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Strong words

And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out 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.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children's bread 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, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

(Matthew 15:21-28; see also Mark 7:24-30)

                  THE FLOOR

                  “It is not right,” he says; the children nod –
                  He takes the words right out of their own mouths!
                  “It is not right to take the children’s bread
                  And throw it to the dogs.” Her ground subsides;
                  My God, is even he forsaking me?
                  He sits with ‘sinners’, touches the ‘taboo’,
                  But has no stomach for the so-called ‘clean’;
                  Unworthy-to-be-numbered multitudes
                  Have feasted at his invite, leaving crumbs
                  To feed an army (if that were his style) –
                  And is he now content to call me names?
                  The silence goads her heart to overspill:
                  She speaks the end of what he has begun
                  With all the knowing boldness of a son.

                  Carolyn Whitnall, 2017.

Whenever my first instinct is to turn the page as quickly as possible, my second is increasingly to turn it back and allow myself to be uncomfortable a while. And if I can't make perfect sense of a thing, perhaps I can make poetry of it instead – or at least try to. So I'm not interested in plastering over the difficultness of this chapter in Jesus' biography, but here's where sonnetising it took me:
  • A big part of the reason the incident is quite so shocking is precisely that it's so incongruous with everything else the gospels tell us about Jesus. So a) it highlights by contrast his usual embrace of ostracised people (as were gentiles in Jewish society, and women generally), and b) we have every reason not to simply take it at its troubling face value.
  • Jesus is in the habit of being intentionally provocative – answering questions with questions, and saying uncomfortable things in order to expose truth and draw out the heart and thought of others. It strikes me that his exchange with this particular woman actually gives her a voice. Rather than take it upon himself to critique the assumptions of exclusivity embedded in his immediate cultural context, Jesus prompts an unknown female 'outsider' to do so, in words of her own choosing – words which would be remembered and recorded and shared widely and down through history. This feels especially poignant in the light of recent attention (in- and outside the church) on the importance of diverse representation on public platforms: if any man was ever qualified to speak for all of us, it's Jesus – and yet, that's not his way.
  • The two part 'lesson' that emerges from the conversation has a lot in common with many of Jesus' other sayings and parables. "If even [lesser thing], how much more [greater thing]". For example, "which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!" (Matt 7:9-11) Perhaps, then, "If even the dogs under the table get to eat the children's crumbs, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those outside of Israel!" I don't believe he is any more calling gentiles 'dogs' than he is calling God an unjust judge in Luke 18:1-8 or a sleepy neighbour in Luke 11:5-8
  • The placing of the story in the wider narrative is very telling...
    • In both Mark and Matthew it comes right after some bold corrective teaching about true sanctity: cleanliness (Jesus insists) is not a matter of adherence to diet and custom – the sorts of behaviours by which faithful Jews distinguish themselves from their gentile neighbours – but a matter of heart. It's not about what 'goes in' to a person, but what comes out. Cf. Luke 6:45(b): "for out of the abundance of his heart, his mouth speaks". In fact, Jesus reserves his harshest words for those who are most meticulous in policing the technical cleanliness of others (Matt 15:1-9; Matt 16:5-12). The unnamed gentile woman is put forward as a lived example of his teaching: she may not meet the outward criteria for belonging to God's people, but her words of faith and insight show the true set-apartness of her heart.
    • It also seems no coincidence that the story is closely followed by the second of Jesus' food-multiplying miracles. Scarcity is not a feature of Kingdom economy: there is enough to go around, and more! The faith that the woman is commended for is a faith which anticipates something of the overflowing abundance that characterises Jesus' ministry. Although most of his followers during his life were Jewish, the full implications of this abundance for the wider world were to become ever clearer in the wake of his death and resurrection and the birth of the church.

"...for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:26-28)

[Thumbnail image: 'Jesus and the Woman of Canaan' by Michael Angelo Immenraet, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.]