Thursday, February 9, 2012

"It isn't right to throw the food of children to the dogs" (Making sense of Jesus' words in the Gospel, Thurs. 5th Wk. in Ord. Time, Mark 7:24-30)

Why would Jesus say such seemingly nasty words to the gentile woman who begged him to cure her daughter? However we look at it, the words seem so mean and unkind that we have to wonder if Jesus actually spoke them.

"Let the children be fed first”, he says. “For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs."

It thus would not be an irreverence on our part to ask whether or not such seemingly unkind, and therefore embarrassing, words did pass through Jesus’ lips.

Did he or did he not speak those words? Scripture scholars sometimes speak of what they call a “criterion of embarrassment” or a “criterion of dissimilarity” for evaluating whether the words or actions of Jesus as reported in the Gospels are historically accurate.

The criterion simply states that if what a particular Gospel text reports is “embarrassing”—in this case, Jesus seemingly referring to the Gentile woman and her daughter as “dogs”—then the account is most likely accurate, since the author, who is obviously a believer and follower of Jesus, would have no reason whatsoever to invent an account that would prove embarrassing to Him.

But perhaps, more important than asking whether or not Jesus did speak these words, is asking “why” he spoke them. Did he not, in yesterday’s gospel (Mark 7:14-23), say that “it is what comes out of a man’s mouth that defiles him”?

What we do know—say bible scholars—is that Mark, the author of the gospel, was most likely trying to make a very important point by telling this rather unusual story.

Certain Jews of Jesus’ time had a very negative view of those who weren’t Jews. Samaritans and Gentiles were lumped together and often regarded as “dogs”. Only Jews were acceptable to God, only Jews were clean and worthy. Other human beings were simply that—“dogs”.

By reporting this incident, no matter how embarrassing it might be, Mark wanted to acknowledge the fact that as a Jew, Jesus belonged to a race that back then often had a profoundly negative view of others.

And yet—and this is what’s more fascinating and truly important about the account, more “embarrassing” in fact than calling the woman and her daughter, “dogs”—was that Jesus went beyond, transcended, and overcame this negative view and, in Matthew’s account of the incident—praised the woman’s faith and granted her request.

The Matthean report of the event is far more dramatic than Mark’s:

“A Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not say a word in answer to her. His disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the woman came and did him homage, saying, “Lord, help me.” He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.” (Matt. 15:21-28)

This action of Jesus—of praising the woman’s faith and granting her request of healing for her daughter—is in fact, the real point of the gospel, not the seemingly harsh words he is reported to have said at first.

In yesterday’s gospel, Jesus judged all foods clean and acceptable. Today he takes that teaching one step further and says that no person can ever be regarded as unacceptable to God. We human beings may fail to see beyond what is superficial, most of the time resting content precisely with the external. But God's ways are different from ours, he sees and knows us, through and through. "Every hair on our head has been counted" (Lk. 12:7), and yet He loves us still.

We are all brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of but one Father. In Christ, we are all the same, no one is a stranger, no one is to be refused help, even if at times, we don’t like one another, and sometimes even call each other unkind names.

“In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is neither male nor female; for we are all one in Jesus Christ”. (Gal. 3:38)

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)