10 Pentecost, August 17
In a rare moment of agreement between postmodern feminism and premodern Christian exegetes, it seems generally agreed that Jesus, in his interaction with a Canaanite woman in Matthew 15, calls her a “dog.” The more reverent exegetes say he does it to make a point. Feminist commentators criticize our Lord for following the bigotries of his era. Others simply hang their heads in embarrassment, wonder why this reading makes it into the lectionary regularly while more important ones are neglected, and decide to preach on the epistle.
What is a generous reading of this vignette, one in which our Lord is not culpable for even a fatigued slip of the tongue? Jesus used agricultural metaphors to speak to an agricultural society, fishing metaphors to speak to fishermen, and even metaphors from the slave-master relationship to speak of justice in a society riddled with social injustice. And he is not slow to choose metaphors from women’s experiences to proclaim the gospel.
We can believe that he exercised no less care in this choice. Jesus, expressing divine empathy, chooses a parenting metaphor. “Would it be responsible parenting,” he asks, “for a mother to take her children’s food and give it to the family pet? Would you do such a thing to your own daughter?” The point has more to do with resources and responsibility than with the woman’s race or sex. We could replace the reference to canines with any other method of food disposal — a cat, an incinerator, a wastebasket — and the metaphor would still hold its meaning. But replace children with anything else, denoting any less responsibility on the part of the parent, and the image fails to meet the purpose Jesus declares for it: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Jesus is thinking about his missionary priorities, especially since he has taken his disciples out of bounds, as it were, in pursuit of solitude. The parenting image he uses also has to do with these priorities: a parent’s primary mission is not to the animals, but to the children. Responsible parents have to make hard choices.
Because this is a parenting metaphor, not a question of the woman’s status as a human being, her response makes sense: the pets are part of the family, too, even if in a secondary way. She does not quibble with Jesus’ decision to keep closely to his priorities. But she recognizes — as does the centurion whose servant Jesus heals — that because of who Jesus is, this is not a question of limited resources. Even a crumb’s worth of healing from Jesus will mean the world to her and her child. Her faith to see beyond the veil of Jesus’ appearance to who he is as Messiah places this woman in the category of precursor to the Gentile Church, the community justified by grace through faith, not by birth or the works of the law. In this way, she receives the fruit of Jesus’ mission, in the form of healing.
Look It Up
Compare this story with that of the centurion in Matthew 8, and his response to the Greeks in John 12.
Think About It
Romans 11 invites further exploration of Jesus’ mission in relation to the Jew/Gentile dynamic.