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Eating Crumbs: A Sermon on the Humanness of Jesus

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Mar 08

Text: Mark 7:14-30

This Lent, in sermons and study groups, at retreats, over breakfast, at meetings, in conversation, we’ve been exploring two question Jesus asks Peter in the gospel of Mark. The first is, “Who do people say that I am?” The second is, “Who do you say I am?” Today we will turn our focus to the humanness of Jesus. There’s much more to the story which we’ll continue to explore in Lent. (And on Easter Sunday!) But today we’ll look at Jesus’ humanness.

We’ve been delving into who people of Jesus’ own time thought he was, trying to wrap our minds around the socio-political context of first century Palestine. Learning about diverse expressions of Judaism. Learning about messianic and apocalyptic expectations, the Jewish War, and Roman occupation. What did it mean in Jesus’ own time and place to think of him as the Son of God, Son of Man, the Messiah, or the Christ? These are important questions that ground our historical understanding of our faith.

Isn’t it equally intriguing and important to ask who Jesus is now? For us and in the eyes of the world? Who is Jesus in this age of pluralism, when there are myriad “truth claims” in a marketplace of ideas?

Humanists might say Jesus was a remarkable man—on par with Gandhi or King, or Jalal ad-Din Rumi. A political leader, a healer, a teacher of wisdom, a mystic. Buddhists might say Jesus was a Buddha! A fully realized being, awake, alive, enlightened, following the idea that there is not only one Buddha–– Shakyamuni—but rather many Buddhas in the world.

Did you know that the Quran contains numerous references to Jesus? (I bet you did know that!) And the record is clear. Muslims would say Jesus was a prophet, a worker of miracles, a messenger of Allah, a son of Mary, but not a Son of God. The Quran states, “It is not befitting to (the majesty of) Allah that He should beget a son.” So, the Quran claims that Jesus is a prophet and a messenger, but not The Prophet or The Messenger. Those titles are reserved for Muhammad. And Jesus is definitely not divine.

So, I wonder… As Christians, are our claims about Jesus’ humanity any different from what the rest of the world says about him? Are our distinctive claims about Jesus our claims about his divinity? Or do we also make a distinctive claim about Jesus’ humanness?

How do we understand Jesus’ humanness? And what does his humanness mean for us?

We’ve been learning in our conversations at First Church this Lent that most of us have an easy time seeing Jesus as human. When we look at the Christological claim—core Christian statements—that Jesus is fully human and fully divine—it seems that most of us can make that first claim with relative ease. But I want to push at that a little bit this morning.

We see Jesus as a man—a figure of history, with Mary and Joseph as parents, growing up in a family with brothers and sisters, educated in Torah, learning a trade (carpentry, we think) from his father. We see him as a man of a particular faith tradition—Judaism—and culture, who spoke specific languages (we think Aramaic and Hebrew), and understood the world—at least in part—in ways that were characteristic of his culture.

There are aspects of Jesus’ humanness that are relatively easy for us to embrace. We know there were people—both men and women—whom he loved dearly. We know he wept over Lazarus’s death. We know he had trusted friends and that he must have felt the sting of their betrayal. We know that their lack of faith sometimes weighed heavily on his heart. We know that he was a sensual being: that he felt pain, that he ate with people often. We even have a story saying that he roasted fish for his disciples on the lakeshore! The first ever men’s breakfast, perhaps? We know that he experienced the intimate touch of a woman anointing his head and his feet and wiping his feet with her hair. That he shook the dust off his sandals and washed the disciples’ feet.

But this morning we read scripture passage that calls us to wrestle in a very pointed way with Jesus’ humanness. Mark’s story of Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophonecian woman seems to show Jesus in the worst possible light. Far from the compassionate savior we know and love, here Jesus seems painfully limited in his perceptions.

This Gentile woman approaches Jesus, requesting healing for her little daughter. Jesus’ response is nothing short of a rebuke. His words are insulting. “Let the children be fed first.” He tells her she is an outsider and unimportant. But it goes from bad to worse. Jesus says, “for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” It was no more flattering to call someone a dog in first century Palestine than it is now. These words are not nice.

Although Jesus has already performed a healing on a gentile, when he encounters the demon-possessed man living among the tombs, this encounter with a gentile does not go well at all. In this story, it is not Jesus—but the Syrophoenician woman­­—who sees clearly. It is she—and not Jesus—who insist on her personhood and dignity. “Surely, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” she says. In her dogged persistence, she reminds that God is powerful and good. She schools him!

