Thursday, February 12, 2015

Mommy, Jesus called me a 'dog'!

At today's Mass, we hear this Gospel reading:

Jesus went to the district of Tyre. He entered a house and wanted no one to know about it, but he could not escape notice. 

Soon a woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him. She came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth, and she begged him to drive the demon out of her daughter. 

He said to her, “Let the children be fed first. For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” She replied and said to him, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.”

Then he said to her, “For saying this, you may go. The demon has gone out of your daughter.” 
When the woman went home, she found the child lying in bed and the demon gone (Mark 7:24-30).

It reminded me of an interaction I had online the other day, in which someone made the claim that Jesus viewed Gentiles as "dogs," and had only come for Jews; the Gentiles would have to wait for the crowning of Israel's Messiah, was his argument (as I recall it now). It's not a new argument; and in fairness, this passage and a few others do lend support to it.

Nevertheless, as I explained in my homily this morning, this is not what our Lord had in mind. I think this passage is often misunderstood.

To point out the obvious, it's necessary to look at any passage of Scripture in context. Here's a good rule to apply: anytime an interpretation of a particular passage sets that passage at odds with everything else, look again. Or to put it another way, an interpretation of a passage should solve problems, not create them. When God -- or really, any individual presented in Scripture suddenly seems "out of character," that's a good time to back up and ask why that might be so. There may be a good reason for it.

So let's look at this passage. And let's set it side by side (not literally; I don't know how to do that with Blogger) with the like passage in Matthew 15: 21-28:

Then Jesus went from that place and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” 

But he did not say a word in answer to her. His disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.”

He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 

But the woman came and did him homage, saying, “Lord, help me.”

He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” 

Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.

Here's what's going on. Our Lord is preparing the apostles for a renewal of Israel; and in this renewed Israel, the promise God made through the prophets will be fulfilled, namely: of Israel being a light to the nations. You will find this in many places in Isaiah, but also elsewhere. Consider Malachi 1:11: "From the rising of the sun to its setting, my name is great among the nations..." And the whole of the book of Jonah as well.

The Gospel of Matthew is very explicit in presenting this theme, literally from beginning to end: the opening genealogy of Matthew includes several Gentiles in the supposed family tree of Jesus -- I say supposed because Jesus himself is not a member of that family: the line comes down to Joseph, and Jesus is not kin to Joseph; Joseph must adopt Jesus. So consider that: even the Lord God, our Messiah, must be grafted in, just like the Gentiles! And then, at the conclusion of Matthew, the Lord tells the Apostles: "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit..." (28:19). And in between, there are repeated episodes consistent with this theme: the arrival of the Magi, the battle with the scribes and Pharisees over the ritual law, and many, many encounters between Jesus and outsiders, including Gentiles.

In Matthew's account of the encounter with the Canaanite woman (Mark calls her "Syrophoenician"), a key to this is what the Apostles say: "Send her away." And in that context, our Lord's comments make far more sense as a reply, not to her, but to them. He is saying out loud what they think; and in doing so, also eliciting the woman's response. It's a masterful turn, because in the end, the Gentile woman, by her own words, demonstrates a better grasp on what Jesus wants than his own disciples.

Notice what Jesus says to her, in Matthew's account: "O woman, great is your faith!" Contrast that with what he said to Peter, just before (in Chapter 14), when the Apostles were in the boat: “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Someone might say, OK, that's Matthew; but is Mark presenting it the same way? To which I offer two responses: first, it's the same Jesus; but, second, I think if you look at the text of Mark, you'll find a similar theme, if not as pronounced.

Let's note, first of all, the so-called "Messianic Secret" in Mark. This is the curious way that Jesus tells people not to say anything about who he is -- i.e., keep it a "secret." Why does he do this? To keep people from misunderstanding just how he is the Messiah. The prevailing notion is a political Messiah, who will raise up an army and drive out the Romans. That's not who Jesus is. The Lord, however, is very willing to tell people he is the Messiah, once they understood it means he will conquer through suffering on the cross. See Mark 8, paralleling Matthew 16, where Peter proclaims Jesus "the Christ"; and then the Lord reveals to them that he will suffer and die.

Also, notice in Mark, as in Matthew, Jesus is reaching out to outsiders: lepers, women, and Gentiles. And he likewise is challenging the scribes and Pharisees about not over-emphasizing ritual purity. There's an encounter in Chapter 5 that's noteworthy: Jesus heals a man who lived in the "territory of the Gerasenes," and also who also "lived among the tombs." This is a double-whammy: this was a Gentile area; and the man lived among tombs: that's ritually unclean. Can you imagine the reaction of the Apostles as Jesus drags them there? It's very clear: it says "they came..."--he brought them along.

In fact, it's a triple-whammy, because the man also had "an unclean spirit."

This passage is so striking once you look at it. The man sees him from a distance, but doesn't keep his distance as anyone, frankly, might wish; he runs to Jesus and falls at his feet.

Next in Mark is a woman with a hemorrhage. This is yet another example of ritual impurity. Then a dead child; another impurity. Doesn't it seem curious that the Lord just "happens" to run into all these ritually unclean people? What must the Apostles be thinking?

And this continues after this encounter with the Syrophoenician woman: Jesus is back in the Decapolis area -- a Gentile area -- and there he performs healings, and even multiplies the loaves for the four thousand.

All this and more besides makes abundantly clear that the Lord has no issue with bringing healing and salvation to Gentiles. After all, it plainly says he went to the region of Tyre -- a Gentile area! Who did he suppose he would meet there?

Here's one more thing to help understand this passage, particularly the seemingly sharp way Jesus speaks to the woman.

What we see here is a fairly common literary device, if you will, in Scripture. Instead of God being the one to speak the truth, God so guides the discussion that he elicits the "right answer" from the human being to whom he's speaking. If you look back at the experience of Moses and God's People in the wilderness, you see this many times. Here's an example:

Then the LORD said to Moses: Go down at once because your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted corruptly. They have quickly turned aside from the way I commanded them, making for themselves a molten calf and bowing down to it, sacrificing to it and crying out, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!” 

I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are, continued the LORD to Moses. Let me alone, then, that my anger may burn against them to consume them. Then I will make of you a great nation.

But Moses implored the LORD, his God, saying, “Why, O LORD, should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a strong hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent he brought them out, that he might kill them in the mountains and wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning wrath; change your mind about punishing your people.

Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, and how you swore to them by your own self, saying,g ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky; and all this land that I promised, I will give your descendants as their perpetual heritage.’” So the LORD changed his mind about the punishment he had threatened to inflict on his people (Exodus 32:7-14).

Now, it could be that God actually needed Moses to explain all this to him; but what do you think? Doesn't it make much more sense that God sees value in eliciting from Moses these words of mercy? Can you see how this becomes a real epiphany for him? Moses, after all, would from time to time complain to God about these very people -- and it was God who told him Moses to be a father to them. In this instance, God turns it around; and by doing so, draws out Moses' faith.

Jesus does the same thing -- in this case, drawing out the woman's faith, and in the process, rebuking the disciples' lack of faith.

Arguing that Jesus looks down on this woman forces you to suppose the Lord has some sort of multiple-personality disorder. It makes more sense to see this is a way Jesus draws both the woman and the Apostles to deeper faith.

Note: I want to give due credit to Father Tim Schehr, who explained all this to us in my classes at Mount Saint Mary Seminary. But if anything's amiss here, that's on me.

1 comment:

Don L said...

Unfortunately today, we slaughter our children and pamper our dogs....