Part Two – Sacred Worth (Read Jim’s first “Heavenly Reverie” blog here)
A State of Being Pleasantly Lost in
the Noetic Environment of Jesus
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5).
I want to see reality the way Jesus did. I want to have the mind of Christ, as Paul urges us in the verse above. These blogs are my reflections on what I am coming to understand about the noetic environment of Jesus. Noetic environment means reality as Jesus understood it, or, what was going on in his mind. In this installment I want to talk about how Jesus understood the human person and their sacred worth.
We live in a world where people are identified and labeled by externals. We lump people into ethnic, religious and national groups. Or we see people as a part of a consumer group, and we label people by economic status. Finally, we are trained to see people as either good or bad, holy or sinful, based on their behavior: “Stay away from her, she is a bad person.” In doing so we reduce people to commodities and consumers. As a result, it becomes difficult to see people as persons of sacred worth.
However, Jesus refused to treat people as their external labels, box them in, and treat them according to their ethnic or religious group, social status or class, or their piety or sinfulness. One provocative moment in the life of Jesus concerns his interaction with a woman in Matthew 15:21-28. It is a passage that troubled me for years, but now brings me joy.[i]
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Without knowing the background—and the foreground—to this story, it appears that Jesus is not only unkind, he is an elitist, perhaps even a racist. We are going to have to take a closer look to understand this odd story.
Matthew describes the woman as a “Canaanite.” This was a word that no one in Jesus’ day used to describe the Gentiles. It was the name used in the Old Testament to describe the people who occupied the promised land of Canaan, the people that Joshua was charged with totally annihilating. Calling someone a Canaanite in Jesus’ day would be like calling a British person a Saxon, or a Swedish person a Viking. So we know something is up when Matthew uses this name (the one and only time it occurs in the New Testament).
The woman is following Jesus and his disciples, shouting at him to heal her daughter. His disciples tell Jesus to tell the woman to bug off. Jesus instead says to the woman, “I was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” This may sound rude, but in fact, in light of the recent events this was more of a sigh of despair. John the Baptist has recently been murdered, Jesus’ ministry is failing, and the Pharisees are plotting his murder at that very moment. Jesus’ reply was essentially, “I am on a difficult mission. My own people are lost, and I must attend to them.”
The mother then kneels before Jesus, an act of complete submission, and says, “Lord, help me.” One would expect a little compassion, but his next line sounds worse than the first: “It is not fair to throw the children’s food to the dogs.” Ouch. She persists with a clever reply: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Jesus seems delighted in this response, praises her faith, and tells her that her request has been granted, and her daughter is healed. What just happened?
Perhaps she awakened Jesus’ memory of the original call of Abraham that “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him” (Gen. 18:18), because in essence she is saying, “I know your mission is to save your people first, but your ultimate mission is also for the rest of us. Go ahead and feed your kids, but could you let my daughter have a scrap?” Jesus says. “Great is your faith.” I believe he intentionally went into this region (Tyre and Sidon, Gentile territory) to have this kind of interaction, so that he could proclaim that his mission now included the Gentiles. Her persistent pleading demonstrated her faith that Jesus could, in fact, heal her daughter—even though she had no rights to it—gave Jesus the chance to show how he is making all things new. By granting her request, Jesus’ mission to the Gentiles has now begun. He had healed Gentiles before, but never in Gentile territory. Something radical has just happened. But it gets even better.
As I mentioned, what happens immediately after this story is also important in understanding what Jesus is ultimately doing. The next thing Jesus does is heal hundreds of people—all Gentiles (nee Canaanites). We can infer they are Gentiles because it says they all “praised the God of Israel” (code for: “they were Gentiles”). Then something even more profound follows. The crowd of Gentiles grows to 4,000 (second only to the 5,000 he fed with the loaves and fishes, in the previous chapter). As in that story, Jesus has compassion on this crowd, and performs the same miracle of feeding this huge crowd with only a small amount of food (the abundance narrative I wrote about in the previous blog). But the end of the story is where it gets good.
