Tuesday, August 22, 2017

No, Jesus wasn't prejudiced against the Canaanite woman

Last Sunday in most Catholic churches worldwide, the Gospel reading describes an encounter between Jesus, his Apostles and a Gentile woman. As with the accounts of Jesus feeding the multitudes, this passage seems to be irresistible bait for dubious and nearly heretical interpretations; not to mention, dumb interpretations.

For example, Maryknoll Missioners claimed Jesus learned to overcome his "prejudice." Father James Martin (who seems particularly hungry for attention, even if he has to toss Catholic teaching over the side to get it), makes the same claim; and when challenged, accuses his critics of heresy. FYI, I didn't find any of this; ChurchPop did (post here).

So, I'm not as smart and famous as any of these folks, but I'm going to show you just how wrong all this is. And I might point out that what follows relies heavily on Father Tim Schehr, who taught Scripture for many years at the Archdiocese of Cincinnati's seminary, Mount Saint Mary's Seminary of the West.

First, let's acknowledge the difficulty by simply quoting the text in question. I bolded the parts that seem to support the claim Jesus was rude, if not prejudiced, toward the woman:

At that time, Jesus 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 Jesus did not say a word in answer to herJesus' 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 Jesus 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 the woman's daughter was healed from that hour.

It seems pretty damning, doesn't it?

But let's look more closely.

Here's the first part of the text again, with different parts highlighted:

At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and SidonAnd 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 Jesus did not say a word in answer to herJesus' disciples came and asked him, "Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us."

First, note the detail about the region of Tyre and Sidon. Why is that important? Where had Jesus and the Apostles been before?

If you roll back to chapter 14, you will see that Jesus and the Apostles had been in Galilee. This is where we read of the first occasion on which Jesus feeds a large crowd. Then he meets the Apostles on the Sea of Galilee; they are in the boat, with the wind against them, while Jesus walks across. (We heard this the prior week: this is when Peter steps out of the boat and very briefly walks on the water, before faltering.)

Then, he is in Gennesaret (14:34-36), where it says "People brought to him all those who were sick and begged him that they might touch only the tassel on his cloak, and as many as touched it were healed." Then, some of the Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem come to him, and complain that his disciples do not ritually purify their hands before eating. He gives his answer in verses 3-9, and then says to the assembled crowd:

“Hear and understand. It is not what enters one’s mouth that defiles that person; but what comes out of the mouth is what defiles one.”

After this, Peter asks for still more clarification, to which an exasperated Jesus replies:

Are even you still without understanding? Do you not realize that everything that enters the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled into the latrine? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, unchastity, theft, false witness, blasphemy. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.

So, it is after this that Jesus decides they will make a field trip to the region of Tyre and Sidon. If you look at a map of the area, you will see it's a bit of a hike; they didn't accidentally end up there. Moreover, it is outside traditionally Jewish areas. In other words, Jesus deliberately took the Apostles to a Gentile area.

Pop quiz: if you visit Idaho, would you be surprised to meet Idahoians? I would hope not. So surely Jesus expected to meet a Gentile in the region of Tyre and Sidon, n'est pas?

Second detail: notice Jesus does not reply to the woman; he waits and allows the Apostles to reply. And how do they answer? "Send her away"!

Father Tom Grilliot, now gone to his reward, used to point out that this was often the Apostles' response. Remember they tried to send away the parents bringing children to be blessed? And this is what happened just before, with the 5,000 hungry people. They said "dismiss the crowds," but Jesus refused.

So here's the key to the whole thing. This isn't about Jesus having a prejudice; it's about the prejudice of the Apostles. It isn't about the woman teaching Jesus a lesson; it's about Jesus -- with the woman's help -- teaching the Apostles a lesson.

This episode is simply part of a larger effort on the Lord's part to expand the Apostles' vision. Understood in that light, the lesson about the ritual hand-washing, and what defiles a person, fits in perfectly, doesn't it? Indeed, that's what you see throughout the Gospels; the Apostles are struggling, and Jesus is continually schooling them.

