Saturday, August 6, 2011

Jesus the Name-Caller?

It's not exactly the best picture of Jesus: a Gentile woman approaches him in faith and he responds by calling her a dog, reminding her that he was not sent for the Gentiles but for Israel. On the surface this doesn't look good. Jesus comes off as an arrogant, ethnocentric name-caller.

But is this truly what is going on in Matthew 15:21-28? Did Jesus really call the Canaanite woman a dog because that is what he thought of her? Most readers of this passage seem to think so. I have heard a number of interpretations that take Jesus' words as a direct, declarative statement toward the Canannite woman. Some readers explain that Jesus was being harsh yet truthful (i.e. she was, in fact, a Gentile, a dog). Others believe that Jesus was the product of his culture and experienced a kind of cultural slip up (i.e. even Jesus was culturally bias). And still others think that Jesus was merely testing the woman's faith.

At best, these interpretations are wanting; at worst, they are downright heartless. Moreover, I don't buy them. The Jesus I encounter in the Gospels is not like this. Does Jesus elsewhere turn away Gentiles because of their social location? No! (e.g. John 4; Luke 7) So how would it be consistent to interpret this passage as such? The problem, in my opinion, is that Jesus' words are too often read as if he was always speaking in declarative statements; as if he was always revealing little timeless truths. On the contrary, Jesus was human and deserves to be read as a human: with feelings, personality, and charisma! Furthermore, Jesus was a teacher. The Jesus of the Gospels uses questions, puzzles and parables to teach others about God and God's Kingdom. Along this more consistent portrait of Jesus, I believe that this controversial passage invites us to see even further how Jesus taught his disciples.

In what follows I would like to offer TWO ALTERNATIVE INTERPRETATIONS of this text. Before moving on to interpretation, however, I will paste the text from Matthew here. Mark also includes this in his gospel (Mk 7:24-30).

21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” 23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” 25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. 26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” 27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” 28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment. (Matt. 15:21-28, NIV)

ALTERNATIVE #1: Jesus Exposes the Woman's Cultural Prejudice

This interpretation hinges upon the social dynamics. Matthew tells us that Jesus and the disciples are on the move (as usual). But more specifically, they have left their home of Judea and are moving into Greek territory north of Judea, a locale that was historically hostile since the Israelite conquest over the Canaanites. Enmity between and Jews and Canaanites, as well as Jews and Greeks, was not uncommon (though the degree is difficult to assess in this passage). Additionally, the areas of Tyre and Sidon (within what was called Syrophoenicia, see Mk 7:26) were wealthy areas. Socially speaking, Jesus and his disciples are in an area of cultural tension.

Like most cultural conflicts, this conflict included specific manifestations of prejudice. In a lecture with biblical scholar Craig Keener, I learned that enmity between wealthy Greeks from Phoenicia and Jews from Judea was not uncommon. More importantly, some Greek writings from antiquity applied the term "dog" to the lower class, as well as Jews, as a pejorative. (I wish I could cite the texts but I cannot remember them. I plan to search for them and may add them to this post later) This is, in my opinion, a significant detail that demands a closer look at the passage.

The woman who approaches Jesus is a Canaanite/Syrophoenician; she lives in a non-Jewish province. She may be wealthy, though the text does not reveal. She may possess animosity toward lower class and/or Jews, though the text does not reveal. And, along with her culture, she may have even used the term "dog" as a pejorative in the past, though the text does not reveal. We do not know, we can only speculate.

What the text does reveal is that there is a clear-cut cultural boundary between Jew and Gentile. The one who makes this clear, however, is Jesus - the last person that one might expect to emphasize cultural boundaries.

What is going on here? Why would Jesus, who previously accepted and ministered to Gentiles (Matt. 8:5-13; 8:28-34; 9:18-26), now decide to endorse cultural prejudices between Jew and Gentile? To interpret Jesus' words as an endorsement of Jew/Gentile division is inconsistent with Matthew's portrait of Jesus.

Instead, I believe that Jesus' hyperbolic division between Jew and Gentile invites the Canaanite woman into a new perspective. This is a woman who most likely embraced cultural divisions between Jew and Gentile; and Jesus skillfully invites her to see the limitations of such a worldview. This is a woman who may have formerly used the term "dog" to refer to Jews; and Jesus cleverly summons her to see the pain of such prejudice.

Does Jesus still, in fact, call the woman a dog? Yes. Does Jesus truly think of the woman as a dog? No. He does not devalue her because she is a Gentile or for some other reason. He uses such language rhetorically - and powerfully.

As per usual, Jesus' pedagogical method is the invitation to experience. He is not simply stating facts or timeless truths. He is guiding this woman to experience firsthand the ramifications of her own sinful worldview.

