by John Howard
I understand from American Internationals here in Israel/Palestine that over the last year, with all the political events in the United States, that there has been a hashtag – “She persisted” – which has done the rounds. It could almost be a title for Matthew 15: 21-28. A passage that has often troubled me and, as it came around again in the lectionary this year, left me wondering.
Jesus leaves his usual stomping ground, and arrives in the multi-cultural mixing-pot of Tyre and Sidon. His fame, though, goes before him and a woman with (we would say) a mentally ill child – seeks his help. The disciples try to brush her away but she won’t take no for an answer. Jesus speaks to her and he treats her with little more than contempt. “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Matt 15:26 NRSV Anglicized Edition). The context seems to indicate that the children are the Jews – or Israelis- and so the woman is being, in effect, called a dog. While the words might well have had subtly differing meaning at the time, it is difficult to understand Jesus’ response to the woman in any other way than as an insult. I have never found the assurances that some commentaries give – that Jesus’ words were not understand by Matthew as being offensive. (Peake’s Commentary on the passage, p787; Matthew for Everyone, Tom Wright, p201 half recognises the problem but seems to fail to deal with it.) At the very least Jesus was seeing her as a second-class citizen until her persistence won through.
I have been quite taken by a novel I have read recently, “The Fire Child”, (“The Fire Child“, S.K. Tremayne. Harper Press). Much of it is written in the first person; it could be described as a psychological thriller. The three main characters are Rachel, a young woman just married to David – some years her elder, who is a high-flying lawyer from a Cornish family who were formerly lead mine owners and can trace their family line back a thousand years – and Jamie, David’s son from a former marriage. In very differing ways each show remarkable persistence, and while there is no happy ending to the book there is a satisfactory one (perhaps that’s as much as I can say without ruining the book for all who read Theology Everywhere)! What links this book to the passage from Matthew’s Gospel is not just the theme of persistence, but the question of what lies behind the words that are used. The book places words in the mouths of Rachel, David and Jamie but what exactly do they mean? What thought processes lie behind the words chosen? What does Jamie mean when he says he has “seen” his dead mother? What does David mean when he describes his commitment to sustaining the hereditary family home? What does Rachel mean when she calls herself a “liar” about her past?
What does Jesus mean by the way he addresses the Canaanite woman? What was in his mind? Was it the traditional enmity (we might say prejudice) of the Israeli towards the Canaanite? Was he reflecting the irritation and the frustration of his disciples that this woman was getting under their skins? She has stopped her shouting and got down on her knees before Jesus, begging for his help and still he uses the words “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” I know that I can act that way. Too often I do, but I’m ashamed that I do. But Jesus is the Son of God. What is he doing saying words like this and seemingly showing unacceptable prejudices?
Perhaps my understanding about the nature of being divine is at fault. Can God be prejudiced and yet divine? – I don’t think that he can – but more accurately in this dilemma we have to ask, can Jesus be prejudiced and divine – or divinely human? Not, I would suggest, if his divinity is a constant state of being throughout his life. But if his divinity is seen in the process of living – we might say an existential incarnation – perhaps it could then be; a state whereby he learns as he lives from every encounter he has, until his final earthly encounter hangs him on a tree.
How we relate to others by our actions and our words reveal who we are. Rachel, David and Jamie show this in the novel “The Fire Child,” and we do through our lives. It has to be the same for Jesus. He reveals himself through the living out of the Gospel ministry. We can try to avoid the difficult words of Jesus but to do so is likely to deprive us of their power. When we see the impact of his own mistakes, of his own prejudice changing the person of the one we call divine, is that not a divinity that is far more challenging, for it calls us to embrace our experience in the same way.