The Day Jesus Was Wrong

jesus
August 16, 2014

Matthew 15:21-28

Today’s gospel passage is unique. As far as I can tell, it is the only place in the New Testament where Jesus is wrong. Now we are not used to Jesus being wrong. Almost always, Jesus teaches and reveals God’s truth perfectly. And whenever he debates with his opponents, his arguments win the day. But here, in this encounter with a Canaanite woman, Jesus takes a stand that is contrary to the will of God. How is this possible? Don’t we believe that Jesus is divine? How can God be wrong? We do believe that Jesus is divine, and we also believe that he is fully human. And it is in his humanity that he is influenced by his culture and that he acts at times with incomplete knowledge.

These human limitations lead Jesus to make the wrong decision in dealing with the Canaanite woman. As a devout Jew, Jesus treasured the close relationship that God had established with the Jewish people. They were God’s children. Non-Jews, Gentiles, were not as close to God. Although they were certainly God’s creatures, they did not belong to God’s people. Jesus believed that his ministry was limited to his own people. He expected to find faith only among his fellow Jews. So when this Canaanite woman, who was a Gentile, comes and asks him to heal her daughter, Jesus jumps to the conclusion that it’s none of his business. At first, he simply ignores the woman. The text tells us that Jesus did not say a word in answer to her pleading. But when she persists, he not only rejects her request but also insults her. He says “it is not right to take the food of the children” (that is the Jewish people) “and throw it to the dogs” (that is the Gentiles, like you). In responding in this way Jesus was wrong. In his humanity, he was influenced by his culture and by his belief that God’s action in him was limited only to his own people.

But Jesus always is a model for us, and this is especially true in today’s gospel. Because when Jesus realizes that he is wrong, he changes his mind. When he sees this woman’s faith, he comes to understand that God is calling him not only to minister to his own Jewish people, but to the Gentiles as well. And once he sees this, Jesus changes direction. He heals the Canaanite woman’s daughter.

This gospel is telling us that we, like Jesus, can be influenced by our culture and can often act with incomplete knowledge. Therefore it must be our goal to locate the prejudices that we carry and to repent of them. It might be the prejudice that a person of a different race, religion, or sexual orientation does not deserve our respect. It might be the confidence that violence or coercion is the best way to protect our family or our country. It might be the belief that someone who has hurt us should not be forgiven. All of these beliefs can seem to be just part of the culture, just business as usual. But they are contrary to God’s will. And once we realize it, we must pray for the strength to reject them.

If Jesus could be wrong, there is every reason to believe that we can be wrong as well. That is why we must pray to our Lord, who changed his heart to heal the daughter of the Canaanite woman, to change our hearts so that we can be better instruments of God’s love in our world.

7 Comments

  1. John Liberatore says:

    Good morning, Father George.

    I read your blogs from time to time and enjoy them because they help me to think, to ponder the wonders of our God. For this Scripture regarding the Cannanite Woman, I wish to share another perspective that I located from a Catholic source and one that holds that Jesus was not wrong. I wish to also point out that the difficult Scriptures for us to hear will have the most to offer us provided we take the time to consider not our perspective but that of our Lord who is perfect in every way.

    In the middle ages, men desiring to enter the Monastery would present themselves at the door as a novice with much hope. They were made to wait to gain entry for days on end without human contact, food or water often totally ignored. They would knock repeatedly without admittance. They may be told the Monastery is full or that they were unfit. A Monk may even come out days later telling the novice to go away. But, only after many days of being tested would they let him in as then they would know the novice was truly hungry for God. Only those who were really starving for God were let in.

    Saint Augustine was asked why God, at times, does not respond to our pleas, to our prayers. He offered that God gives us time to allow our heart to expand to prepare it for what God is about to give you (thus, His timing, not ours). Augustine continued that we are made to wait in silence and rejection but during this time our heart grows and our soul expands and then it is ready to receive what God chooses to bestow.

    The Cannannite Woman was certainly resolute and it paid off. She represents the hunger of humanity. She represents all of us. She is determined because she longs for God’s mercy, justice, and love. She knows where they can be found.

    I don’t agree with the statement or phrase that Jesus was wrong. I don’t see how we can ever say that. If Jesus is wrong then God is wrong. If we conclude that Jesus is wrong at any point then we have grounds and precedent to question or challenge what we choose (the term “Cafeteria Catholic” comes to mind).

    The Monastery analogy above I drew from Bishop Robert Barron (www.wordonfire.org) which I believe explains the sticky situation in this Scripture. This explanation maintains the right order; that we should strive (pray and plead) and, as Saint Augustine says; “According to St. Augustine, “We need not pray for what we need because God already knows what we need before we even ask. Instead, we ought to pray, he suggests, to increase our desire for God, and so that we might be able to receive what He is preparing to give us.”

    Peace to you and I will continue to read and gain from your blogs.

    Thank you. -John

    • Thank you for your response. There are many ways to read the scriptures and I appreciate the one you have shared. I do not, however, think it is impossible to imagine that Jesus could be wrong. He is like us in all things but sin. Being wrong is not being sinful. God, of course, cannot be wrong. But because Jesus is fully God and fully human, he could, in his humanity, like us occasionally be wrong and learn from his mistake.

  2. A courageous and authentic commentary on this often glossed over story of Jesus in the Bible. It is filled with hope because Fr. George’s view of Jesus’ evolving in his humanity opens my eyes to the sanctity of my own process of coming to know that which before, I did not know.
    And how to I come to know? As Jesus did, by listening, ever so reluctantly to what another may be trying to convey , verbally or perhaps by their behavior.
    It is the work of the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit only that enlightens my assumptions, prejudices and defenses.
    After all, boundaries and limits ARE needed. God works with it all to reconcile us to each other and ourselves with dramatic results, as in this shocking story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman. Her relentless cry too was just as vital to the outcome and was part of expanding Jesus’ ministry. Imagine if she had given up?
    The Canaanite woman’s behavior in conjunction with
    Jesus’ humble humanity, remind me this is the level of vulnerability that God cannot resist.
    Thank you Fr. George. I’ve been journeying with this Scripture passage all week. Your commentary has been a blessing. Please continue to share with your readers.
    Lisa Ryan

  3. Wendy Zorman says:

    Amen! Very timely.

  4. Donna Fabris says:

    Fr. Smiga,
    Thanks for making sense of this troubling Gospel story and showing how very applicable it is to us today. Hope to see you in January.
    Donna Fabris

  5. Kevin Stephan says:

    Fr Smiga –
    I have an alternative take on this passage. Since Jesus, as part of the Holy Trinity, and as the Word who has been present since before the creation, knows “the hairs on our head”, it seems more probable that He was testing this woman’s faith, and, finding it rock-solid, honored her request for healing. Other Gospel passages point to the importance of persistence in petitioning God for our needs, and this passage seems to be another example of that.

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