But let's go on to review more of the passage, and notice further details:

He said in reply,
"I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."
But the woman came and did Jesus 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 the woman's daughter was healed from that hour.

The key question her is, to whom are Jesus' first two comments directed? The first comment comes in response to the Apostles' "send her away" comment; he's responding to them. Admittedly, the second comment is unclear; it comes right after she does Jesus homage; but is it really directed at her?

Note well that the third comment is explicitly directed to her: "Then Jesus said to her in reply..." Matthew -- who was there to witness this -- seems to be emphasizing that this remark is the one comment particularly directed at the woman, in distinction from the others. And if they weren't directed at her, then to whom? Why, the Apostles -- whose attitudes are most likely reflected in them.

Father Schehr, when he explained this passage, invited us to imagine where everyone was standing, and facing, and the body language. He suggested that if it were acted out, the text would make the most sense if Jesus were looking at, and addressing his first two comments to, the Apostles.

Now, I can imagine someone accusing me of "forcing the text," in order to get the Lord "off the hook." But I will insist that anyone who claims, as the Maryknoll Missioners and Father Martin do, that this represents a case of "prejudice" on Jesus' part, to answer some questions:

- Why did Jesus deliberately enter into a Gentile region, if he wanted to avoid Gentiles?

- If Jesus didn't like Gentiles, why does the Gospel of Matthew, from Chapter 4, show him willingly healing Gentiles? In 4:25, we learn that people from "the Decapolis" region were among those he healed. While there were most likely Jews in this region, it was also heavily colonized by Gentiles. Then in Matthew 8, after the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus' first healing is of a leper; then he heals the servant of a Centurion. It's almost certain the Centurion was a Gentile, for this is when Jesus exclaims, “Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith."

And just note, here, that there are two times in Matthew in which Jesus singles out individuals on whom to lavish praise for their great faith. One is this Centurion; the other in the Canaanite woman. Both Gentiles.

- Or, do you think Jesus didn't like women? Well, his next healing was of Peter's mother-in-law. And, of course, Jesus notably had several women who assisted him, and with which he willingly associated.

- Or, do you think Jesus didn't want to become ritually "unclean"? Again, hard to square with the passage in chapter 15 we already looked at; in addition, we might note he willingly healed two demonaics who had been dwelling "among tombs," in the region of the Gadarenes -- this is where the demons enter the herd of pigs, and drive them off the cliff. Beaucoup ritual uncleanness there!

This theory that Jesus had a prejudice simply doesn't track with the rest of the Gospel of Matthew. Indeed, the Gospel of Matthew has as a consistent theme throughout, that the Gentiles were to be incorporated into a renewed Israel; this is clear from the very first lines of the Gospel, which begin with a genealogy of Christ, which includes Gentiles and some other dodgy figures, right through the story of the Magi, and all I've just highlighted, all the way to the conclusion in which Jesus sends the Apostles to "make disciples of all Jews..."

Wait, is that right? No, sorry, I mis-remembered it! In fact, it says:

Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

In my judgment, this "interpretation" isn't a case of exegesis -- drawing from the text -- but rather, isogesis, which is reading into the text. It is all about an agenda. Can you think of a reason? Why might someone want to suggest that Jesus, of all people, was bound up in narrowness and prejudice? What agenda might that serve? I can think of several, and I bet you can, too.*

* FYI; after initially posting this, I added this paragraph.


rcg said...

When I was a child I remember the contrast of what was taught to my Protestant friends and what I heard from the Catholic Church. The ad hoc interpretations often bordered on lunacy or even blasphemy. The lesson given to me is that people educated in the Gospels should guide us in understanding Scripture. People who try to make Christ relate to us as humans so often make Him human to do so. This passage seems, rather, like a set up where the Lord is almost mocking the disciples' presumptious attitudes by highlighting the humility of this woman. He did that frequently, even to Pilate, IIRC. In this case, and the case of the Centurion whose words we proclaim before Communion Christ healed the victim without them present through the Faith of the most low who confessed His power.

These people who try to make Christ topical rather than timeless risk more than they know.

John F. Kennedy said...

Thanks for a great explanation.