Thursday 1 September 2011

Was Jesus judgemental

In response to this article in the Guardian I wrote this response which might be usefully re-posted here

when Jesus effectively calls a gentile woman a dog, we can try to imagine that he was smiling ironically, mocking the Jewish xenophobia of his day
Funnily enough I was meditating about this passage in the New Jerusalem Bible(Matthew 15:21-39) earlier this week. It was Monday in a pleasant little park between Torquay railway station and the waterfront to be precise (a little information to help future hagiographers there). Some of my thoughts might be relevant here.
The episode reminded me of the earlier event at Cana in Galilee where our Lord responded to our Lady's prayer "they have no wine" by saying My hour has not come yet and then going ahead and changing water into wine thus inaugurating His public ministry in response to His blessed mother's prayer. Here Jesus responds to the Canaanite woman's plea 'Lord, Son of David, take pity on me.' by saying I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel. As before He is laying out His game plan. He is the fulfilment of the Mosaic Law therefore His religious mission is only directly relevant to those people who embrace the Law or are embraced by it. Once the Law is fulfilled it becomes universal until then it is particular.
Undeterred the woman says 'Lord help me' which leads to the famous retort It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to little dogs. Let us be clear. The Law points to a community which is pure and an outside world which is impure, unclean. Our Lord is correctly restating that perspective. The things of the world are at enmity with the things of God and the community of the Law was a visible (and deeply flawed) image of the purity of God in relation to which the world was an image (profoundly accurate) of those things and people which are impure. It would be an affront to give what is pure to those who would make it impure simply by touching it. First the receiver of the gift must be purified and then the gift can be given. And gentiles could only be purified by being washed in the Blood of the Lamb not yet shed at this point.
Once more the woman was undeterred. 'Ah yes, Lord; but even little dogs eat the scraps that fall from their masters' table.' Her persistence in prayer, her faith and the compassion of Jesus combine to produce the desired and expected result her daughter is cured. The cure consists of having a demon cast out of her which is symbolic in itself but I shall not dwell on that in this context. Now we have the next resonance with the Cana episode. After turning the water into wine there was no looking back. Our Lord went on to the full flowering of His Galilean ministry. After healing the Canaanite woman He goes on deeper into gentile territory.
29 Jesus went on from there and reached the shores of the Lake of Galilee, and he went up onto the mountain. He took his seat, 30 and large crowds came to him bringing the lame, the crippled, the blind, the dumb and many others; these they put down at his feet, and he cured them.
Proceeding from Tyre and Sidon, Gentile country, He goes over the mountains into the gentile lands at the top of the Sea of Tiberias. It is significant that throughout the Gospels when He heals like this He is also described as preaching and teaching but here He simply confines Himself to healing as teaching would not be appropriate here. Even so His audience recognises what is going on
31 The crowds were astonished to see the dumb speaking, the cripples whole again, the lame walking and the blind with their sight, and they praised the God of Israel.
When Jewish crowds praise God it is simply said "they praised God". Here it is said "they praised the God of Israel" to make clear that it was not their own tribal or local God they were praising but that of the charismatic Jewish healer in their midst. He goes on to perform His second feeding miracle and afterwards seven baskets of scraps are collected. I am told that the Greek word used for basket here is different to the one used for the earlier feeding of five thousand event. One word was used for the kind of baskets peculiar to the Jews and another for that peculiar to Gentiles. However that might be the numbers have significance. Twelve baskets are collected at the Jewish event and twelve is a number signifying the tribes of Israel. Seven baskets are collected at the gentile event and, as I have written elsewhere, seven is a number signifying fullness, completeness and signify's here that the gentiles will eventually form part of the completeness of the people of God.
So the disparaging reference to "dogs" at the beginning of this sequence is merely the trigger for a sequence of events displaying the power of prayer and the compassion of Jesus. 


