The Gospels present the radical idea that, in Jesus, God is revealed in human form. For the Greco-Roman mindset this was a scandalous idea. Humans were thought to be impure, and so the idea that God could have a body was offensive and shocking. Understanding this goes a long way to understanding why the theological debates of the first church councils revolved around the humanity of Jesus, and the pull to see Jesus either as only divine or as only human. Against these tendencies the early church stressed that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine.
In general, the tendency to think of God as detached from the corruption of human affairs is a Greek idea, while seeing God in more emotional human terms reflects Hebrew thinking. We get the idea of God as the "unmoved mover" from Plato, while the Hebrew prophets paint a picture of God -- to borrow a phrase from the late Clark Pinnock -- as the most moved mover.
Because subsequent Christian theology has been so deeply shaped by Greek thinking, the image of God found in the Gospels in the person of Jesus still can come as a shock to our thinking. We have a tendency to want to sanitize the picture we find.
One example of this that I explore in Disarming Scripture
is how Jesus is seen by the Gospel writers as being sinless, but is nevertheless presented as being accused of being a sinner by the religious authorities of his day. A typical response to this, employed by many a Greek-thinking Bible commentator, is to deny that Jesus actually broke any laws. But that is not what the Gospels actually say. By their account, Jesus did break commandments, and in fact did so in clear defiance of the religious authorities. So the picture we have from the Gospels is that the way Jesus was sinless involved breaking certain commandments in the name of compassion. In other words, faithfulness to the ultimate aim of the Law required breaking the Law.
In this post, I'd like to focus on a passage that is perhaps even more challenging to our Greek-thinking bias. The Gospel of Mark (Mk 7:24-30) tells the story of a Syrophoenician woman who asks Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus tells her that "It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." and she replies, "Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs get the crumbs that fall from the table." Jesus is so impressed by her retort that he changes his mind, in effect repenting, and heals her daughter.
To my knowledge, this is the only time recorded in the Gospels where Jesus loses a verbal exchange, where Jesus is "bested" by someone else, where they get the punchline. Typically, Jesus is able to reply to every challenge of the Scribes and Pharisees with some brilliant zinger, like "Give unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's" (Mk 12:17) or "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone" (Jn 8:7). If the Gospels were a sitcom, you'd hear the studio audience laughing after every line Jesus says, and it's highly likely that the crowds hearing his brilliant retorts did laugh. Today we would say "Oh, snap!"
But this time was different. This time it is the woman who wins, and it is Jesus who repents.
This is hard to take. The implication is that Jesus is not only being rude in calling her a "dog," but also racist in saying that one ethnicity (his people, the Jews) are more deserving of God's care than outsider Gentiles are. Perhaps to underline this, in Matthew's account (Mt 15), the ethnicity of the woman is said to be a Canaanite, the long-standing enemies of the Jews. In essence, an "unclean" person comes to Jesus, asking for mercy, and Jesus initially refuses. But she persists, and Jesus agrees.
Again, many commentators attempt to soften things. One of my favorites is to claim that the Greek word Jesus used really means "little puppy" as if Jesus were saying something adorable rather than insulting. For example, in the notes to the NET Bible we read
"The diminutive form originally referred to puppies or little dogs, then to house pets. In some Hellenistic uses κυνάριον (kunarion) simply means “dog.”
The term dogs does not refer to wild dogs (scavenging animals roaming around the countryside) in this context, but to small dogs taken in as house pets. It is thus not a derogatory term per se, but is instead intended by Jesus to indicate the privileged position of the Jews (especially his disciples) as the initial recipients of Jesus’ ministry."
I have to say I find this explanation really a stretch. Even if Jesus is indeed softening the Jewish habit at the time of referring to Gentiles as "mongrels," and instead is calling them simply house pets, it still implies an acceptance of the idea that people of her race (Gentiles) have less value in the eyes of God than people of his race (Jews), just as a house pet has less value than a child.
More to the point however is that the story does not end here, but continues to present a picture of Jesus losing
a moral argument and repenting. This is of course difficult because the Gospels tell us that Jesus is the picture of moral perfection. So how can it be that the Gospels present Jesus as being morally in the wrong here?
There are a number of approaches to understanding this. There is the fundamentalist option of seeking to justify the actions of Jesus, claiming that God has in the past restricted salvation to only the Jews, but that in Jesus this had changed and salvation was made available to Jews and Gentiles alike. This is the least plausible of all the options. Are we really to believe that God had ordained this change in dispensation, apparently beginning at the precise moment the woman made her retort, and taking Jesus a little off guard?
Then there is the secular-liberal option of claiming that Jesus was simply a fallible human, and thus subject to being immoral like all of us. While more plausible than the fundamentalist option above, this is the least attractive of all the options. It seems to miss the whole message of the Gospels, saying "Sorry, nothing to see here, just move along." It's depressing and has little to offer other than disillusionment.
Finally, there is the option that you might call "nice Evangelical" which is an option that folks like me tend to gravitate towards. It seeks to explain how what Jesus said, while seeming
insulting, really wasn't. The idea is that Jesus was only pretending
to be prejudiced in order to draw out the conflict and build a bridge, crossing the ethnic divide.
This is indeed plausible, and attractive, and if you wanted to go with that, I wouldn't want to stand in your way.
But I'd like to propose something different, because I find it more challenging, and I want to allow the message the Gospels present of Jesus to challenge me, and resist the urge to sanitize it.
Jesus is supposed to be our model of moral perfection. That's an idea we get from
the Gospels. So how can it be that Jesus is "corrected" by this woman in the Gospels? How can it be that we have in the Gospels a story where Jesus is presented as being in the wrong morally? We know that the Gospel writers did edit the stories of Jesus, so if their aim was to present Jesus as morally perfect, why did they include this story that a modern PR firm surely would have edited out?
What if the picture of moral perfection that the Gospels give us is not one of never being wrong, but presents us with a model of being open and able to grow? What if true goodness involves the ability to listen and learn and adapt, and even to... repent?
What if this Gospel pericope were not an embarrassment that we need to seek to cover up or explain away, but a good example of what moral maturity looks like that the Gospel writers have purposely
included to illustrate this idea for us?
I know that is challenging, but I think those are some crumbs worth chewing on.
Labels: Bible, exegesis