We all learn things by experience. It’s part of our universal human experience. Often we learn more from our mistakes than from anything else.
And, as it turns out, we often learn the most useful lessons from our most obvious, most public, and – yes – most painful mistakes.
Those who watch the television cartoon series “The Simpsons” (which I only watch rarely) know that the character Homer Simpson frequently learns useful lessons from his most obvious, most public, and most painful mistakes. And, whenever Homer learns such a lesson, his response is always the same: He slaps his forehead and exclaims “D’oh!”
This sort of “D’oh!” moment is part of our universal human experience.
Of course, the fact that the lessons we learn from our mistakes are so useful do not, however, make the realisation of our mistakes any less painful. And there are those, both in private life and in public life, who try to deny the fact that they’ve learned a useful lesson from a painful mistake. Instead, they try to spin an involved and usually increasingly contrived justification for their actions, like Basil Fawlty digging himself into a deeper and deeper hole. Listen to a politician of any persuasion (or the politician’s “spin doctor”) being interviewed on TV or radio and you’ll usually hear a lot of this. And, you know, we’d all respect the pollie a lot more if he (or she) would just slap his head like Homer and say “D’oh!”.
In our lessons from scripture today, we hear of people having these “D’oh!” moments.
In our lesson from the Book of Genesis, Joseph’s brothers have one of these “D’oh!” moments when they realise that the high Egyptian official with whom they were dealing was their brother Joseph, the same brother whom they had sold as a slave years before.
When Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive,” we are told that “his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.”
We hear of a similar “D’oh!” moment in our lesson from Matthew’s gospel. Jesus was travelling in the area of Tyre and Sidon. He was out of his own region. He wasn’t among his own people.
A local woman, a Canaanite woman, a foreign woman, a gentile woman, a woman who wasn’t Jewish came onto the scene. She approached Jesus and shouted to him, asking him to heal her daughter who, as she said, was “tormented by a demon”. (This was the language that people in those days used to speak about various forms of psychiatric illness.)
Jesus ignored her.
She kept on shouting.
The disciples were getting annoyed and said to Jesus that he should send her away.
Jesus said to her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
She knelt down in front of him and said, “Lord, help me!”
Jesus responded by saying something that to us doesn’t sound very Jesus-like: “It is not fait to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” And there’s no getting away from the fact that this was a pretty offensive comment. In fact, it was downright racist. Let’s not kid ourselves by pretending otherwise.
The woman said to Jesus, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.”
Now, there are two ways to look at this conversation.
One way is to say that Jesus was trying to test the woman, by pretending to be a real "hard man", to see just how persistent the woman was, before Jesus healed her daughter. Many commentators and preachers back in the bad old days would have said that this is what Jesus was doing, either to teach the woman something or to teach the disciples something.
My response to this idea is “I hope not.” This would have made Jesus far too manipulative and far too dishonest to be the Jesus who was the person who revealed the fullness of God in his own life.
Instead, I believe there is a better way to look at the passage. I believe that Jesus was being bluntly and candidly honest about his own feelings about this woman and her people. He learned the prejudices of his community and his nation, the same way all people learn the prejudices of their communities and their nations, the same way that you and I have learned the prejudices with which we struggle.
When the Canaanite woman was direct and “in-your-face” in her response to Jesus’ words, Jesus was challenged to re-think the prejudices he learned in his upbringing.
- He realised that the prejudices of his community were stupid and wrong.
- He realised that the prejudices of every community were stupid and wrong, including your prejudices and mine.
- Jesus had one of these “D’oh!” moments.
Of course, Jesus didn’t slap his head like Homer Simpson and say “D’oh!” (Or, if he did, Matthew didn’t record it.) What Jesus did say was “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” (Matthew also tells us that her daughter was healed instantly.)
For us, there are three important pieces of good news in this lesson:
- The first piece of good news is that all the prejudices that any community of people has about any other community of people are stupid and wrong. Full stop.
- The second piece of good news is that it’s possible to get rid of these prejudices. It’s not easy. It’s sometimes painful. But it’s possible.
- The third piece of good news is that, for fallible human beings who sometimes do stupid things and have our “D’oh!” moments, for people like you and I, we know that Jesus was there too. He knows what it’s like.