do everything right? Because no human does. The question is, when Jesus doesn’t do it right, what is his Plan B? How does he recover? Just as how I recover from an aikido mistake is the real indicator of how well I know aikido, so how well Jesus recovers from this mistake indicates how well he is truly and perfectly obedient to God.
By the way, hats off to the Syro-Phoenician woman. She not only doesn’t take no for an answer, she gives as good as she gets. Jesus calls her a dog and she says, “Well, yeah, but even us dogs get to eat the crumbs under the table.” Boom. Jesus, who was pretty quick with the come-backs himself, must have appreciated that. And it seems to have alerted him to his mistake. “For saying that you may go—your faith has healed your daughter.” Just like that, Jesus does one of his long- distance miracles and heals her daughter.
Maybe—very likely—Jesus was tired. The whole reason he went north was to get away from the pressure. It makes us all short-tempered and often our worst side comes out when we’re tired. But our worst side is still a side. Jesus has taken a look at his own prejudice and doesn’t like what he sees. And it launches him on what can only be called a Crusade to the Gentiles. He heals a hearing/speaking impaired man in the Gentile Decapolis area, then he has another miraculous feeding, the feeding of the four thousand, also a crowd entirely composed of gentiles. Only then does he return to his home country.
He recovers from his fumble magnificently. And that is how we know that he is perfectly obedient to God—not because he does everything right but because when he does something wrong he works diligently, humbly, and intently to correct it. He doesn’t tell himself that really he was right all along. He doesn’t tell his disciples, hey when you go write the gospels, could you just leave this story out? It makes me look bad. No, he sees the problem and he corrects it. And he wants us to do the same.
You and I can honestly read this story and realize that this particular event, this moment, this amazing brave Syrophoenician woman and Jesus’ response to her, is reason virtually everyone in this room is Christian. Because friends, you and I are gentiles. You and I are the dogs eating the crumbs under the table. If this story hadn’t happened, and Jesus hadn’t done all that preaching in Syria and the Decapolis as a result, you and I might not be Christian today. There might not have been any gentile Christians.
We all have those moments when we are horribly, painfully, embarrassingly human. What distinguishes us as Christians is not how perfect we are, but rather that we are not perfect, and we know it; and our desire is to please God, and so we change. We fall and we get back up again. We don’t try to fool ourselves and others by pretending we are better; instead we see ourselves for who we are and try to be better, for the sake of the One who died and rose out of love for us. It’s not in our perfection, but how we recover from our imperfection, that our real desire to be obedient to God is truly demonstrated.
And it is in God’s ability to help us to recover from our imperfection that God’s grace is truly show.