The biblical passage which appears below and the subsequent paragraph are taken from the 2009 lenten meditations of the Anglican Church of Canada for March 27:
"… a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered,‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.’ " — Matthew 14:22-27
"This not a story for people who need to think that Jesus always had it together, because it looks like we’ve caught him being mean to a lady because of her ethnicity. At first, he ignores her cries. Then he refuses to help her and compares her people to dogs. But she challenges his prejudice. And he listens to her challenge and grows in response to it. He ends up healing her daughter. What we may have here is an important moment of self-discovery in Jesus’ life, an enlargement of what it will mean to be who he was. Maybe we are seeing Jesus understand his universality for the first time."
There is a furor, of sorts, circulating on the Internet regarding this lenten meditation on Matthew 15:22-27 for March 27, 2009. I only say "furor, of sorts" because it is never clear to me how the storms of the world wide web impact the real world, at least not until some of these storms begin to blow into my computer. I tracked the source of the furor to Anglican Samizdat after picking it up in the online edition of the British newspaper The Telegraph in Damian Thompson’s blog. I would say, though, that there is a real "furor" here and I do think it has to do with biblical interpretation. This is a lenten reflection that raises problems, both with the passage in question, but also with biblical interpretation and the clear teaching of the Christian Church over almost two millenia. For the lenten meditation cited above does not solve any of the problems in the text, though it does pick up on them, and then simply creates more problems, theologically and with the faithful.
First things first. As a number of posters to the above sites have noted, the lenten meditations of the Anglican Church of Canada mistakenly attribute this passage to Matthew chapter 14 not chapter 15. Oops. Nevertheless, errors of this sort occur. The lenten meditations, though, also omit verses 23 and 28 from this passage, without noting it. Lectionaries often do omit verses from the beginning, middle or end of passages, but they ought to alert readers of this fact so that the reader can go and gain proper context. In this case the missing verse 23 states, "But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’" Verse 28 has Jesus exclaim, following the healing, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish. And her daughter was healed instantly." It seems that these verses are essential to the whole narrative scene and it is not clear what argument one would make for omitting them without mentioning it. Apart from these problems, however, there are issues with the meditation, or interpretation, of this passage which appears beneath it.
Jesus, it seems, does not have "it together" and, in fact, is being "mean" to someone because of her "ethnicity." The woman, however, "challenges his prejudice" and Jesus comes to heal the woman’s daughter. It does seem that the author(s) of this meditation is (are) suggesting that Jesus was acting as a "racist," which would, of course, be sinful. I am one of those people who does think Jesus did always have "it together" and since he was without sin could not attribute to him racism. But what those of us who reject this lenten reading, including many angry posters at the above named sites, still must answer is: why does Jesus behave in this manner to the Canaanite woman? The meditation goes on to suggest that Jesus has a moment of "self-discovery" here, "an enlargement of what it will mean to be who he was. Maybe we are seeing Jesus understand his universality for the first time." While this sort of touchy-feely, modern therapeutic language might strike many as...well...touchy-feely, modern therapeutic language that does not fit well in a 1st century Jewish context, there is a genuine historical issue in this passage. Jesus does send his apostles and disciples on a universal mission in Matthew 28:16-20, so why does he initially reject the Canaanite woman because of her ethnicity? Why does Jesus say that "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel"? This statement has a strong probability, I would say certainty, of comprising the actual words of Jesus because of how uncomfortably this sentence rests within the subsequent Gentile mission of the Church, so the question is significant: why did Jesus speak in this manner to this woman? The answer that the Anglican lenten meditations offer is that Jesus has come to a point of "self-discovery." While this does seem odd in light of Christ’s divinity, and so omniscience, the ancient and medieval theologians wrestled with this very issue with respect to Jesus’ divinity and humanity, especially as it appeared in a particular passage in Luke: "and Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor" (Luke 2:52). How could Jesus increase in wisdom? What could that possibly mean? Admittedly, the ancients did not read this in light of a voyage of Jesus’ self-discovery, but they did address this as a real theological issue.
I hope over the next week to unpack all of these issues and to propose that modern historical study of the Bible, in conjunction with a dose of ancient and medieval theology, allow us to answer all of these questions in Matthew 15:22-28. Next post, I want to talk about source and redaction criticism and draw in the parallel passage from Mark 7:24-30.