Jesus and the Canaanite Woman* (Pentecost 15A)
I am not preaching tomorrow and have the luxury of simply noodling around in a difficult text, i.e., the story told in Matthew’s Gospel about a woman who accosts Jesus while he is trying to take some down time from his own unbelievably stressed daily life.
If you know the story, then you know that the scandal of this invasion of Jesus’s privacy is not only that the accoster is female, but that she belongs to an inferior group of people – the Gentiles. Since most of us are Gentiles, we may not immediately realize what a bad and alien thing that is in Jesus’s particular First Century Jewish culture. Jesus’ disciples rudely prevent the foreign woman’s access to their group.
The woman responds to their jeers by shouting that she needs to see Jesus because her daughter is “tormented by a demon.” Jesus has a popular reputation for curing people of diseases and infirmities and she wants his help. Jesus answers by calling the woman’s people “dogs,” the woman seems to make a witty retort, and Jesus ends up healing the daughter because, he says, the woman has great faith.
That’s the story. And very often, in dealing with this text, preachers claim that Jesus was just kidding or that he was testing her, and, anyway, that the reference to “dogs” can be explained away and is not nearly as derogatory as it sounds. I’ve done it myself so I can quickly get to the punch line of how the woman’s insistence in addressing Jesus ultimately changed his mind about his mission.
The problem with deflecting attention away from the actual letter of the text is that it blatantly disrespects the word, treating it, as Augustine scholar Robert O’Connell once put it, “as a trampoline, [the] occasion for an impatient leap into the discarnate realms of spiritual interpretation.”**
The text, O’Connell argued, deserves respect. And so do the “real, historical things” dealt with in the text – the context, the town, the earth, etc. — which ought not simply be “sublimated into symbols.” Id. The fact that a biblical text offends our own sense of possibility is not sufficient reason to treat it as spiritual metaphor.
The truth is, this gospel of Jesus and the Canaanite woman is patently offensive and needs taking seriously because it is offensive to us. What Jesus says to this woman sounds racist. At best, he seems to have adopted a stereotyped bias against an “outsider” – non-Jewish and non-male – who is not entitled to respect or attention.
Moreover, and this also is offensive to us, the woman in the story debases herself by making a witticism to mask the insult of Jesus’ rejection of her personhood. I thought immediately of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s late 19th century poem, “We Wear the Mask,” which describes black people smiling to mask their anger.*** And I thought of how women, historically, often have played dumb or ditzy in order to have any power at all. The truth is, I suspect, that oppressed people smile and shuffle a lot.
What is interesting here is Jesus and I think of St. Paul’s comment that “he became sin for our sake.” Jesus is human, and therefore tribal, and therefore benefitting from the accidents of being Jewish and male in a society that values and rewards Jewish males: I cannot, he says, “take the children’s food and give it to dogs.” He will not, he says, take the salvation and healing intended for the Chosen People and dispense it to infidels and outsiders.
One of the reasons scholars are said to accept this story as true is because they think it is so unflattering to Jesus that it’s unlikely to have been kept in if it didn’t really happen. Ah, but it raises uncomfortable questions about our own place in this story. What, e.g., enabled Jesus to empathize with this woman who, moments before, was – as far as he was concerned — essentially subhuman? Was it her persistence in coming at him? There was a Stanford study reported by ABC News last year which concluded that people who are targets of prejudice confront a bigot only when they think the bigoted person can change. Is that what happened? Did she see his possibilities before he did?
Did this unnamed woman show Jesus his “dark side,” the Jungian Human Shadow that we are told we must all face if we are ever to understand our humanity and vulnerability to being outsiders? And is our own knowledge of suffering and victimhood actually necessary to acquire the gift of compassion?
I continue to ponder… .
* Jesus left Gennesaret and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. Matthew 15:21-282.
** This wonderful phrase is from his 1978 article, “Art and the Christian Intelligence” (in St. Augustine, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, p. 138).
*** “We wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—This debt we pay to human guile; With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, And mouth with myriad subtleties.”