Be careful what you ask of people.
In lectio divina, participants are asked to listen to a passage from scripture, meditate on the words of the story and then enter into it. The exercise in our contemplative prayer group began with the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman found in Matthew’s Gospel (MT 15:21-29).
In all honesty, I’ve never liked the story. Jesus is approached by a Canaanite woman, a woman outside his Jewish tribal boundaries, from a people that good Jews are supposed to revile and view with condescension. And when the woman begs Jesus to have mercy upon her daughter who was plagued by a demon, he blows her off.
At first Jesus ignores her entirely. When she won’t go away, he finally tells her “‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ Such a response is highly consistent with the agenda of the author(s) of Matthew, focused on presenting Jesus as an authentic messiah in a world where messiahs are a dime a dozen. Matthew’s account, as always, is deeply rooted in Israel’s history and tradition and unintelligible without a knowledge of the same.
But the woman will not be so lightly dismissed. Kneeling before Jesus she begs, “Lord, help me.” Here Jesus turns surly: “‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ One can hear echoes of today’s demonizing political caricatures in this response. Had Jesus lived today he might have referred to thugs, welfare queens, illegal aliens or radical Islamic terrorists. Whatever else Jesus might have been at that moment, he was a good Jew, a product of his own upbringing, with a predictable response rooted in the culture of his day.
Again, the woman persists: ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’
And it is at this moment that something unforeseen happens: Jesus repents.
Good with Only Half the Equation
Most Christians have a difficult time putting those two words together in a sentence. In theory, we say we believe that Jesus was fully human and fully G-d, the paradoxical formula thrashed out by the Council of Chalcedon in the 5th CE. Truth be told, we’re really good Docetists, obsessed with the spiritual nature of Jesus while ignoring if not devaluing his human nature.
But the first time I heard a very bright woman priest in the countryside of Panama assess this story in this manner, I instantly knew she was right. To the degree that Jesus was human, he was certainly capable of making mistakes, admitting he was wrong, regretting the harm his mistake had caused others, apologizing and committing himself to a new direction in life. My guess is that Jesus learned a valuable lesson in the harmful aspects of condescension that day.
In the process, he was also learning that all socially constructed cultural values with their “common sense” (Common to whom? Sensible in what ways?) need to be critically considered by anyone with even a drop of consciousness. More and more that critical consciousness would inform Jesus’ life and ministry. And like most prophetic figures who awaken and then call their fellow human beings to consciousness, we will ultimately reward him by putting the prophet out of our misery.
It is to writer/editor Matthew’s credit that he was able to recognize the importance of this turning point in Jesus’ life by choosing to include this story preserved by oral tradition in his written gospel. Though it is doubtful than any of the Gospel writers were on hand to hear the words of Jesus they would later record, the persistence of this story in the oral tradition and the unpredictable break with cultural values it reflects probably points toward a real encounter with Jesus by those who would later preserve this memory.
Of course, Matthew has an agenda and it is reflected by Jesus’ final response to the woman: “‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.” Here the word “faith” is probably not the best translation. The Greek word pistin is frequently translated as faith which in a post-Enlightenment world tends to be cognitive in nature. But it can also be translated as “trust,” a more existential word that is much more in keeping with the story related here.
The Rest of the Story
What is missing is the apology. And so when we were asked to close our eyes, sit with the story, to place ourselves into its midst and to see where our heart, mind and spirit would take us, and then record our vision, this is what I saw:
Jesus is alone in the desert. The crowds have gone away for the day. He’s asked his disciples to give him some space and they oblige. Jesus sits down on a rock, looks to the horizon beyond and begins to pray:
“Dear G-d! What was I thinking?
I talk about the rain falling on the just and the unjust alike. I teach people that the poor are blessed, that poverty is not evidence of being punished for sin as our tradition teaches. I even use Samaritans as the example of the neighbor we are to love. Then I turn around and treat this woman with such disrespect.
What was I thinking?
Does she not bear the image of our Father in heaven? Is she not one of the countless examples of your creative work, a creation that our tradition teaches you see as “very good?”
This woman is desperate. Look how much she loves her child. This is what I teach people about G-d’s love for them. Then I pull this stunt.
I was wrong. I need to apologize to her. I told her that her faith was great. It’s more than that. She absolutely trusts G-d for her daily bread and thus for her very life. And now she trusts me, with all my prejudices.
I must repent of them. What good does it do me to be a son of G-d if I cannot honor and respect all of G-d’s creation? Moreover, if I want people to rethink their own lives, to repent, should I not model it myself?
Dualistic thinking is very attractive, like a seductive adder waiting to strike. Us/Them. Good/Evil. G-d/Humanity. In years to come a people bearing my name will pray each week, “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.” Ants are worthy to gather up crumbs and cockroaches gather them with impunity.
The Canaanite woman showed me this day an incredible ability to trust the G-d who lies at the bottom of all Creation and connects all that is to each other. I pray that others follow her example and become awakened by it as I have this day.
Thank you for sending the gift of this woman’s example to me, Father. And bless you for your wisdom, dear woman. Amen.“
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Ages, Commentary on Micah 6:8