Mark Shea: There are no borders for Christ

A girl looks at a Bible during Mass in 2016 at a Beijing cathedral. Despite persecution, the faith continues to grow in China. PHOTO: CNS

Over the past few weeks, we have been considering some of the complexities of approaching the text of the gospels and trying to get at the words of Jesus, not only in their original context, but as the Evangelists use them in order to teach their respective audiences. I have agreed with my reader on the need to see the text as its first readers saw it, but disagreed with him on some of the claims he makes concerning how the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite Woman was seen by Jesus, by the Woman, by his disciples, and by Matthew’s audience.

For instance, my reader claims to absolutely know beyond the shadow of a doubt that dogs are vermin to the Canaanite Woman (despite the fact that there is evidence this may not be so). That throws the utter assurance my reader displays elsewhere into question, most especially when it comes to his truly problematic claim: that Jesus is ethnocentrically insulting this foreigner and it is only possible that they both share a view of dogs that can only provide a background of complete ethnocentric contempt from Jesus for the Canaanite Woman in this exchange. She cannot really have meant that dogs have masters and were seen as pets in some strata of Canaanite culture, according to my reader.

Understand: I’m not claiming to know for certain the inmost mind and heart of every Canaanite as they sat at home. We simply don’t know what every last Canaanite thought about dogs. Indeed, we don’t know fully what the most famous Canaanite of the entire first century–the Canaanite Woman–thought about dogs, which is the point. My reader’s entire sweeping, utterly confident narrative is a house of cards. Could it be accurate? Sure. Could it be completely wrong? Yes. After all, some Canaanites did, in fact, respect dogs so much as to give them formal burial. The Canaanite dog cemetery we discussed in Part 3 of this series says that not all Canaanites saw them as vermin. Did the Canaanite Woman? We have no certainty.

The point is this: super-confident declarations here are reckless, especially when they lead to this as your main claim:

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.

Now we get down to the nub of what is, I believe, wrong with this reading of the story.

To begin with, there is the problem of geography. If Jesus is an ethnocentrist committed to “Go nowhere among the Gentiles” (Matthew 10:5) he has chosen a funny way to go about it, because he has just gone way out of his way to lead his apostles to Gentile territory. As you can see on this map, Tyre and Sidon are in the extreme north, in Syrian-Phoenician lands.

So it’s no surprise he runs into a Canaanite Woman there. There are lots of Canaanites and other Gentiles there. That’s what Syro-Phoenician people were. If his ultimate purpose is to go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, that’s odd.

The next thing to note about Jesus’ supposed ethnocentrism is that he has already, twice in Matthew’s gospel, done a poor job of being ethnocentric:

And he went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis and Jerusalem and Judea and from beyond the Jordan. (Matthew 4:24-25)

“Galilee of the Gentiles” wasn’t called that for nothing. The crowds that follow Jesus are a rowdy ethnic mix, not just the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And Jesus has no problem with that. Nor does Matthew, who uses this scene as the first of two bookends to bracket the entire Sermon on the Mount. The other bookend is found in Matthew 8 where Jesus is likewise amazed after an encounter with a Gentile and has sharp words for his fellow Jews:

As he entered Caperna-um, a centurion came forward to him, begging him and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress.” And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion answered him, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard him, he marveled, and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, 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.” And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment. (Mt 8:5–13)

So Matthew, while addressing his gospel to a Jewish audience and making the case that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, shows us a Jesus who sees himself sent, not only to the Jews, but rather first to the Jews.

It’s important to get that in order to see what I think is really happening in the encounter with the Canaanite Woman. Because I think that Jesus is using the encounter, not to learn from the Woman, nor even especially to teach the Woman, but to teach his disciples, because they (like the audience Matthew is addressing) really do tend to have an ethnocentric view of the gospel.

Of which more next time.

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