The episode of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman in the lectionary reading for Trinity 10 in Year A from Matt 15.21–28 (or Syrophoenician woman as she is called in the parallel Mark 7.24–30) often brings readers up short, containing as it does what appears to be a rather shocking insult. Jesus is seeking to withdraw from public attention, needing some time for rest and recuperation, but, as has happened in the episode of the feeding of the 5,000, he is unable to keep his presence secret. A woman approaches him to ask for deliverance for her daughter and (Matthew having emphasised her pagan gentile credentials), Jesus appears to insult her with a racial slur by calling her a ‘dog’. Yet her stubborn faith persists, and her clever response to Jesus’ ‘insult’ persuades him to act, so her daughter is delivered and healed.
There seems to be quite a strong trend in ‘progressive’ readings of this text to draw a particular point from this episode: Jesus was in fact fallible and racist; the woman taught him something by her response; he changed and moved on from his narrow, exclusive view; and so we should be willing to do the same. Here is one example, which sees mainstream readings of this texts as ‘workarounds’ which are avoiding the awkward reality that we find in the text:
It’s one of the most unsettling passages in the New Testament. This isn’t the Jesus Christians like to think about. This is Jesus apparently insulting and dehumanizing a desperate woman seeking the health of her family. This is Jesus writing Gentiles off as second-tier citizens…Jesus’ statement was full of prejudice and ethnocentrism.
This story calls us to confront Jesus’ humanity. Being human means being embedded in a culture. It means growing up with a certain worldview. It means inheriting traditions and language and biases—biases that can be wrongheaded and hurtful and alienating. Biases like the exclusion of Gentiles from the community of faith and the circle of those deserving compassion…
You see, Jesus doesn’t cling to his prejudice. He listens…Jesus listens. And he changes his mind…The hero of this story is not Jesus, but the Syrophoenician woman…Jesus had prejudices from his community that were magnified by his insulation from those who could challenge his views, but he listens when those views are challenged. He concedes his erroneous ethnocentrism and turns divine compassion toward all people everywhere. Jesus shows us in this story that inheriting bias is inevitable, but holding onto it is a choice.
There is no end to the wonderful ironies in this reading, not least that it is actually Matthew, the writer of the gospel, who is the real hero, since he can see more clearly than Jesus did at the time the importance of this lesson. In an age of resurgent antisemitism, we need to pause to recognise which ‘ethnocentric’ and racist community Jesus belongs to here, whose ingrained prejudices he inherits. And it is not too difficult to read the agenda of this commentator: conservative Christians are like the ignorant, prejudiced Jesus at the beginning of the story, but progressive Christians like me are like the enlightened Jesus at the end of the story. The goal here is less for us to be like Jesus and more to be like the commentator. We can perhaps forgive this approach, knowing that the author is a third-year undergraduate in law (not theology) at Harvard. But others take a similar line:
Jesus uttered an ethnic slur. To dismiss a desperate woman with a seriously sick child…Jesus holds all the power in this exchange. The woman doesn’t approach with arrogance or a sense of entitlement associated with wealth or privilege. Rather she comes to him in the most human way possible, desperate and pleading for her daughter. And he responds by dehumanizing her with ethnic prejudice, if not bigotry. In our modern terms, we know that power plus prejudice equals racism…
Rather than being part of the solution to ethnic prejudice, Jesus seems to be very much part of the problem, according to this story. When confronted with the gentile pagan in this story, he explains that his message and ministry are for Israelites only, a comment of ethnic exclusion and prejudice that calls to mind a similar refrain from a more modern time – whites only – that reverberated throughout the South not too long ago.
This, I think, is the great lesson of the Syrophoenician woman. It teaches us the dynamics of power and prejudice, of how even the best of humanity — the Incarnation himself — can get caught up in systems of oppression, in a culture of supremacy. Like many of us today, Jesus would have been reared into a prejudiced worldview.
So don’t tell me you aren’t prejudiced or don’t exercise your position of power through the lens of your prejudice. Even Jesus did that.
The more I think about it, the more alarming this reading is. Apart from its extraordinary historical ignorance (Jewish culture was in a position of power and dominance over against Graeco-Roman pagan culture—really?!), the writer appears entirely unaware of his dangerous characterisation of Jewish first-century culture as racist, effectively likening Jesus the Jew to a member of the Ku Klux Klan. An editorial note at the end of the piece suggests that writer (ordained in the Episcopal Church in the US) is aware of some of the difficulties here. But he doesn’t seem aware of his assumption that Jesus’ humanity implies Jesus’ prejudice and sin, or that that might have been debated by the early church, or that it contradicts some explicit claims of the NT about Jesus (‘tempted like us, but without sin’ Heb 4.15), or that knowing that Jesus lived within a particular time and culture need not imply that Jesus was trapped in that time and culture.
A rather witty post from a Catholic priest picks up some of the problems here:
Dear Rev. Know-it-all,
I heard some theologian or other say that in the Gospel a few weeks ago the Syrophoenician woman who asked Jesus to heal her daughter ended up teaching Jesus to be more tolerant. Is this possible that Jesus was a narrow-minded bigot who had to learn a thing or two from a Lebanese lady? Please help!