One might ask, What if the woman had not played into Jesus' rhetorical game? What if the woman had not urged him further? What if the woman had simply accepted Jesus' hyperbole and turned away? I believe that Jesus knew this woman's heart because of how she addressed him. In verse 22 the woman calls Jesus "Son of David," which was practically synonymous with Messiah. This woman knew who Jesus was (more so than the disciples! cf. Matt. 16:16) and Jesus saw this woman's unrelenting faith. He therefore challenged her to reimagine her world; to see firsthand what the Kingdom of God looks like.

I admit that this interpretation is somewhat speculative because it hinges upon assumptions about social dynamics. But, for me, it offers a much more consistent interpretation of the Jesus I encounter in Matthew's Gospel.

ALTERNATIVE #2: Jesus Exposes the Disciple's Cultural Prejudice

Given what has been said above regarding the cultural tension between Jew/Gentile, we may move on to a different interpretation that teases out similar ideas. In this interpretation Jesus makes use of the Canaanite woman in order to teach his disciples about the Kingdom of God, namely to expose their anti-kingdom prejudices. Let us revisit the passage.

Jesus and the disciples are on the move. No crowds. No religious leaders. Just private time with the disciples for Jesus to teach and groom them. Jesus' focus is on the disciples. But suddenly a Canaanite woman came out and cried. As aforementioned, this woman addresses Jesus correctly as "Son of David." She knows more than the disciples. And Jesus realizes that this woman can teach his disciples if he responds skillfully.

So what does Jesus do? This moment is incredibly important: Jesus does not say a word (v.23). Jesus leaves space. This is the brilliance of his teaching. He leaves space for the disciples to respond to the woman. And they do. The disciples are the ones who initiate a response to the Canaanite woman. They "urged him, 'Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.'" From here onward, I believe, Jesus responds according to his disciples' perspective.

Thus, in verse 24, Jesus says, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." While many readers interpret this as Jesus' ethnocentric calling to the Jews (and corollary denial of the Canaanite woman), I read this as Jesus' double-layered challenge to the disciples (and corollary invitation to the Canaanite woman to demonstrate her faith).

The first layer of the challenge is Jesus' use of "lost sheep." Exactly who are the lost sheep Jesus is talking about? If I was a disciple of Jesus and I had spent months, maybe years, with this man, I think it would be difficult not to wonder if he was referring to me at this moment. Could it be that Jesus is effectively saying, "I was sent to teach these nimrods because they don't get it!" (rather than Jesus stating that he came to "help" or "save" only Israel) Could it be that Jesus is challenging the disciples to see that, despite their Jewishness, they are like lost sheep? (cf. Matt. 15:16)

The second layer of the challenge is Jesus' use of the disciples' (incorrect) worldview/theology. By endorsing their Jewish prejudice, Jesus invites the disciples to see the limitations of their view/theology. As mentioned above, I believe that Jesus knew that this woman would press forward because he knew her faith. I believe that Jesus knew that this woman could break down the prejudice that his disciples held.

So the woman presses closer and stronger: "Lord, help me!" And Jesus responds again with an even stronger pro-Jewish/anti-Gentile prejudice: "It is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." (v.26) I cannot help but wonder what the disciples are doing at this moment. The text reveals nothing. We can only speculate. The only thing that the text does reveal is that the disciples wished the woman would be sent away. So I cannot help but wonder if at this point the disciples are silently cheering Jesus' remarks.

But again the woman responds in faith! And this time Jesus finally responds in kind. All of the sudden, Jesus completely changes his disposition and praises the woman for her faith. Now, are we really to believe, as most interpretations do, that Jesus was stubbornly refusing the woman at one moment and then emphatically praising her the next!? Does that interpretation really make sense?

Or... is it possible that Jesus was skillfully allowing the woman to expose the blindspot in the worldview of the disciples? For me, this makes much more sense. It makes more sense in both the immediate and overarching contexts.

The immediately surrounding text includes a similar teaching moment in which Jesus maneuvers his encounter with the Pharisees and scribes to teach his disciples (Matt. 15:1-20). Afterward, two more episodes of teaching occur (15:32-39; 16:5-12). All of these occur on the road toward Caesare'a Philippi where the disciples finally discover Jesus' identity (after much teaching and help from others like the Canaanite woman).

The overarching context of Matthew's gospel also helps me to get an idea of how Jesus is to be understood. Matthew's portrait of Jesus as a teacher/prophet suggests that we read the gospel, especially scenes involving the disciples, with an appreciation for Jesus' skill as a teacher. Additionally, Matthew's complex portrayal of Judaism (i.e. seemingly both pro and anti) invites readers to wrestle with the narrative's relationship to Judaism, not least Jesus' challenges to his Jewish disciples.


In the final analysis, I actually choose to interpret this passage as both of the alternatives presented above. I believe that Jesus, in all his wisdom and skill, effectively brings together two conflicting social groups in order that he might challenge both on their prejudices and blind spots.

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