“Why Would Jesus Do That?”

August 14, 2005


Matthew 15:21-28


A while ago I thought it would be nice, as summer draws to a slow close, as the school year gets up and running, to walk alongside Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew this morning: perhaps to listen as he speaks in parables, maybe to watch in amazement as he walks on water, or to be among the thousands that he feeds with just five loaves and two fish.

Instead I came smack up against that story that I just read. A desperate woman pleads with Jesus for his mercy and Jesus doesn’t even turn to look at her.

I really don’t like the Jesus that I saw this morning.

What about you?

Several years ago T-shirts and other items started showing up that asked “WWJD?” As you probably know, that’s short for “What Would Jesus Do?” It’s a simple question that asks us to consider our actions in light of what we think Jesus would do in a similar situation. The phrase actually has its roots in a late 19th century novel written by Charles Sheldon, a Congregational minister in Topeka, Kansas. Sheldon’s book In His Steps, first asked the question: “What would Jesus do?”

It’s not the only question we should ask in trying to decide on a course of action. And, as we’ll see, it’s not even the first or the best question to ask. But sometimes it helps.

Many of you know about the Common Fund that is run by the Johnson County Crisis Center. Typically the Common Fund covers needs such as medications, work boots, bus passes, security deposits, and prevention of utility shut-offs or evictions which, when unaddressed, can lead to prolonged unemployment, hunger and homelessness. It helps people who aren’t eligible for other assistance and who would otherwise fall through the cracks.

The Fund was started by ministers in downtown Iowa City churches who were repeatedly asked for financial help. I can tell you that when this happens, asking “What would Jesus do?” will usually result in an empty wallet or a guilty conscience.

Not being able to provide financial support on their own and unable to make sure that they weren’t giving money to people who simply went from one church to another, the clergy encouraged donations from their congregations which were pooled into one common fund for help.

Which is the Christian way—right?

Which is almost Christ-like in our concern for the poor, the outcast, the afflicted—right?

I mean, What Would Jesus Do? Provide what help he could—right?

At least that’s what we’d think if we hadn’t heard that disturbing story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman in the Gospel—the Good News—of Matthew. As we listen to Matthew’s story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman, we might think that Jesus should have stopped and asked: “Now, what would I do?” His words and his actions seem so, well, so un-Christlike.

Rembrandt made a simple drawing of this scene. Jesus walks along the road, wrapped up in conversation with his disciples. The Canaanite woman approaches the group but is noticed only by one disciple who obviously wasn’t keeping up with the conversation.

Jesus? In Rembrandt’s drawing, he doesn’t notice the woman. Matthew tells us, “He did not answer her at all.”

We’re left wondering: why can’t Jesus be a little more “Christian” in his actions?

Or why can’t Jesus be a little more “Jewish” in his actions? Did he not know of God speaking through the great prophet Isaiah: “Maintain justice and do what is right…The foreigners who join themselves to the Lord…I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; I will gather others besides those already gathered”?

In the words of the prophet we hear of God’s great inclusive love—a love that extends far beyond any one nation or group of people, a love that will gather in even those that many would seek to keep out.

Someone said that in this story Jesus is caught with his compassion down. Maybe Jesus was just having a bad day—as any of us can have. We know that we should “maintain justice and do what is right,” but too often we can be self-centered and cranky and short with others.

Look again as this woman comes up to Jesus.

When she first confronts Jesus, he responds in silence. We would expect something more, we would hope for something more. And Jesus disappoints us. But maybe a little more persistence will get his attention.

The silence of Jesus is not enough to silence this woman.

She keeps shouting. And the disciples start to get annoyed. Listen to them as they seem bothered by both this woman and Jesus. “Send her away,” they say to Jesus—meaning: “Do what she wants so that she’ll leave us alone.” The disciples seem as lacking in compassion as Jesus.

In response to the shouting of this woman and the complaining of these disciples, Jesus turns toward her. Now he will do what Jesus would do.


Instead he throws out a claim to an exclusive mission: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” At the beginning of this Gospel, Matthew takes the time to point out that at least three of Jesus’ ancestors were Canaanite women—Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth—not just those of the “house of Israel.” But Jesus wants nothing to do with this branch of his family tree. Those on the outside will just have to wait.

Shouting gives way to begging as this woman kneels before Jesus and simply says: “Lord, help me.” You can almost feel the desperation. You probably know what it’s like to pray like this. Certainly Jesus will show some compassion now.

And once more Jesus responds—not as we would expect him to, not as we would like him to, not even as we would like to think we would respond. “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

To the injury of no compassion, Jesus adds the insult of a racial slur.

Three strikes and you’re out. Game over. That’s all folks.


Unless you’re willing to persevere in seeking the help you need until you find.

Unless you’re willing to match wits with Jesus, asking until you receive.

Unless you’re willing to wrestle with this reluctant Jesus in the same way that the psalmists so often wrestled with the living God.

As one person put it: For the sake of her daughter the woman broke all custom and approached Jesus, went after what she needed, and bested him in argument.

“Ah, but Lord,” she replies—“even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Call her a dog if he must. Just give her the healing that she seeks. Contrary to what Jesus would do, God’s love is not limited to the favorites only. The gospel message—the good news is not for one group alone.

Whatever led to Jesus’ original responses—perhaps his own unavoidable participation in the racism and sexism of his time—this Gentile woman calls his bluff. Her wit, her sharp retort was her gift to Jesus—a gift that opened his ministry beyond those people who were like him. Her gift was not submission or obedience but a gift of sharp insight and courage.[1]

We can imagine that the early Christians must have had as difficult time with this story as we do. To their credit and to our benefit, they kept this troubling account and tried to make the best of it. Perhaps better than anywhere else we see in this story a very human Jesus who is capable of repentance—of turning in a new direction.

What Would Jesus Do? When confronted with someone different from himself, ultimately Jesus would listen in a way that let his world view be altered. He would let his fear of an outsider be transformed by his encounter with another human being. He would open himself to the possibility of becoming a different person. He would let himself be changed, he would do something different because someone else had touched him even if only through a small hole in his wall of defenses.

And while we can’t always expect to act like Jesus, maybe we should do the same. We should listen to those whom we would rather ignore. We should turn and face the people from whom we would rather walk away. We should recognize that God is doing a new thing among and through people who are outsiders—outside the church, outside our small circles. We should look among such people for the kind of faith that Jesus calls great.

And we can use this story to remind us that God’s ways are not our ways, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. What we think Jesus would do is not necessarily what Jesus would do. If we have lost the ability to be surprised or puzzled by what Jesus does and says, we have most likely remade Jesus in our own image and are no longer seeing or hearing the one who came announcing the good news of God’s love for all people.

Sometimes we just have to walk along with Jesus, no matter how perplexing and shocking he may be. And maybe that’s the ultimate “end-of-summer-start-of-the-school- year” challenge that this story offers. Jesus keeps leading us down new roads—roads that we wouldn’t go down of our own choosing. Jesus keeps taking us in new directions—toward destinations we would never imagine on our own.

Let’s walk along, with our eyes and hearts open.

Let’s walk along—and perhaps even you and I—along with Jesus—might discover the extravagant grace of God.

[1] Sharon Ringe, Feminist Interpretation of Scripture