Kay Nanite [see Matt 15.22]
I wouldn’t worry too much. Whoever said this must be just a pop theologian. They come and go like the fins on a sixties’ Buick. If he’s Fr. WOW! today, he’ll probably be Fr. Who? tomorrow… I don’t mean to sound fussy, but the reason I call the fellow a pop theologian is that he can’t be much of scholar. He hasn’t read the text. Pop theologians always assume that their opinion is unquestionable, so they never question it themselves…
Jesus left the throne He shared with His Father, taking off the prerogatives of divinity like a garment which He left on the heavenly throne. He humbled himself for love of His Father and for love of us. He never ceased to be God, the Son of God. He never ceased to be the eternal second person of the Holy Trinity. He never ceased to be perfect, since the perfection of the God is sacrificial love. In his humanity, Jesus certainly learned. The creator of the world learned carpentry from St. Joseph and Jesus, the Word of God learned Aramaic on His Blessed Mother’s lap. But he did not learn to be less racist from a Canaanite woman. He did not learn moral truth from anyone. He was and is moral truth. The only instruction that Jesus needed was the Father’s voice, and this He always heard clearly, despite what you may have heard to the contrary.
This final comment is perhaps jumping too quickly from text to theology, so let’s spend a few moments with the text itself. First, as just about every commentator notes, this passage is indeed challenging—so much so that it is ‘nearly impossible’ (Ben Witherington) to imagine that the story was invented either by Matthew or within his community. In other words, this passage helps to address a challenge from a previous generation, that the gospel stories are unreliable historically and largely a creation of the early Christian community.
Secondly, this episode has much in common with the earlier encounter with the centurion in Matt 8.5–13. Both supplicants are gentiles; both are asking on behalf of another; both are met with an initial show of reluctance; both are in the end commended more highly than any Jew. The woman here receives a more negative initial response, but the pattern is very similar.
And in the midst of that encounter, Jesus expresses a global, multiracial vision of the kingdom when he declares that ‘many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham’ (Matt 8.11). He goes on to contrast this with the rejection of the ‘subjects of the kingdom’ who will be ‘thrown outside into the darkness’. This is particularly striking, given that the verses preceding our reading in Matt 15 depict an encounter with just such ‘subjects of the kingdom’ who are in fact ‘blind guides’. Jesus’ articulation of reversal in chapter 8 is enacted in this pair of narratives in chapter 15.
But this highlights the dynamic of Matthew’s gospel in its overall approach to ‘nationalism’. In this most Jewish of gospels, Jesus more than once emphasises that he has come ‘to the lost sheep of the [house of] Israel’ (Matt 15.24, compare Matt 10.5–6). And yet the inclusion of Gentiles runs as a counter-theme threaded all through the narrative. Non-Jews are woven into the genealogy in Matt 1.3–6; one of the major distinctives of Matthew’s birth narrative is the prominent presence of ‘magi from the East’ in Matt 2.1–12; the start of Jesus’ ministry is hailed as the dawning of light to ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’ (Matt 4.15) and his early ministry has included people from ‘Syria’, this very region, as well as the largely Gentile Decapolis (Matt 4.24–25). And of course Jesus has already delivered two demon-possessed men from these Gentile regions in the north (Matt 8.28–34). If the woman is teaching Jesus something about traversing ethnic boundaries, it appears that neither Jesus nor the woman (nor apparently Matthew) has read the previous 14 chapters of the gospel. Or perhaps it is just the ‘progressive’ commentators who have forgotten to do so…
Matthew’s account differs from Mark 7.24–30 in some key details. Jesus ‘withdraws’ to this region to escape confrontation and threat, just as he has previously tried to do in Matt 14.13, and as Joseph did both to Egypt and to Nazareth at the beginning of the gospel (Matt 2.14, 22).
The fact that the woman is an ethnic Canaanite (and not just someone from the region as Mark has it), emphasises the historic enmity with Israel. That Jesus finally grants her request has all the more rhetorical and theological force. It is striking that, in Matthew’s account, she recognises his Jewish identity and credentials; as with other supplicants in this gospel, she addresses him as ‘Son of David’; she knows from the beginning that she is asking for something that is not her right.
And Matthew includes here another striking detail; it is the disciples who would send her away; if anyone in the narrative has not yet understood Jesus’ wider vision for the inclusion of the Gentiles, it is them, not Jesus. Historically, it is the followers of Jesus who have been reluctant to enact Jesus’ broad ministry of healing and restoration.
Mark does soften Jesus’ abrupt challenging, by having Jesus demand that the children are fed first, before the dogs. But in Matthew’s account, she is not offered even this crumb of comfort, as the objection is expressed in absolute terms. (I can see why Luke, directing his account most clearly towards Gentiles, does not include this episode at all!)
