December 11, 2017

Mark Shea: Smacking one’s head against a parochial wall

In the early Church, (St) Paul had to keep pushing back against a tendency to return to ethnocentrism and parochialism, reasserting the universality of salvation and the call to holiness. PHOTO: Don Ross

Last time, we began to focus on the central claim my reader makes concerning Jesus and the Canaanite Woman, that his ethnocentrism as a first century Jew prompts him to treat her insultingly. To recap, he says:

In this Gospel story, the prepaschal Jesus insults a Canaanite woman requesting healing for her daughter by inferring that she is a ‘dog’ (Matthew 15:26)–considered vermin by first century Middle Easterners. Actually he begins his insulting stance towards her by ignoring her (Matthew 15:23). In this culture, an unrelated man and woman should not engage socially in public, all the more when the woman is a foreigner. This deed is culturally appropriate but rude and insulting. Furthermore, Jesus explains his behavior ethnocentrically: ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matthew 15:24). There is no obligation to engage in face work in such a context. The woman gives a perfect riposte to Jesus’ challenge, thus making this the only argument in the New Testament that Jesus LOSES. Nevertheless, as a GOOD LOSER, Jesus grants the favor.

This woman will not give up. The crowd and the Twelve look to Jesus. Is it that he is not able to do this? Jesus, the broker of the Patron (the God of Israel) must perform the service… and he does, saying her loyalty (faith in the Bible) is great. In other words, “touché!” Request granted.

This is the core of my disagreement with my reader, that Jesus’ ethnic tribalism makes him rude and insulting to the Canaanite Woman and that he is cured of this ethnic arrogance by her profession of faith.

As we saw last time, Matthew himself shows Jesus interacting with Gentiles and even going so far as to tell his fellow Jews that “many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth” (Matthew 8:11-12). This does not fit well with my reader’s claim of an ethnocentric Jesus.

So I contend that Matthew’s ultimate point is that while Jesus initially goes only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, his mission is (as Paul says in Romans) “first to the Jew, then to the Gentile” (Romans 1:16) and that the real learners in this episode are therefore not Jesus, or the Woman, but his disciples. He is catechizing his followers out of their deeply ingrained ethnocentrism and so, especially, is Matthew who is, decades later, still teaching a Church full of ethnic issues.

The evidence for this is everywhere in the New Testament and constitutes the central problem facing the first century Church: namely, the relationship of that Church to the Jewish matrix out of which it grew.

The problem is perfectly understandable and human. The Judean Church–most especially in Jerusalem–was the Mother Church. Christianity began there. And you can watch some of the pains of youth in the book of Acts.

It was the Judean Church, centered in Jerusalem, that struggled to free itself from literalist notions about the kingdom of heaven. At the Ascension, they ask Jesus, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Ac 1:6), still expecting a political Davidic kingdom.

As the Church spreads to Gentile areas, it is the Jerusalem community that promoted the idea that Gentiles could only become Christian by becoming Jews first. Once that mistaken idea is quelled (Acts 15), the Judean community remains a stronghold of resistance to the idea that Gentiles do not need to be circumcised or keep kosher–and of hostility to the ministry of St. Paul, apostle to the Gentiles.

Again and again, throughout his ministry, Paul has to fight back, in Galatians, Romans, and Colossians among other letters, against the idea that Jews are somehow the spiritual superiors of Gentiles. So it is true that Jewish ethnocentrism is a problem. Indeed, it is such a problem that Paul even has to remind the first pope–Peter, who himself was the one who first declared that Gentiles were not saved by keeping the Mosaic law (Acts 15)–not to draw back from associating with Gentiles! (Gal 2:11-21).

Indeed, Paul has to spend a lot of time trying to keep together an ethnically mixed Church of Jews and Gentiles, and so do the gospel writers, including Matthew, who is writing his gospel for none other than the Judean Church which is ground zero for the idea that, while all Christians are equal, Jewish Christians are more equal than others.

Matthew, also called Levi, apostle and aforetimes publican, composed a gospel of Christ at first published in Judea in Hebrew for the sake of those of the circumcision who believed, but this was afterwards translated into Greek though by what author is uncertain. The Hebrew itself has been preserved until the present day in the library at Caesarea which Pamphilus so diligently gathered. I have also had the opportunity of having the volume described to me by the Nazarenes of Beroea, a city of Syria, who use it. (Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men, chapter 3).

Matthew is, therefore, writing his gospel to a Church that is continuing to struggle with questions of ethnicity and the relationship between Jew and Gentile in Christ. That is the backdrop of his choice to tell the story of Jesus and the Canaanite Woman.

Of which more next time.

Comments are closed.