Last time in this space we looked at Matthew’s account of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite Woman (Matthew 15:21-28). I noted that there is a common reading abroad these days, centering on the claim that, in one way or another, it is Jesus, not his disciples, who is the learner in this story. The “within the pale of orthodoxy” version of this is that Jesus learns from the Woman that she is capable of faith, etc. The toxic, unorthodox version is that Jesus, ignorant first century racist, learns how wrong and evil his racism is and repents his sins.
What I want to do in the coming weeks is look at a somewhat modified version of this take on the story—and the best statement of it I have run across—which comes from a reader of mine. I still disagree with it, but in the spirit of St Thomas, who always tried to find the best argument for something he disagreed with, I want to reprint it here in coming weeks so that I can argue with it. I do so for the simple reason that you will hear some variation on it in the future and it is good to know how to respond. My reader writes:
Dogs run wild in peasant villages of the Middle East. They are not pets, except to Westernized people living over there. Two thousand years ago, everyone felt this way about dogs in the Middle East. The ones licking Lazarus are not giving his sores comfort, they are competing with this expendable person and they are preparing to EAT him when he dies.
It is certainly true that, dogs are regarded by many in the ancient Near East as unclean vermin and that “dog” is a term of abuse. When Jesus says “Do not give what is sacred to dogs” (Matthew 7:6) he using a common expression to make clear that holy things should not be casually handed over for outsiders to heap scorn upon them. And the description of Lazarus’ social status is accurate as well. Nor will you find a positive portrayal of dogs anywhere in Scripture. At the same time, as we shall see, there may well be more to the image of dogs, particularly among Canaanites. But let us continue with my reader’s remarks:
The prepaschal Jesus was ethnocentric to first century Israel. He called her a dog—you know what he called her. Not a female pet dog. A vermin little (not CUTE) FEMALE dog. This is an enormous insult to the woman. Gentiles were commonly referred to as dogs by ancient Israelites. Jesus apparently repeats his culture’s stereotype. Calling a woman a dog is offensive in every language.
Here we begin to run into deeper waters. The first thing to question is the division of Christ into a pre- and post-paschal Jesus, as though there are two of him, before and after his Resurrection. It is true that Jesus, in the Incarnation, “emptied himself” and submits to various human limitations. He gets tired. He needs to breathe, and sleep, and eat and use the restroom. But it does not follow that he therefore accepts ethnic stereotyping that dehumanizes other people. That, above all, is the thing to question here: the suggestion that Jesus intends to viciously insult the woman and that Jesus, blithely accepting Israelite ethnocentrism, casually does so on that basis. Stick a pin in that, for we shall come back to it. This is the heart and soul of the problematic reading of the text, though other things are questionable as well.
And this is the only woman in the Gospels who beat Jesus at his own game of arguments and challenge and riposte. To everyone’s amazement, including Jesus, the woman retorts with cleverness: “Lord [note the honorific title], even dogs eat crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (Matthew 15:27). She is the only person in the Gospels who proves to be a good match for Jesus’ wit.
The fact is not lost on Jesus. He responds with the equivalent of “touché!” and grants her request. The daughter is healed instantly.
I appreciate the fact that this reading grasps Jesus’ delight in badinage with the Woman and that he does indeed express amazement (though not, I argue, surprise) at her. He has done it before in the gospel. And he has been “bested” in such badinage too, most notably when his mother calls him to reveal himself as Messiah at the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11), he deflects, and she (with her eyes on him as she addresses servants in an “I dare you to refuse” tone of voice) says, “Do whatever he tells you.” That too is Middle Eastern dickering at its finest and there too, he is bested by a determined peasant woman who will not back down with her importunate prayer—exactly the kind of prayer he loves and commends (Luke 11:5-8).
But something else is lurking in my reader’s words and it is important to tease it out. It is the suggestion (also notable in Fr Martin’s remarks—see my previous column) that Jesus is learning here: that the Canaanite Woman is the teacher and Jesus is the learner.
It is really vital to be careful with such a suggestion. To be sure, there is nothing in the Tradition to say that Jesus, who “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom” as real humans do did not experience learning like the rest of us do (cf. Luke 2:40). Jesus had to learn to walk, to be potty trained, to feed himself as all children do. He had to learn to talk, to make his bed, to do math (especially vital for a carpenter) and very likely to speak multiple languages as a tradesman in “Galilee of the Gentiles”.
Being homeschooled, he learned the law and the prophets from one of the most formidable students of Scripture of the first century: the Blessed Virgin Mary. (That’s why they are both on the same wavelength at the Wedding at Cana: the prophets are clear that abundant wine is the sign of the dawn of the Messianic Age. Mary knows it, Jesus knows she knows it because she’s the one who taught him his Bible, and Mary knows Jesus knows it.)
So there is no reason not to say that Jesus could have learned something. At the same time, it is vital to be mighty cautious about making overly definitive statements about the most unique mode of consciousness in the history of the human race—divine omniscience dwelling in a limited human mind—and to assume that Jesus is the learner here. And above all, it is crucial to not open the door even a crack to the suggestion that Jesus is learning to “overcome his racism” or his “ethnocentricism” and callously insulting the Woman before figuring out that he is wrong to do that. Jesus is, never forget, “like us in all things but sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
Of which more next time.