Jesus’ use of the term ‘dogs’ deploys the standard Jewish derogatory term for Gentiles. He does use a diminutive term, which might denote a domestic animal rather than a street cur—but this hardly lessens the offence. But here is the narrative and theological challenge: can we imagine Jesus saying something provocative? Can we imagine him testing this woman with a challenge—raising the stakes to see where her faith will take her? As one commenter on a previous blog noted:
To me it seems that in this passage Jesus uses a similar pedagogical method to Jahweh allowing/challenging Abraham (Gen 18:22-33) and Moses (Ex 32:7-14; Num 14:5-20) to be “obnoxious” and persistent intercessors. It seems at first reading that their patience and mercy is greater than God’s, and yet it is God stretching and shaping them to stand in the gap between himself and his people.
As R T France sums up:
A good teacher may sometimes aim to draw out a pupil’s best insight by a deliberate challenge which does not necessarily represent the teacher’s own view—even if the phrase ‘devil’s advocate’ may not be quite appropriate to this context! (NICNT p 591)
France also notes the correct way to understand the woman’s response to Jesus’ provocation—which has in fact shaped the TNIV translation, in contrast to some older ones. When Jesus suggests ‘It is not right to take the bread…’ she pushes back with ‘Yes [it is]’. Her ‘yes’ is not in agreement with Jesus, but disagreement—as we can see from the grammar of her following comment, ‘for even’ (rather then ‘yet even’) ‘the dogs must be fed’. The fascinating relationship between the children and dogs in her saying—the children should be fed, but so must the ‘dogs’—actually articulates the dynamics of the gospel elsewhere in the NT. Jesus is the Jewish messiah, and it is out of the overflow of God’s grace from Israel to the Gentiles that we are saved. Gentiles do not displace Jews in God’s economy of salvation, but in fact get to share the same ‘bread’ of Jesus and his provision (see the previous episode of the feeding of the 5,000!), even though some of the Jews themselves refuse to eat of it.
Jesus recognises the woman’s wisdom, insight and faith; this is the only time that faith is described as ‘great’—something of a contrast to the ‘little faith’ of Peter when he gets out of the boat!
It is worth noting here that the core issue—that of the nature of the gospel including both Jew and Gentile—remains as forceful as ever, but without having to mangle the text and turn Jesus into a bigoted racist to make the point. It turns out that Matthew is a rather more compelling interpreter of Jesus’ ministry than a number of 21st-century readers. And in this careful reading, it is neither Jesus nor the woman who are the ‘hero’ in contrast to the failure and obstinacy of the other, but both who are important and rounded characters in the narrative. Jesus’ encounters with individuals are never a zero-sum game.
Some similar points are made in a much more detailed narrative-critical study of the parallel account in Mark’s gospel by David Rhoads (Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 62, No. 2 (Summer, 1994), pp. 343-375):
The episode of the Syrophoenician woman fits tightly into the overall story, particularly in relation to the presentation of the Kingdom of God. The establishment of God’s rule over the world is the force which drives the whole plot of the narrative. Here are four ways in which this episode relates to the kingdom of God in Mark.
Rhoads highlights the way in which the woman’s response is a mirrored foil to Jesus, cleverly continuing the riddle that he offers her.
In her response, the Syrophoenician woman extends Jesus’ riddle. She does not oppose what Jesus has said. Rather, she develops the scenario of Jesus’ allegory so that she and her daughter have a place in it…Thus, in her response, the Syrophoenician woman not only stays within the Jewish perspective of Jesus’ riddle; she even refers to the Jewish children with a term of endearment.
It is perhaps worth noting how this pattern of ‘to the Jew first, then to the Gentile’ (Romans 1.16) might have been critically important if Mark’s gospel was written in the context of Rome, where relations between Jew and gentile Christian might have been tense.
When we interpret the episode in light of the themes of the whole story, we are also able to see more clearly the rhetorical impact this story may have had on an ancient audience as a boundary-crossing narrative.
It is, perhaps, worth asking why the ‘progressive’ readings of the story are so popular, given that they don’t actually pay attention to the details of the text, and given that they raise such serious theological problems in the understanding of the humanity of Jesus? Perhaps they are simply the manifestation of ignorance—of lack of awareness of or lack of willingness to engage with scholars like R T France. Again, there is an irony writ large in commentating on a passage like this about boundary crossing if commentators are not willing to cross a few boundaries themselves. But such views are broadcast very effectively by social media, and take root in shallow soil where the reading of good commentaries by church leaders is less and less common.
But there is perhaps also a more explicit agenda—to challenge ‘orthodox’ understandings of who Jesus is, by taking the ‘risky’ step of thinking that the Jesus we find in the New Testament isn’t actually a model for us, but is frail, ignorant and sinful too. This then means that the teaching of the New Testament is not binding on us, but is part of the ‘trajectory’ of development which continues through history, so that we, now, represent the pinnacle of revelation, and our own understandings reveal the true wisdom of God. Sadly, this ‘gospel’ doesn’t actually turn out to be very persuasive. As one comment expressed it on the second blog quoted:
If I didn’t already have nothing but utter contempt for Christ, the Bible and Christianity this exposure of Christ’s racism and bigotry surely would have rocked my world view.
If we are going to draw the crowds, perhaps we need to pay more attention to the real Jesus of the gospels.