“Was Jesus a Progressive?”

Artwork: Christ and the Canaanite Woman – Rembrandt, 1650






~ Matthew 15:10-28~


She took a knee.

She interrupted Jesus with her pain.

She annoyed the disciples with her incessant wails.

She from the wrong people, her daughter from the wrong people.

She dared ask for healing, release, relief from the demon.

They ignored her. Not worth a glance, much less attention.

Your suffering is not our suffering. Yet,

She came.

She knelt.

She took a knee.


Others have taken a knee seeking relief, seeking justice. They, too, have interrupted our ordered worlds; their incessant shouts and/or quiet protests seen as too disruptive. The status quo would like to ignore them (their suffering is not my suffering) but they won’t go away. They, too, are considered not worth attention yet they insist, they persist, they don’t give up. They take a knee which speaks loudly to this ordered world.

This gospel story tells us that Jesus didn’t want to be bothered with this Canaanite woman. He tried to ignore her. His disciples annoyed at her loud cries. “Send her away,” they tell Jesus. To which he is inclined to agree. Based on some philosophical, theological, ideological notion, he dismisses her cry for healing and mercy. Indeed, he goes one step further. “Jesus, don’t go there,” we implore. But he does go there. He utters an ethnic slur, likening her to a dog. Even as we hear it, we wince at the cruelty of such a derogatory slam.

I’ve spoken to this story in the past. Indeed, I raised the question of whether Jesus could be accused of racism. Or, at least, that Jesus was complicit in a culture steeped in a ‘us’ vs ‘them’ bias, a culture that was highly motivated to determine who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’, a structured culture of discrimination and exclusivity.

Yet, this is not the Jesus we like. We, meaning the congregation of Noe Valley Ministry Presbyterian Church, – we don’t want to follow a conservative, maintain-order, status quo Jesus. We follow a progressive Jesus, don’t we?

Yes, it is fair to say we are a progressive congregation; we, individually (probably for the most part), are progressive Christians, a bunch of liberals, if you will. And, if we can, we would love it if Jesus were progressive as well.

But I suppose a good question to ask is “just what is a progressive?” We hear the term applied in many ways and venues. There is progressive politics as opposed to conservative politics. San Francisco is a progressive city. California is a progressive state. And Noe Valley Ministry is a progressive church. I subscribe to a website: progressivechristianity.com. But what, really, does progressive mean? And how might that apply to Jesus?

As we find our way through the Gospels we, indeed, discover a person who appears to have all the earmarks of a progressive. He spent most of his time on the margins of his culture. His stories challenged the preconceived notions of his culture. He seemed to delight in making religious leaders the villains of his stories. At the very least, as the first of our readings demonstrate, he was not afraid to criticize them for their hypocrisy and challenging the status quo traditions upon which they relied.

He didn’t chastise the common folk for their plight. He never shamed people for being poor. People of his day would often see someone’s pain and suffering and wonder what sin had been committed to bring that on. Jesus never did that. He rejected the idea that material and physical blessings were tied to religious devotion or faithfulness.

But maybe most surprising was his inclusiveness. He fostered relationships with poor women, the infirmed, and people who did not belong. He engaged with people of other faiths. For people who sought vengeance, he taught forgiveness. For people who claimed self-righteousness, he taught humility. To those who thought they were the only chosen ones he redefined the idea to include all those whom they tried to reject.

Which brings us back to his encounter with the Canaanite woman. The gospel writer lays it out. Audaciously, he suggests that Jesus changed his mind. At the beginning of the story, Jesus appears to be a stereotypical Jewish 1st century male. He demonstrates disdain and contempt for this poor woman. By the end of the story his whole ministry, his whole mission, is turned around.

Kneeling before Jesus, this loud, annoying woman, this no-account woman, this ‘other’, challenges Jesus’ understanding of the world with a simple “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” And he listened and he took heed and he changed his mind. Jesus is turned around. Matthew sees this as the turning point in Jesus’ whole mission.

I don’t know, but that sounds quite progressive to me. Although, I suppose it isn’t really appropriate to say he was a progressive. Because ‘progressive’ is actually a fairly modern concept, after all. Well, at least in the last 500 years or so. So, a history lesson and with that maybe a good understanding of why I, for one, call myself a progressive, a Christian progressive.

To be a progressive one must, I suppose, believe in the concept of progress. But for most of the world’s history human cultures did not believe in progress. The ubiquitous world view was that the world was stagnant, if not deteriorating. They thought the golden age was in the past. If you wanted to make things better in the present you looked to the wisdom of the past, not to the future.

