I love a good surprise. I don’t mean being startled—like when someone jumps out from around the corner and scares you half to death. (I like that, too, but that’s another topic.) I like those moments of genuine surprise, when things don’t turn out the way you expected them to. They don’t happen all that often. Usually we can see what’s coming long before it gets here. But, every so often, something truly unexpected happens.
I wonder whether Jesus himself was ever surprised. I expect that he was. I don’t want to get into a heavy discussion of the communicatio idiomatum—that Jesus Christ had all the properties of both God and man—but I don’t want to believe in a savior who wasn’t caught off-guard at least once. That’s part of what it means to be human, and, although it doesn’t make sense to say that all-knowing God was surprised, I can’t imagine going through a pre-programmed life.
This Sunday’s gospel reading is, for me, a time when Jesus was surprised. Unique to Mark’s telling of this story of the Syrophoenician (“Canaanite” in Matthew) woman is Jesus’ understated response to her plea. The woman asks Jesus for help, and he responds the way everyone (including himself) expected—by saying no. But then she uses his own demeaning metaphor of a dog gathering up crumbs under the children’s table to reveal to him something new. Jesus sees that the time is right for God’s mission to be extended to the Gentiles.
In Matthew’s account, Jesus makes a big deal about the woman’s faith—as if her bold exchange revealed a faith worth responding to. But this account shows a Jesus who responds purely out of acknowledgment of her humanity. I read it as if he didn’t expect that to happen. I think he was serious when he said no, and I think he left that house with a new theological insight to mull over: “maybe it is time to reach out to other people.”