In the feeding of the 5,000 (Jews) there were twelve baskets of leftovers. This signified the twelve tribes of Israel. When he feeds the 4,000 (Gentiles) there are seven baskets left over. As I always tell my students, pay attention to the details in the Bible because there are no wasted words. Seven signifies the seven tribes of the Canaanites, the very ones that Moses told Joshua to destroy totally (Deut. 7:1-5), ordering them to show no mercy, because any mingling with these godless people might lead the Israelites astray.
Let me re-cap what has happened. Jesus has shown mercy and compassion on the very people that Moses said were godless. Brian McLaren writes, “Jesus seizes the old narrative, shakes it, turns it inside out, and offers a new story that reframes a future radically different from the past.”[ii]
At the Apprentice Institute we talk, and speak, and write a lot about narratives. Our narratives shape who we are and inform what we do. Our narratives are crucial. If they are false, limited, or toxic, they can damage our souls, and lead to apathy and even violence. Jesus is, in this story, isolating an ancient narrative, showing that it is false, and offering us a new one, one that is true, namely, all people are of sacred worth. He demonstrated this constantly in his actions, speaking to and blessing an adulterous Samaritan woman, dining with tax collectors and prostitutes, healing the loved ones of the hated Roman soldiers.
Some may react to this story by saying, “Jesus is fickle. He didn’t want to help the Gentile lady, then he caved, then he went crazy and started healing—and feeding—a ton of Gentiles. He seems unstable.” I do not read the story this way. I believe that Jesus knew what he was doing all along. He knew how deeply entrenched the narrative was in Israel—and among the Romans who occupied Israel. It goes like this: “Destroy your enemies, for blessed are the violent victors.” That is what the Israelites lived with every day under Roman occupation. Each day they saw their own people pinned up like bugs to die on crosses, a sign of Roman domination. Jesus reverses the violence narrative, a narrative held by his own people. It was in the air they breathed. Jesus was calling it out.
In Jesus’ noetic environment, all people are sacred. Therefore, we do not kill our enemies, we love them. We do not curse our enemies, we pray for and bless them. The violence narrative—one that is upheld only when we see people as things—is alive and well today. It is in the newspapers every morning. But I am called by Jesus not to judge others. However, I see the narrative in my own heart when I judge the person who smokes, or is obese. I see it in my own heart when I feel greater sadness for the American soldiers who die than the Iraqi soldiers who share the same fate. I see it in my own heart when I see a homeless person holding a sign at the stoplight and my first response is to wonder if his plight is legitimate. I am longing for the day when my first thought is, “How sacred that person is . . . wow.”
Transformation into Christlikeness is not easy. But it is freeing. I find my own false narratives—while comfortable and safe—are not conducive to joy. I want to continue to get lost in the reverie of Jesus’ noetic environment. It hurts at first, but abiding in his mind is healing to my soul. I love the line from the Christmas hymn, O Holy Night: “and He appeared, and the soul felt its worth.” Wouldn’t it be great if that was said of each of us: “Wherever we go, people feel their sacred worth.” For that to happen, we are going to have to see them as Jesus did.
[i] This understanding of the passage comes from Grant LeMarquand, and stated in Brian McLaren’s book, Everything Must Change, pp. 154 ff.
[ii] Ibid., p. 158
Dr. James Bryan Smith (M.Div., Yale University Divinity School; DMin Fuller Seminary) is the Executive Director of the Apprentice Institute. Dr. Smith is currently a theology professor at Friends University, in Wichita, Kansas, and an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. He is the author of eight books, most notably The Apprentice Series (InterVarsity Press), which continue to shape the work of the Apprentice Institute. Dr. Smith’s other titles include Devotional Classics (with Richard J. Foster), Embracing the Love of God, Room of Marvels, and Hidden in Christ.
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