If we are looking for a savior who will lift us out of history, out of the pain and injustice of this world, Jesus is failing miserably. Don’t we long for him to transcend the limitations of his time and culture so that we can transcend the limitations of our own? If Jesus is human, do we not long for a flawless exemplar of the very best (and nothing but-the-best) of what it means to be human? A super-human human?

Some, in the world of church—and even in the world of scholarship—have have seen Jesus as a protofeminist. Someone whose ideals were commensurate with feminism and even seemed to anticipate feminism, although he lived in an era when the concept was completely unknown. Centuries before.

Advocates of the protofeminist idea lift Jesus up for the seemingly remarkable way he treated women. Examples are his encounter with the woman at the well, his close friendships with Mary and Martha, even his healing of the woman with the hemorrhage, when she touches the hem of his garment.

As a young woman—a Christian and a feminist—I confess I was drawn powerfully to this image of Jesus. I needed a savior who—even if he couldn’t undo patriarchy with one fell swoop—could at least see through it. Could at least value me and “my women-people” where our culture fails us.

Do we not—most of us—secretly want someone to save us from the things that hurt the most? Especially those systemic injustices that seem so inescapable? If our savior is to be “human” shouldn’t he at least “get it?” Shouldn’t he at least see what’s wrong, instead of re-inscribing hierarchies of oppression? (That’s just a little academic jargon. Like how I snuck that in?)

Despite Jesus’ extraordinary compassion and insight, despite his many powerful actions on behalf of those whom society was not so crazy about. But I’m not sure I would consider him a protofeminist.

Part of my conviction about this comes from a reading of Jewish scholarship. We Christians understand and experience Jesus as singular and unique. It is right that we should inquire deeply into Jesus’ continuities and discontinuities with his tradition. Yet, given our troubled history with Judaism, we need to truly respect the integrity of Judaism—our sister tradition. Too often our claims about Jesus’ remarkable distinctiveness tend toward a denigration of Judaism. Jesus too easily comes to be seen as the one exemplary Jew who stood up against a whole terrible system.

New Testament scholar Amy Jill Levine cautions against common errors made about first century Judaism. She writes,

One misconception, is the view that early Judaism was so misogynistic that it made the Taliban look progressive by comparison…the case for describing women as oppressed by Judaism [has been] made by very selective citations of rabbinic statements…

Rather, she writes, evidence “tells us that Jewish women owned their own homes, served as patrons, appeared in the Temple (which had a dedicated “Court of the Women”) and in synagogues, had use of their own property, had freedom of travel…

Levine concludes, “Clearly, it was not because of Jewish oppression that women joined Jesus.”

Apparently, Jesus—on occasion—made mistakes. He’s not super-human, so what is he? This moment with the Syrophoenician woman when he falls flat on his face—might lead us to conclude that Jesus is merely human. But that’s not what our tradition tells us. We say that he is fully human.

Does this human Jesus—who makes mistakes and is called to account—teach us something about what is means to be fully human? Does Jesus’ humanness open a way for us to embrace our own flawed humanity, our own limitations, the bitter disappointment and sting of particular time and circumstances and relationships?

The Syrophoenician woman seems to catch Jesus in a moment when—for whatever reason—he has lost sight of his mission. Here is a moment when his eyes are newly opened to God’s power and possibility. Jesus has been thinking small. Thinking in a limited way about himself, about the woman, about God. She effectively calls him out of himself, from limited vision to see the vast panorama of God’s grace. And perhaps this is precisely where we glimpse Jesus’ full humanity.

Jesus is open to being called back to God, back to his purpose and his mission. He is open to the striking words of the Syrophoenician woman. Open to her claim on him. Open to being called out, open to relationship, open to learning, open to God. Here is Jesus, the fully human one. Awake, alive, in relationship, in community, responsive, accountable, listening.

And isn’t this precisely how God works in our lives? Through the voices of our neighbors speaking plain truth? Through relationships that jar us out of complacency and call us to love more fully?

Let us thank God, then, for this fully human one—our brother Jesus—who goes before us and calls us closer to God’s own heart.

The Holy Qur’an, Sura 4:171 and Sura 19:34-35.
Amy Jill Levine, “Bearing False Witness: Common Errors Made About Early Judaism,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament (Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 502-503.

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