Can Jesus Change His Mind?
July 19, 2015
I told someone that this Sunday’s sermon was going to be an exploration of the dual nature of Christ, human and divine, and they looked at me like I was crazy. “In the summer? Aren’t sermons supposed to be short and sweet in the summer?” “You don’t know this congregation,” I said. We aren’t called “University” for nothin’. We’re up for high-level theological discussion any time of year.”
Now…please don’t prove me wrong!
In our reading from Mark, Jesus encounters a Gentile woman who wants him to heal her daughter. He says no, the children must be fed first. No one feeds the dogs before the children. Essentially, Jesus is calling this woman and all Gentiles, dogs. His mission is not for her, it is for his people.
It is bad enough in our culture to call someone a dog, but it was even worse then. In Jesus’ time and culture, doges were not beloved house pets but scavengers who skulked about living on garbage. Calling someone a “dog” was a real insult.
It is not a pretty portrait of our Lord.
Over the years, many, many people have attempted to explain Jesus’ answer to the Syrophoenician woman. Most of them have been some variation on “he didn’t really mean it.”
- 20th C scholar William Barclay said that when he spoke those words, Jesus must have had “a smile on his face and compassion in his eyes that robbed his words of their bitterness.”
- The words were spoken “whimsically,” another commentator said.
- Other preachers and writers have hypothesized that Jesus really knew all along that his mission included the Gentiles, and that he was only pretending to think otherwise.
- He was testing the woman, to see how strong her faith really was, some said.
- Or he wanted to set her up to give a response that would show how strong her faith was.
- Or he was just demonstrating how powerful his healing skills were.
It was the great theologian and church reformer himself, Martin Luther, who was bold enough to speak the truth that so many wished to avoid: “She catches Christ with his own words. He compares her to a dog, she concedes it, and asks nothing more than that he let her be a dog…. Where will Christ now take refuge? He is caught.”
Or has 21st C theologian Sharon Ringe puts it, in this story, Jesus is caught with his compassion down.
How do we even begin to understand this passage? What, if anything, could it mean for us?
First, it’s helpful to know that both its geographical setting and its textual setting are important.
Geographically, Mark clearly tells us, we are in Gentile territory. Tyre is a coastal city, quite a ways north of Jerusalem. It’s part of Lebanon now, but was part of Phoenicia then, which was a province of Syria. Mark’s point is that Jesus has traveled a long way from Jerusalem, which was where he was in the previous passage. He’s far outside Israel’s boundaries, far beyond the world of the children of God, as his tradition considers it.
Textually, Mark places this story immediately after Jesus has had an argument with the Jewish leaders about the importance of adhering to tradition.
7:5 The Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?
7:9 [Jesus replies] “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!”
7:14 “Listen to me, all of you and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
In the central city of the Jewish faith, Jesus declares to the Jewish leaders that all food is clean, and that we must not confuse human traditions with God’s commandments. Then he travels outside the borders of his tradition – to a place where all food and all people are considered unclean. He speaks to a woman – itself a violation of tradition – who is clearly identified as not Jewish.
Given all of that, it would be quite reasonable, for us to hope and even expect that this pattern will continue. Jesus will continue to break human traditions in the name of God’s commandment to love all neighbors.
It is even more jarring therefore to hear his words: “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
In our summer worship series we have been looking at the questions Jesus asks. He doesn’t ask any questions in today’s reading. But the question for us is a big one:
Could Jesus have made a mistake?
Christians consider Jesus to be divine, the second part of the three-part God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Christian doctrine states that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. It is not a mathematically logical statement: 100% human and 100% divine. Would a divine being say something like this?
Because it is so hard to wrap our brains around that idea, it is easy to believe that Jesus looked like a human being, talked, walked and ate like a human being…but, underneath that human exterior, he was very different from the rest of us. Inside he was really God, which must mean he was perfect. He never sinned, he never lost his temper, he knew everything – about people, about the world, about how events were going to work out.
From there it’s only a short step to fairly silly speculation about how Jesus could have preached the entire Sermon on the Mount on the day he was born, but faked being a baby to keep his true identity a secret. That kind of speculation is evident in some of the later writings about Jesus outside the Christian canon, but it's not in any of the gospels in the Bible.
The New Testament gospels consistently portray Jesus as a real, honest-to-gosh human being. There are some places where he knows things other human beings don’t, or can’t; but there are many places where he is just as human as you and I are.
As in this passage from Mark. “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
The woman neither gives up, nor dismisses him for his prejudice. “Lord, even the dogs get something.”
Jesus listens, takes her seriously, and changes his mind. “Good answer!”
Can Jesus change his mind? If Jesus changed his mind, then Jesus can't be the kind of eternally changeless "unmoved mover," to use Plato's phrase, that a lot of people think of God as being. If being 100% divine means that Jesus is all-knowing, all-seeing and all-powerful, then saying he changed his mind is heresy.
But if Jesus is also fully human, then of course he could change his mind. Being human means being wrong sometimes, it means re-thinking old assumptions, it means learning. Human beings aren't born knowing and doing everything they will ever be able to know and do. They learn and grow, and in particular, they learn and grow in relationship. Jesus did too -- all his life, as human beings do. If that idea is offensive, it's the offensiveness of the Incarnation, of the idea that God could dwell among us in the flesh.
