A Chauvinist Jesus Gets Schooled by a Palestinian Mom

syrophoenician-woman

Readings for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 56:1, 6-7; PS 67: 2-3, 5, 6, 8; ROM 11: 13-15, 20-32; MT 15: 21-28.

“Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” Those are the words addressed to Jesus in today’s gospel reading. They come from a woman whom the evangelist, Matthew, remembers as “Syrophonecian”

An uncharacteristically narrow-minded Jesus has his own name for the woman and her daughter. He calls them “dogs” – b_tches, really. That’s the term for female dogs, isn’t it?

We’ll come back to that in a moment.

For now, note that “Syrophonecian” meant the woman was not a Jew. She was a native or inhabitant of Phoenicia when it was part of the Roman province of Syria. She was living near the twin cities of Tyre and Sidon – a gentile or non-Jewish region of the Fertile Crescent where Matthew takes trouble to locate today’s episode. That would have made Jesus’ petitioner what we call a “Palestinian” today.

No doubt you’re surprised at Jesus’ rough and disrespectful language towards the woman and her child. I am.

As I said, at first he gives no reply at all; he ignores the two females completely. If Matthew’s account is accurate, in his silence Jesus showed himself to be captive to his own cultural norms. It was inconceivable in Hellenistic antiquity for a strange woman to directly approach a man the way the woman in this story did. Above all, it was so for a non-Jewish woman to directly address a Jewish man. In other words, Jesus’ silence shows him a captive to his patriarchal “honor culture.”

But then, as I said, it gets worse. When the woman insists, Jesus implicitly at least uses that term that women find so offensive. He says, “I have been sent for the lost children of Israel . . . it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to a pair of b_tches.”

Is that a sneer I see on Jesus’ face?

In any case, the reply seems out of character for Jesus. In fact, such dissonance has led many scholars to reject the saying as inauthentic – or as though Jesus were only pretending to be hard to test the woman’s faith. Whatever the case, Jesus’ words only echo the rabbinic saying of the time, “He who eats with idolaters is like one who eats with a dog.”

Can’t get much more chauvinist than that, can you? Foreigners’ religions are nothing but “idolatry.” Foreigners themselves are filthy animals.

Do you know anybody that thinks like that? I mean, we still haven’t outgrown such narrowness, and disrespect any more than this stony Jesus apparently had.

But then the woman disarms the Master completely, even as he turns his back on her. Listen to her words. Unfazed in her desperation before this peasant faith healer, she blurts out, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”

Silence.

We can almost see Jesus stop in his tracks. He shakes his head ruefully and turns back. We can almost hear him stifle a laugh as he exclaims, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”

Can you believe it? This poor woman has just schooled Jesus – the Great Teacher. She successfully called him back from his self-identification as an ethnocentric patriarch to his better Self. So he concedes her argument. The one whom the gospels present as the invincible master of verbal riposte admits error and defeat at the hands this simple Palestinian mom.

What does the interaction between Jesus and the woman called “Syrophonecian” mean for us today?

I don’t know . . . Perhaps it means that:

  • If this story actually happened, it’s somehow comforting to know that Jesus was so human — more like us than we’ve been made to think.
  • Xenophobia and racial prejudice are powerful!
  • So is the patriarchal narrow-mindedness fostered by religion. It even captivated Jesus.
  • It continues to captivate most of us even as we speak — in the context of immigration controversy and Black Lives Matter.
  • Women’s voices, especially when defending their children, are often more perceptive than even the wisest of men.
  • For that reason, it’s simply wrong to exclude women from leadership roles in politics and legislation – especially when questions of children, health, women’s reproductive rights, and spiritual leadership are at stake.
  • Given our liturgical context today, it’s wrong to exclude women from the highest leadership posts in the Catholic Church.
  • Don’t let name-calling deter you from doing the right thing.
  • “Sticks and stones . . .”

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

6 thoughts on “A Chauvinist Jesus Gets Schooled by a Palestinian Mom”

    1. William, you are not alone in that story. Despite my too frequent resistance, Peggy does the same for me again and again. As a director of Women and Gender Studies at Berea College, her mantra is that the real root of our culture’s (and world’s) problems is patriarchy.

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