Indeed, it was considered impossible for human knowledge and efforts to address the fundamental problems that peoples of the world faced. What to do with disease, famine, poverty and war could only be fixed by the intervention of God or the gods. The idea that humans could fix these problems by discovering new knowledge and tools was ludicrous, even more, considered hubris. The story of the Tower of Babel, the story of Icarus, and countless other myths taught through the ages drove home the point that any attempts to go beyond our human limitations would only result in disappointment and disaster.

The overarching principle by which people lived was that what is called “the law of limited goods.” Put another way, the pie was as big as it would ever get and they all lived by dividing up that limited pie. Economically, this meant that if my slice of the pie increased in size that necessarily meant yours would decrease. If I got richer, you necessarily got poorer. The idea that there could be more, more for everyone, more abundance, was just not possible, was not even considered.  This principle of limited goods not only applied to material goods but to social concepts as well. For instance, ‘honor’, a most important commodity in the ancient world, was a limited good. So, if I increased in honor you necessarily must decrease in honor.

Many of the encounters between Jesus and the religious leaders we read about in the gospels were ‘honor battles’ by which they would try to diminish Jesus’ popularity by shaming him in public confrontations. But, to the chagrin of those religious leaders, Jesus always seemed to win those battles.

In our first reading today, for instance, when the Pharisees complain that Jesus’ disciples do not practice the tradition of the elders (ancient wisdom) that was done very publicly, literally in the public square, with the design to put Jesus at odds with the established tradition and thus shame him. Yet he answers them with a profound insight into and behind the very concept of what defiles a person – what’s in their heart, not how they eat. So, could it be said given that Jesus defied the status quo, rebelled, if you will, against the establishment, that maybe he was a progressive? Let’s explore further.

Most religious traditions are, I grant you, conservative. I mean, they are ‘traditions’ that adherents rely on for how to live the faith. And, based on the way things had always been, there was no need to look for more. Religious faith was lived out by going back, back to the sacred texts and traditions because they determined how to live faithfully. To carve out an adequate existence in the present, they tried to recreate the past. They certainly did not look to the future. This was the way it was for centuries.

The idea of looking to the future or of putting hope in the future to create a better life, the idea of progress did not begin to emerge until the 1500’s. Think the Enlightenment, the Renaissance; think the Scientific Revolution. Indeed, it was the Scientific Revolution that fostered the idea of progress. What the Scientific Revolution wrought was the discovery of ignorance. We don’t know what we don’t know.

Admitting there is stuff we don’t know is really quite revolutionary. Again, in the history of the world, that wasn’t a thing. Most empires were based on the premise that they knew all that there was to know, really. And so these empires just stayed as they were. The great Chinese dynasties, the great Indian moguls, the Aztecs and the Incas just didn’t seem curious about what might be outside their realms. It was left to the Europeans, in their world-wide expeditions, both good and bad, to develop a curiosity about the unknown. And so it was the Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch and English explorations, virtually always military, that always included scientists of various sorts. Charles Darwin was one such person. The Europeans, due to the discovery of science, realized that there was great potential in exploring the unknown. They admitted ignorance and sought to learn what they did not know to improve the human condition. Thus, the concept of progress was born.

As a result the ancient concept of ‘limited goods’ was blown away. The pie could be made larger. Indeed, capitalism, again for good or ill, and the correlating  concept of credit came out of such a ‘progressive’ view of the world. You could invest in the future. You could improve the human condition. You could expand your horizons.

Given that, what is a progressive Christian? Well, I believe it is someone who is not afraid of the unknown. That there are venues of learning that we can tap to help us be better disciples. That we don’t have to be afraid of science but can embrace the discoveries of science to enhance our spiritual and physical lives. Indeed, that we can trust the science that will keep us alive in a world-wide pandemic. Instead of doggedly adhering to a static, literalistic view of the bible, of faith, of the spiritual life that only looks backward. We progressive Christians can and should embrace what we don’t know, explore it, and adopt what works for our spiritual benefit. Yes, we look to the tradition of our faith, to the sacred text we read and study but not to somehow copy and paste into our present world, but to inform our faith to help us more realistically live in this world. And, in doing so, armed with knowledge and faith, will not be afraid to take on the difficult problems of our world.

So, was Jesus a progressive? I’d like to think so. After all, he seemed to challenge the status quo at every opportunity. His message was radical, inclusive, and revolutionary. Instead of a small, restrictive world he spoke of an expansive, abundant world. So, yes, embracing the radical, ‘progressive’ ministry of the life and message of Jesus is liberating. Jesus’ life was a living demonstration of God’s extravagant grace and love of God to those who so desperately needed it. May the same be said of us. Amen.


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