I wrote a bit of Ignatian-style Gospel fan-fic earlier this week, taking a stab at the encounter of Jesus with the Canaanite woman. This is a controversial passage, and my take on it resounded with some. Call it the Ironic Jesus perspective: I propose that our Lord was not being a jerk; rather, he was using the teachable moment to show his disciples that their mission was to the whole world.
Others tend to take a more Stern Jesus or a Culturally-Biased Jesus approach, and one can certainly make such a case.
I’d like to share the reasons I perceived the scene as I did.
My argument is as follows:
1. I don’t think Our Lord was having a sudden mental lapse. Whatever he meant in that moment with the Canaanite woman would be consistent with what he had been teaching up until that point.
2. Jesus had just finished a whole course of teaching about the importance of internal conversion rather than blind adherence to Jewish law:
- In Matthew 15, Jesus teaches that internal purity is more important than external observance of the Jewish law.
- In Matthew 12, Jesus sets aside a legalistic view of observing the Sabbath. He also teaches that a person can be known by the fruit of their actions.
2. Jesus had just finished talking about the redemption of non-Jews.
In Matthew 12, He praises the Queen of the South who came seeking wisdom from Solomon, observing that his fellow Jews were failing to recognize something far greater than Solomon. He sets aside the question of praise for His mother by observing that anyone who does the will of God is part of God’s family.
In Matthew 11, Jesus explicitly speaks of the redemption of Tyre and Sidon, over and against Jewish towns that had received the preaching of the Good News and did not accept it:
20 Then he began to reproach the towns where most of his mighty deeds had been done, since they had not repented. 21“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would long ago have repented in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you.23 And as for you, Capernaum:
‘Will you be exalted to heaven?
You will go down to the netherworld.’
For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.
24But I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”
3. In Matthew Chapter 8, Jesus heals the centurion’s servant without hesitation. It is something of a stretch to think Jesus had somehow decided the Roman occupiers were part of the “Lost tribes of Israel”. This suggests that our Lord was not, in his conversation with the Canaanite woman and his disciples, quoting his own governing principle.
In the same chapter, He also performs an exorcism among the Gadarenes. The fact that the residents nearby were tending swine suggests that these, too, were not Jews.
He also touches a leper, showing Himself master of, not slave to, Mosaic law.
4. And interestingly, way back in Matthew Chapter 7, we hear Jesus talking about “not giving what is holy to dogs” in its proper context: Those who are impious will desecrate holy things. He follows by observing that perseverance in prayer will be rewarded.
Thus when the infamous quote comes around full circle in conversation with the Canaanite woman and his disciples, we have a Jesus who:
- Is master of the Law, not slave of it.
- Has praised the faith of pagans.
- Has spoken of the redemption of the very region they are now standing in.
- Has willingly and freely healed non-Jews.
- And has said that perseverance in prayer is desirable.
And then He pulls out a pun in his dialog, turning the meaning of the expression on its head.
That’s my argument for Ironic Jesus. It’s more than just not wanting Jesus to be a jerk. All the evidence suggests that He simply wasn’t one.
Artwork: Juan de Flandes [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons