Missing the Wry Christ

Missing the Wry Christ December 8, 2017

in which we finish up the series looking at Christ and the Canaanite Woman.

Last time, we saw that the Church to which Matthew writes has been grappling for decades with the question of the relationship of Jew and Gentile in the early Church, particularly in the Holy Land where Jewish ethnocentrism encouraged the idea that Jewish believers sit in first class while Gentile believers are second class and the proposition that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek” is regarded with hostility and skepticism.

It is against this backdrop that Matthew relates the story of the Canaanite Woman. There are parallels to this story in other gospels, most notably that of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan Woman at the well (John 4). There too, Jesus meets a woman regarded as a foreigner and outsider. But so far from ignoring her, Jesus scandalizes his disciples by speaking with her. This calls into question my reader’s contention that Jesus feels himself bound by the notion that “an unrelated man and woman should not engage socially in public, all the more when the woman is a foreigner.”

Of course, the rejoinder is that the “Matthean Jesus” is not the “Johannine Jesus”. But I reject that approach. There is only one Jesus and all the gospels are relating things he said and did, albeit different things and in varying language for varying purposes. So the fact is Jesus had no trouble breaking social expectations regarding women and foreigners when he had a mind to do so.

And, as we have already seen, even the “Matthean Jesus” was willing to talk to Gentile Centurions and even willing to go to into their homes. So we need, I think, to look somewhere beside his alleged ethnocentrism for his actions with regard to the Canaanite Woman.

One thing I will grant my reader is that the conversation does partake fully of Jesus’ deeply Jewish and Middle Eastern love of badinage, argument, and riposte. As we saw back in Part 2, Jesus engages in it constantly. He bandies words with his disciples, he engages in clever arguments with those who, in their zeal to condemn him, pretend to care about paying taxes to Caesar and women taken in adultery. When somebody tries sophistry by asking “Who is my neighbor?” as a way to dodge responsibility, he responds with the Parable of the Good Samaritan (which, by the way, is not terribly ethnocentric). Even on trial for his life he deftly turns accusations like “Are you the King of the Jews?” into confessions with the artful reply “You have said it.”

And, of course, he does this most famously with his own mother in the scene at Cana when she too “bests” him in an exchange laden with enormous significance. Her request for wine is not mere “Mom hoping that My Son the Miracle Worker will impress the neighbors with drinks all around.” This is the Model Disciple importuning the Messiah to manifest himself, using precisely the kind of stubborn, importunate prayer he himself commands his disciples to use (Luke 11:5-13). That he understands this is clear from his response that his “hour” has not yet come. His “hour”, in John’s gospel, is his death. That will be the culmination of the mission she is asking him to inaugurate. The subtext of Jesus reply is, “Are you ready for this?” She persists, and he grants her prayer, performing the first great sign–a sign of the shedding of his Eucharistic blood. She “wins” this round of argument and riposte insofar as she chases Jesus till he catches her.

Something similar is happening, I believe, with the Canaanite Woman. Here is another peasant woman with, pardon the pun, dogged faith: as dogged as Mary’s and as dogged as the Gentile Centurion who, earlier in Matthew’s gospel, caused Jesus to marvel (Matthew 8:10).

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