What are the best circumstances for you in which to learn? Personally, for me to learn my very best, I prefer to be able to have numerous reference books around me, complete quiet and tranquility and an open mind. If I am learning from another person, I need to be able to concentrate completely and know that the person that I am learning from is beyond reproach in their knowledge in the field I am studying.
I often place myself in the proverbial “shoes” of the disciples when they were learning from Jesus of Nazareth in their three-year sojourn with him. I especially tend to do that when I find a reading from the New Testament that challenges me and makes me question what the text is telling me. The disciples didn’t have the opportunity to surround themselves with books, for most of them were illiterate. They rarely had the chance for complete quiet and tranquility due to the numerous crowds that invariably surrounded Jesus. They weren’t even allowed the opportunity to concentrate on what Jesus was teaching them since he used different forms of teaching in differing circumstances. Their biggest advantage that they had was that they were learning from the master.
When Jesus taught, he taught primarily through the use of parables. Parables had the distinct advantage of being read through the eyes and heart of the hearer, therefore many different interpretations were possible. When the disciples were unsure of what Jesus’ meaning of the parable was, they asked for a plain language interpretation, and Jesus explained it to them clearly, with no possibility of misinterpretation. Even with a plain interpretation, the disciples sometimes still never “got” the message, and Jesus demonstrated to them what message they should receive.
This is precisely what happened, in my opinion, when, in the gospel according to Matthew (Matthew 15: 1-28), Jesus explained to the people and his disciples that traditions, such as the ritual washing of hands before they eat, while ignoring such commands as honoring one’s parents is contrary to the spirit of the Law. Jesus pointed out that what one consumes does not matter, but what proceeds from the mouth, where evil intentions may come, is what truly defiles a person.
In the very next section of Matthew, a Canaanite woman approaches Jesus, who was in the region of Tyre and Sidon, calling out to Jesus, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” In every sense of the word, Jesus should not have acknowledged her since she was a Gentile, and therefore ritually unclean, but when the disciples urged him to send her away, he did not do so. Instead, Jesus stated that he was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. The woman came to Jesus, knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” Jesus said it was not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs, but her immediate response was that even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table. Jesus, astounded at her faith, exclaimed, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed as a result.
Jesus had told a parable to the people and to his disciples; he further had explained, in plain language, what was meant by the parable; and finally, he demonstrated to his disciples what they were to understand. He demonstrated to them what living by the traditions and interpretations of the law versus understanding the spirit of the law meant. To ignore the woman because she was a Gentile, to refuse to talk to her or to perform a miracle as requested may have fulfilled tradition’s requirements. This, however, gave no sense of worth to the woman and her persistence, her recognition of Jesus as Lord, her description of Jesus as the Messiah and her faith in him.
More importantly, it meant that a woman, formed in the likeness of the Lord, was being ignored solely because of her ethnicity, which Jesus would not tolerate, for we are all children of God through faith. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3: 26-28).
The Rev. Bain White is the pastor at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church/Lutheran Church of Grace.