Sunday, March 04, 2012

Lent II: Love and Sensibilities

Then Jesus went thence, and departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. And, behold , a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying , Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil . But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs. And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table. Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.

St Matthew xv.21
Sometimes we are tempted to see things only from the point of view of our Western eyes and believe that the time of Jesus is terribly far away from us now to the point where our way of thinking is superior to that of the time. The temptation then is to go with the flow and try and re-interpret everything in the light of modern philosophies which stem from more worldly concerns and cosier sensibilites. What do modern eyes make of this passage in which Jesus, in this modern worldview, seems to be a bit disreputable, snobbish, even racist!

I’ve heard some say that because Jesus is fully human, He is not fully aware of His calling and that this marks the moment where He realises the full extent of His ministry outside of the house of Israel. This is really a product of the “Jesus is nice” worldview that we seem to have rampant in society. It suggests that Jesus’ love for us must necessarily be affirming and cuddly and come with a cup of tea and a slice of cake. In so doing, it commits two errors.

The first is that it does tend towards the Nestorian viewpoint, separating the Divinity of Christ from His Humanity. These two natures have been at harmony in Our Lord from the moment of His Incarnation (et homo factus est). Seeing that it is Original Sin that causes conflict between the Human and the Divine, it would be a violation of that harmony and His Immaculate Conception for the Lord to presume from His Human Nature anything that was not communicated to Him in His Divine.
Added 05/03/12. Whoops! I've overstated myself here and there is a clear error in what I've written. See the comments. Clearly, Our Lord learned in the same way that we learn. This is just one of the wonderful things about Our Lady who gave the Lord such a firm start in the faith as she sat him on her knee and taught him. But what of His calling? That can only come through dialogue between Him and the Father, just as our callings are really only between us and the Father. The difference is that we often need the Church to assist us in discovering that call. For Christ, that intermediary is unnecessary.

Second, it fails to understand the context of the situation fully and give any depth to God's love for us and His hatred for Sin. Tyre and Sidon were renowned for being thoroughly dissolute and “wicked” places. They were both ports and the cosmopolitan nature of those ports made it very difficult for the covenantal purity of the Jews to be practised amid the temptations of the world of the materialistic merchants and the influx of foreign practices and strange ideas. Indeed, many Jews strayed far from the covenant and the good worship of God in order to be more "tolerant" of foreign practices. The people of these towns were not well regarded and rightly so.

So then, here is Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ reaching out to the Jews that have lost their way and are now living dissolute lives when He meets with a Canaanite woman. Her reputation clearly precedes her as no-one wants to know her in the time of her trouble. When He does speak to her, Jesus tells her of His mission and why it is that He is here in these places of dubious morals. However, it is clear that she sees the Divine in Jesus – she worships Him, falling before His feet.

His response is an old Jewish proverb. It might just as well be uttered by a Pharisee whose knowledge of wisdom would have been comprehensive. “It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs” It certainly sounds harsh and rude, calling the woman nothing more than a dog even if it refers to the little pet dogs to which one would feed titbits at meal times. In so doing, Jesus confronts this woman with the reality of the Jewish position – the Law. It is a call for her to make a response. What responses?

Turn tail and leave disappointed? What would this say about the strength of feeling about this daughter that she loves so much that she seeks to cross social boundaries and reach out to someone who can help? Surely to do so would be to dismiss her own child.

Take umbrage and argue? If she really sees the Divine in Jesus, then she knows that this would be an act of false pride. If this woman is aware of the wickedness of the locale and of the history of the Canaanite people in relationship with the Jews, then she knows she hasn’t a leg to stand on. The Jews were given the land of Canaan by God and thus God has a preference for the sons of Israel on account of the covenant that He has with no other nation.

She does the only thing she can. She recognises the untenability her position in the eyes of a superior mind and reaches out in humility. She may be a dog but surely there will be a scrap that will fall from the table of the Children of Israel.

No. Jesus has not been nice to this woman, but He has loved her more dearly than we often appreciate. His is not a nice, affected, cloying, teddy bear love. His is an active love that causes something – makes things happen. This is a love that will cut evil out, challenge every pride and even insult our sensibilities in order for us to be brought closer to Him. In having her faith tested, the effects are more than just a healing: the woman gets more than she asked for. Her daughter is certainly made well, but there are affirmation and congratulations for her actions. Further, her actions are recorded in a Gospel for all of us to read and take as an example of true faith to heart. Gos wants the faith of this woman to be known to every Christian. That is only a part of His respect and love for her.

In the same way, we cannot expect God to be polite to us if our actions are causing us to fall away from Him. Indeed, naughty children used to expect a smacked-bottom from their Mum if they tried to run into a ditch, not a simpering word of “George, don’t do that” and letting them go in tolerance of self-expression. We can expect the Love of God to pull us up short in no uncertain terms, demolishing our pride, our “self-esteem” and our “self-worth” in the process. We have to respond to our transgressions of the New Covenant in humility like the Canaanite woman because in so doing do we see our true worth and true esteem in a God who does actually love us and will not let little things like our cultural “sensibilities” from getting in the way of that Love.


edpacht1 said...

As a whole this is a good and valuable observation, though I find it necessary to quibble with one of your points:

it would be a violation of that harmony and His Immaculate Conception for the Lord to presume from His Human Nature anything that was not communicated to Him in His Divine.

Part of the mystery of the Incarnation is precisely that Jesus, as man, was limited in his knowledge in a way that, as God, He is not. Luke 2:51 is clear:

...Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.

In short, in the fullness of His humanity, he had to learn, just as we all have had to learn. Did He learn something of the fullness of His mission in this interchange? It's not impossible. In becoming man He voluntarily took on the limitations of our flesh, and, perhaps, decided to live without the status of the Godhood that was rightly His, and to abstain from knowing what, as God, He certainly knew, requiring Himself thus to learn. True, He was not fallen as are all the rest of humanity, but remember that unfallen man did have to learn. Would He have been fully human if that had not been necessary for Him?

Warwickensis said...

Hmm. You're quite right, Ed.
I may have gone a little too far into the Monophysite there. I agree, the Lord would have had to learn about people and situations.

My point is that Jesus' apparent rudeness is not out to belittle this woman, but rather to challenge the prevailing culture. This was indeed a test of faith through which the Lord was permitted to act.

edpacht1 said...


Being who He is, the Master would, and did, learn from every situation He entered, as all men must, but, being who He is, what He would and did learn was the perfect response to the situation. He said precisely what she needed to hear in order to learn what she needed to learn and to become what she was called to be, and both the human/divine Jesus and the Gentile woman learned how to transcend the limitations of society.