My enthusiastic response to today’s Gospel and the subsequent homily I heard caused a bit of a stir due to the controversial statement made that Jesus can and did change His mind. Before studying theology, I would have found this statement problematic. I mean, Jesus is, well, Jesus. Being divine, it would seem to follow that Jesus could not be influenced by other humans in any way. However, the fact that Jesus was influenced by what others had to say, and could have His mind changed just like you and me, does not take away from His divinity. Rather, it illuminates Jesus compassion, love, and openness to the outcast.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus withdraws to region of Tyre and Sidon where He is met by a Canaanite woman who asks Him to heal her daughter who was possessed by a demon. Jesus at first ignores her plea and then answers, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” When the woman persists, He replies again, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Yes, this is shocking- it seems rather rude of Jesus to ignore this woman’s cries for help and basically, call her a dog. Instead of getting angry with Jesus and telling Him off, however, she says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.”
This passage emphasizes Jesus’ humanity. Though fully divine, Jesus was also fully human. Like all humans, He did not have foreknowledge of the future. He experienced the same physical and emotional pain we all experience. Like many of us, he hung out with a crowd- the apostles. His apostles were men of their time- they did not listen to this woman, first of all, because she was a woman. Second, because she was a Canaanite and a pagan. Jesus feels His ministry extends only to the Jewish people.
However, Jesus, and here goes to show His superiority to us, is not as close-minded as the apostles. He listens to the woman, allows her to dialogue with Him, and allows Himself to be enlightened by her response. Seeing her great faith and persistence, Jesus changes His mind. He realizes He was not sent just to help the people of Israel, but all people. He decides to heal the non-Jewish woman’s daughter.
What this shows is that Jesus’ own understanding of His ministry evolved over time, while always doing the will of the Father and never straying from it. It also shows that God is not an almighty being lording His power over us and demanding strict obedience. While we must always recognize God’s omnipotence and superiority to us, we also must see that God welcomes us to think and ask questions. We can engage in dialogue with God with faith in God’s love and compassion, and with belief that God will answer us, just as Jesus answered the Canaanite woman. A wonderful example of this is found in the Old Testament. In Genesis 18, Abraham pleads with God to spare the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, saying “Wilt thou indeed destroy the righteous with the wicked?” God does not get angry and Abraham, and say “Hey, I’m God. Who do you think you are questioning me like this?” Instead, God agrees to spare the city if fifty righteous people are found there, and in the end, with Abraham’s persistence, that number is whittled down to ten.
So, now the message here is not that every person’s request for reform be granted or that the Church should embrace every new insight, or way of doing things. However, it does show that we cannot be close-minded and we must always be open and ready to listen, as Jesus was. As the priest giving the homily today pointed out, this passage does not necessarily say we must start ordaining woman or married men, but it shows that Jesus was open to change.
Change need not be a threat to faith. When Jesus’ ministry was expanded beyond the Jewish people, He did not become less of a savior. His disciples did not suddenly flee and say, “Oh my God, he’s healing non-Jews, this guy is crazy!” Rather they still followed their beloved Teacher. God worked through a poor Canaanite woman, someone who was not been very well liked by the Jews of Jesus’ time, to bring about an important turning point in Jesus’ ministry. So, we must ask ourselves, who is God working through today to bring about an important turning point in the life of the Church and the entire world? And, we cannot simply look in the places we are most comfortable. We must be open to those whom we least expect.