A few days ago I saw the Pixar animated film, Inside Out. Pastor Galen told me it was only billed as a movie for children. In reality, it was a movie for adults. And he was right!
The movie’s main characters are Riley, an 11 year old girl, and the 5 human emotions in the control room of her psyche. For the first years of her life, Riley’s personality is dominated by Joy, the wide-eyed, blue-haired character voiced by comedian Amy Poehler. Joy introduces the other emotions to the movie audience and explains what they’re for: Anger helps Riley ensure that things are fair, Fear keeps her safe, Disgust prevents her from being poisoned and Sadness…well, Joy isn’t too sure what Sadness is for. The other 4 emotions look to Joy for leadership, because there’s no situation so scary or upsetting that Joy can’t find a way to turn it around and find the happy.
But Joy’s ability to find the happy is pushed to the limit when Riley’s family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. On Riley’s first day at her new school, Joy instructs the other emotions on their tasks to make sure Riley has a great day. But she’s stuck on how Sadness can contribute. Eventually she draws a chalk circle on the floor of headquarters and tells Sadness to stand in it. “Make sure all the sadness stays in the circle,” she says, desperately chipper. “Doesn’t that sound fun?”
But Sadness proves to be the key to getting Riley through the trauma of losing her friends and her childhood home. Near the end of the movie, Riley seems to be suffering from a bout of depression—aspects of her personality have fallen away. The once-colorful control board in headquarters has faded to gray, suggesting she’s gone from feeling too many emotions to feeling none at all. It’s Sadness who takes over the console and brings it, and Riley, back to life—not by trying to cheer her up, but through an honest outpouring of true sadness.
Being fully human is complicated! It means learning, changing, incorporating the new understanding into one’s life
I think we emphasize the view of God as unchanging because it gives us comfort and a sense of stability. Something out there needs to stay the same. But the Bible tells us differently.
If we take our scriptures seriously, we have to acknowledge that God can also change, especially in relationship to us. After the great flood, for example, God observes the destruction it caused as says “never again,” hanging a rainbow in the sky as a sign of that change of heart. The great “Unmoved Mover,” as Plato called God, is moved to mercy and makes a covenant of mercy with all of humanity.
Jesus had a real life, real feelings, and in today’s gospel, a real moment of conversion. His understanding of what he was called to do was changed and expanded because he listened to a gentile woman’s challenge. She won the argument; because of what she said Jesus changed his mind. To say that that could not happen is to deny that Jesus was fully human.
And if Mark had not shown us Jesus’ initial harsh comment, we would not see the grace with which he concedes defeat. God wants all people to be whole. Jesus woke up to that reality when he was confronted by the Syrophoenician woman, and once he did, he never looked back. From that moment on, he moved forward, healing and feeding and teaching, with an expanded awareness of who this Good News was for.
So when Jesus travels to another Gentile area, and encounters a man who is deaf and therefore mute -- someone who is unable to hear and therefore unable to learn to speak -- Jesus is very well prepared. "Be opened," he says. He says it not only with compassion for someone who has suffered, but also with the authority of one who has experienced that of which he speaks. That is, after all, what the Gentile woman said to him when he was deaf to her cries. "Be opened" -- and Jesus was. This time there are no more arguments about who gets help first.
And if all this talk about Jesus making a mistake, and losing an argument, and changing his mind sets you on edge, note that in neither of these stories has Mark forgotten that Jesus is human and divine: the same Jesus who loses the argument cures the woman’s daughter, opens the man’s ears and frees his voice.
Karl Barth, the great theologian of the 20th C, said that there are some truths not even theology can smooth over; he called it theology’s inevitable brokenness. If we know X and we know Y, but X and Y seem inconsistent, it is better to say them both and leave a mystery than to try to make a coherent system and in the process lose sight of one of the things we knew in the first place.
Part of growing up is gaining access to all our emotions. Sadness and joy can and do coexist in a single memory or experience. Learning that truth is an essential part of being human.
(Not every set of opposing statements can be resolved with a neatly phrased synthesis.) When it comes to our experience of God, Barth wrote, the ultimate word is not a thesis, not a synthesis, but just the name, Jesus Christ.”
Karoline Lewis, David Lose and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brainwave 074: Lectionary Texts for 06 September 2009. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=82
William C. Placher. Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible: Mark. Westminster John Knox Press. 2010.
Lamar Williamson, Jr. Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Mark. John Knox Press. 1982.
Kay Sylvester. “The gospel is a verb.” 5 Pentecost, Proper 18 (B) – 2012. Sermons That Work, Episcopal Digital Network. September 9, 2012. http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2012/08/20/15-pentecost-proper-18-b-sept-9-2012/
Dan Kois. “Finding Sadness in Joy.” Slate.com. June 23, 2015.
Sarah Dylan Breuer. Proper 18, Year B, Mark 7:31-37. Dylan’s Lectionary Blog @ SarahLaughed.net. September 8, 2006. http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2006/09/proper_18_year_.html