  1. Oh good! right now we can chat about this. I couldn't put this sort of comment on the Guardian because it's too theological and specifically exegisis kind of thing.
    First of all , we notice it is Matthew's Gospel (well it would be wouldn't it?)
    Now we all know that Matthew's Gospel has a strongly Jewish flavour, and almost certainly was written by a christian convert of the very early church to the "Jesus way". This is a writer coming from a jewish tradition, who has made the leap from the letter of the law to the spirit of the law, but the letter is hard to leave behind.

    There remains a horror of the uncleanliness of Gentiles and any association with them, so I see this as no problem at all (this text). The writer is expressing the horror of "gentile contamination" at the same time as showing Christ's affirmation of such and yet denial of such. It's a fascinating passsage.
    In a way, the writer wants to have it both ways, yet his Christianity comes through, and so does Jesus.
    I really believe what we see here is an intitial lip service paid to the Law, and then in the traditional Jesus style, an insistence on a higher law.
    I also see it as yet another allegory of the person of Jesus and the Incartnation as real.

    A contrast is being drawn between the attitude of the world and the love of Jesus for all. I see this as a rather tongue in cheek reply that she's a dog, an irony, a powerful pointer ofunacceptable ways and attitudes, then Jesus goes on to show the right attitude and way we treat people. A new way forward for Jews to live in the world, in a new life of love.

    Matthew is a very Jewish Gospel , but I think jesus wan't unacceptable here, but rather it took an authentic event of irony and remembered
    saying and behaviour and it recorded it fairoly accurately how he contrasts his culture' ssayings with then, his own behaviour and new ethic.

    Steve, I'm trying to get other people to comment here. Where's Daniel?

  2. The dialogue at Cana is similarly difficult to understand if we simply look at the words and interpret them without consideration of tone of voice, exchanges of glance, familial modes of speech and the like. With a bare text we supply our own context which is likely to be radically different from the original; not least because of the intervening two thousand years and several hundred miles.

    I still think it significant that after this exchange Jesus went into Gentile territory and healed and fed Gentiles as a foreshadowing of the New Covenant. In that context it is an exchange about the power of prayer (perhaps specifically the power of a mothers prayer, or a woman's prayer). Nonetheless St Matthew did have in mind a Jewish audience who would be more than familiar with the terminology used to describe Gentiles.

    It is also of a piece with another theme running through Matthew seen perhaps most clearly in the Sermon on the Mount where our Lord notes "the Law says this but I say" where He then goes on not to undermine the Law but to exceed it in righteousness. This theme can also be seen in Matthew 19 where He talks about divorce and notes that it was a Mosaic concession but "was not so from the beginning". Jesus is asserting a more primal relationship with the Father. In this exchange we have a "the Law says this but I say" moment not spoken as such but enacted in a prophetic style like Isaiah's nakedness. Jesus kept conveying the same message but using different modes. Making Hinself, as it were, all things to all men that by all means some might be saved.

  3. Yes Steve. dead right, and it's that aspect of the huge, and almost central, theme of Matthew that I'm trying to bring out here with the "dog" gentile woman. I think there is the traditional Matthean contrast between 'The law says, but I say/do this.... and it fits in with his overall themes.I definitely do not see it as some 'judgemental' unacceptable saying. That is to deliberately misunderstand Matthew and his themes and audience.

  4. By the way Steve, I thought we did really well on that particular thread on CIF Belief. As the thread went on we seemed to get better and better at upping our game, and coming back with all the good, positive stuff which we find in Catholicism and our church. It made a really refreshing change, and I felt people were being told new stuff they'd never heard before.
    The Andrew Brown thread on "Why I am not a Catholic" was pretty good too. Did you see my 14 reasons why I an a Catholic? I can't believe it went down so well.
    We also did fantastically on the abortion thread too. People were really being persuaded to think harder about the sanctity of life and moral responsibility for choices in life.
    All in all its been a good couple of weeks, which makes a lovely change, and makes me feel it's still worth it.

  5. Free Catholic Books