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To err is divine; Jesus' humanity is an oft-forgotten element of his dual nature.

ACCORDING TO THE 1960s parochial school climate in which I was taught, Jesus divinity far outpaced his humanity. Of course no one said that in so many words. We memorized the doctrine that clearly stated: "Jesus is fully human and fully divine." We just didn't believe it.

I'm sure many of us back then were guilty of any number of those fourth-century heresies that dismissed the human nature of Jesus as some sort of holy mirage or divine trick played by God in order to prove a cosmic point otherwise lost on us. Jesus may have walked like us and quacked like us, but he certainly was not one of us.

After all, he knew everything that was going to happen from the time his infant head hit the straw of the manger. He had the power to command legions of angels to do his bidding at all times. Jesus was an unstoppable force until the precise hour he permitted himself to be stopped, in order to fulfill a celestial timetable he alone shared with his Father in heaven. But how human could he be if his "other" nature transcended every mortal limitation?

At best we imagined God disguised as Jesus, the way an actor dons a character to tell a story. None of us doubted that the gospel is the greatest of stories and well worth the trouble God went to in order to tell it. But the idea that Jesus might have shared our mortal boundaries and been prone to our weaknesses seemed frankly ridiculous, maybe even blasphemous.

Imagine sitting in a grade school religion class and wondering aloud if Jesus could have ever made a mistake. Not committed a sin, mind you, just a slight miscalculation here and there. The suggestion would be rebuked as heretical.

It is no wonder, then, when gospel stories surfaced that seemed to contradict the utter perfection of Jesus' divine knowing, they were quickly explained away. At the wedding feast in Cana, for example, Jesus seems as vexed as Paul Mason about serving wine before his time. Who got the date wrong, the Son of God or his Blessed Mother? Either interpretation is unwholesome, but what else could explain Mary's insistence that now was the time and Jesus' conviction that his hour had not yet arrived?

On another occasion, when Jesus calls out in a pressing crowd, "Who touched me?" we presume he knew quite well that the hemorrhaging woman cowered only a few feet away, stunned by her own audacity. It asks almost too much of our religious imagination to conceive that Jesus might be in the dark about something as basic as this woman's identity, when he could feel the intangible miraculous power drain out of him at the handling of the hem of his clothes.

In the same way we find ourselves discounting any other instance of real humanity in Jesus: Surely he was never really tempted by those transparent lures of the devil in the desert. He must have known on the day he picked the Twelve that one of them was a traitor.

ONE OF THE MOST PASSAGES THAT REQUIRE US TO circumvent Jesus humanity is the story of the Canaanite woman with the sick daughter. Here Jesus is out of his element, literally; he has stepped into the region of Tyre and Sidon, outside the boundaries of Israel. This is no casual dalliance into pagan country. Jesus has recently been rejected at Nazareth, garnered the dangerous attention of King Herod, and crossed theological swords with some of the elders sent up from Jerusalem to question him. Galilee is becoming too hot to hold him at present, so a detour into Syrian territory seems desirable.

But news of the healings at Gennesaret in Galilee had preceded Jesus into Syria. A woman whose daughter is tormented by a demon comes out after Jesus and cries out for his mercy. Jesus, to our initial surprise, makes no reply to this mother's anguished pleas. The disciples can't stand the racket and request that Jesus get rid of her. In response Jesus tries to discourage the woman with these words: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." In other words, he denies her request on the grounds that it is out of the scope of his ministry.

Those of us who feel some investment in the compassionate disposition of Jesus want to step in immediately with some PR work. Jesus is testing her faith, some preachers will certainly attest. Jesus is preparing a demonstration for the sake of his disciples, others will maintain, and this statement lays the brickwork for a whole new perception of his saving mission about to unfold.

But the evangelist says nothing of the sort. Instead the exchange is put before us baldly, and Jesus looks unnervingly insensitive and inflexible. The woman begs for help; he politely refuses. She approaches nearer, does him homage, asks for help again. He rewards her humility with a proverb that sounds insulting: "It is not right to take the food of children and throw it to the dogs."

"Am I a dog in your eyes?" she must wonder; but she does not show offense. Instead she plays out the contents of her hand in this amazing statement: "Please, Lord, even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters." She, a non-Israelite, acknowledges Jesus as Lord and master.

She does not resist being identified as an outsider--not a child of the household, but a creature dependent on the master's charity. On top of these two concessions she promotes a third idea that is quite bold: Just as the dogs are permitted the scraps, so too Jesus might permit a Canaanite woman the leavings of his ministry.

TO PARAPHRASE ANOTHER OUTSIDER, THE SAMARITAN woman in John's gospel, we might ask: How can she, a woman and a Canaanite, ask Jesus, a man and a Jew, for his mercy? It is culturally unprecedented, and yet what mother of a suffering child would hesitate to do the same?

The risk she takes is not lost on Jesus. At once he rewards her with high praise, "0 woman, great is your faith!" And he follows up his praise with results: "Let it be done for you as you wish." We hear the echo of another gospel saying here, this one from Luke: "Let it be done for me according to your word." Jesus twists the saying so that it's the woman's will that is accomplished because she has proven to him that her will represents God's.

This is a crucial story in Matthew because by the end of this gospel Jesus will commission his disciples in a way he never would have without this encounter in pagan country. In Matthew 28 Jesus commands his followers, "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations." His mission is now confirmed to be larger than the lost sheep of Israel.

Many will have trouble with this teaching. It may seem to diminish Jesus in stature to acknowledge that he had anything to learn, and from a woman and foreigner at that. Perhaps if it had been Peter or John who had taken Jesus aside to suggest a more inclusive ministry, we would be less shocked and more willing to entertain the idea. Or if his mother had privately nudged him to reconsider his boundaries, the notion of a Messiah-in-process might appear less threatening.

This desperate Canaanite mother, a scriptural nobody, causes us anxiety because she doesn't keep to her place. She takes liberties with our Lord and Savior. She dares to tell the Son of God to think again and suggests that she knows better than he does what his true mission might be.

In Hebrew her manner is characterized as chutzpah, an attitude of supreme self-confidence that has a long and honored tradition in the Old Testament.

Abraham shows chutzpah when he dickers with three celestial strangers over the fate of righteous souls in Sodom and Gomorrah. Moses demonstrates this same gutsiness when he talks God out of destroying the disobedient Israelites. Rebecca is the queen of chutzpah when she resolves to cheat her older son out of his father's blessing and reward her favored younger son with the inheritance instead.

Simply put, biblical folk often speak and act as if they know better than God what ought to be done here on earth. And God, as far as we can tell, often rewards that behavior with what amounts to a divine blessing.

So how do we know when a situation calls for good old chutzpah or the simple acceptance of an undesirable circumstance as the will of God? It helps to be clear on the basic tenets of God's will. The God of Moses and Jesus comes out regularly on the side of life, not death; healing, not sickness; mercy, not judgment; justice, not prejudice; salvation, not condemnation; and forgiveness, not punishment.

We may call those other realities into play by our own choices--that much is also clear. But God's stated preference from the first day of creation has been to bring good things into being. When we are as adamant about goodness as God is, we might begin to sound like that woman of Canaan.

The Canaanite woman: Matthew 15:21-28

ALICE CAMILLE, author of the scripture series Exploring the Sunday Readings and God's Word Is Alive! Both are available from Twenty-Third Publications.
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Title Annotation:testaments
Author:Camille, Alice
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2005
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