Who is the teacher?
Who is the learner?
Who is being formed in this story?
• The easy answer is the disciples. They are always being formed. Throughout the Gospels, they are quite often the clueless, small-minded learners that Jesus needs to correct and teach and rescue. Maybe they are being formed as they listen to the words of Jesus.
• Or maybe it is the woman. This Canaanite woman is a different faith and so perhaps she is learning the ways of the Gospel from Jesus. Maybe she is being formed.
But what if it were Jesus? What if Jesus were the one who was being taught, instead of the one who was teaching?
Let me let that one hang there a little while we look at the context that makes this story so powerful.
When Jesus met this woman, he was travelling through the region of Tyre and Sidon. From the earliest days that the Israelites entered the promised land, there was a deep cultural divide between the Israelites and the inhabitants of Tyre and Sidon. Queen Jezebel, who married the Israelite king Ahab and seduced him into a life of idol worship and oppression of his own people, was from Tyre. The prophet Ezekiel rants and raves against Tyre and Sidon, claiming that their military and commercial strength – for which they were overly proud – was to be their downfall. By Jesus’ time, the cultural divide was still great. The bad blood between them had not gone away. To the average Israelite, this woman would have represented and personalized all of that bad blood. Jesus’ people hated her. Jesus’ disciples hated her. Jesus himself would have been raised to hate her. In that context, listen to his words. He calls her a dog. He says that he didn’t come for her, but for the lost sheep of Israel. This is not sweet, happy Jesus.
• Others will say that he was pushing the disciples…that Jesus knew all along that this woman deserved as much attention as the Hebrews. He was just checking to see if they knew.
• Now, some will say that he is testing the woman – that he didn’t really mean to sound like a jerk, but that he wanted her to really think about what she was doing.
But many scholars say that this is a seminal moment in the ministry of Jesus. That his understanding of his calling to that point was specifically to the people of Israel. But that this woman, and her actions, and her faith, had an impact on him. That the teacher was being taught. That he was formed by God in this moment, through the words of this woman, opening his eyes to a new vision for the Kingdom.
Is it that hard to believe? After all, Jesus spent time learning as a child. He was formed by the rabbis in the synagogue where he grew up. He was tested in the wilderness early in his ministry, discerning how he was called to do God’s work. And throughout the Gospels, Jesus retreats into the woods or up into the mountains to pray. If God were not forming him and changing him in that process, why bother?
So, let’s let that question hang here a little while longer, while we look this time to our context. What does this exchange teach us about spiritual formation? The first thing is it speaks to the holistic and complex nature of formation.
• As we have talked about, there are cultural and racial and religious dynamics at play. Israelites and Canaanites were not on the best of terms.
• There are social dynamics at play – Jesus is being challenged by this woman in front of his students – how will he respond? What will he say?
• There are gender dynamics at play. For a woman to be bold and brazen enough to approach Jesus in this way was expressly forbidden. For Jesus to even talk to this woman was violating a dozen religious laws. For them to have this conversation in public endangered his mission and his life.
• And, of course, there were dynamics of physical and emotional and spiritual sickness and healing.
• All this goes to prove:
In true spiritual formation, God goes straight to the hub and not just one of the spokes.
We often imagine our lives as if they were a spinning wheel. And the dynamics of our lives are like the spokes. Here is my physical self. Here is my mental self. Here is my emotional self. Here is my financial self. Here is my social self. And over here is my spiritual self. I go to church and talk to God and have church friends, but all of that is rather separate from the rest of my selves. In fact, each dynamic is separate and different.
But that is not how God forms us. I think that God goes straight to the hub. God does not want to be one of the spokes. God wants our faith to be center from which all of our various dimensions and elements of our selves emanates. It is our faith that must be the center, from which all of our whole selves come. And so for us, when we come to God, is it as a spiritual specialist, having to do with only one of the spokes of our lives? Or are we coming to God to teach and form our whole selves? All the dynamics of who we are: our social selves, our financial selves, our physical selves, our emotional and mental and sexual selves. I would hope it is the latter.
And I would hope that our congregation seeks to engage in spiritual formation that engages our whole selves. We are not just specialists that tinker with one part of the person. The phrase that the Spiritual Formation team has been using is that we are “a whole congregation, engaged in forming the whole person.” We start with the hub of faith, and watch the way that it emanates throughout our whole lives.
In true spiritual formation, God goes straight to the hub and not just one of the spokes.
A second lesson that we learn from the exchange between the woman and Jesus is this: in true spiritual formation, God sometimes irritates us toward transformation.
Let me be clear about this. The Canaanite woman in the story was annoying. She annoyed the disciples. She annoyed Jesus. She irritated the process, because she did not take no for an answer. When her friends told her she was crazy to try and go ask something from this racial enemy Hebrew, she could have given up. When the disciples kept her from seeing Jesus, she could have walked away. When Jesus told her that his primary task was not for her, but for Israel, she could have gone back home. But she did not. She continued to press, continued to annoy, continued to irritate.
She reminds me of another metaphor: sand. Anyone who has ever been to the beach knows what sand does. Within five miles of the beach, instantly everything in your possession is covered in sand. It is in your car. It is on your food. It is in your shoes. It is in between your toes. It is in your hair. It is in your clothes. And it irritates and annoys and chafes. Who in their right mind would ever want to bring sand into their home for any reason, except for torture?
Unless, of course, it is sandpaper. Then, the very same thing that irritates and rubs us wrong, becomes a device to transform, and beautify, and re-create. It is the irritation that makes the difference. Using a soft cloth on a piece of rough wood would not accomplish anything! It takes the roughness of the sand in sandpaper to turn the wood into something refined and beautiful.
This is the way that God transforms us. True spiritual formation comes when we are irritated, annoyed, challenged to change. A “soft cloth” that just affirms what we already believe doesn’t do much to transform, does it? Now, some think it is safer to stick to that which is simple and that which we already feel comfortable with. It is better to listen to people who agree with us already, and affirm our way of thinking. But the sense that I get here at FBC is that we want to do things differently. We value that dialogue, those questions, even proclaiming that doubt is a part of faith. We acknowledge and encourage the irritation, because we know that the irritation is what helps us to grow.
So what does that look like in the church? I think it implies that our role is to be like the woman. We are to doubt the cultural expectations. We are to challenge the familiar notions. We are to choose not to walk away from the hard conversations, the hard relationships, and the hard questions. The woman did not. And what was Jesus’ response to her method? Healing and affirmation and transformation.
But that is hard.
Case in point. Back to our first question of who is the teacher…who is being formed in the passage…
• Does anyone have a problem with this idea of Jesus being transformed or formed or changed?
• Does anyone have questions about what that does to our ideas of Christ’s divinity? To our ideas of God as unchangeable and immutable?
• Does anyone else get nervous by this picture of Jesus as culturally prejudiced, even racist?
• Anyone else irritated by the concept…think that it needs a little more conversation?
Welcome to true spiritual formation: These are the questions that we are called to, required to ask if we are to truly grow. Not digging up controversy, just for the sake of controversy. That’s just like dumping a bucket of sand into our car. Not helpful and rather counterproductive. But embracing the sandpaper of God’s transformation means listening to a variety of opinions and interpretations and ideas about God’s word and call on our lives. Listening and asking the questions that irritate and annoy and transform and change us. Recognizing that those who are never challenged are those who never grow.
Today, I challenge us…
…to be the Church of the Whole Wheel – allowing God to transform and form our whole selves, and not just one part.
…and to be the Church of the Holy Sandpaper – inviting and encouraging that irritation as a way to grow and change.