Sunday, August 14, 2011

"Help Me!"

When I preached on today’s Gospel passage from Matthew (15:10-28) three years ago, I began with part of a quotation from Deirdre J. Good, Professor of New Testament at General Theological Seminary, New York City, which rather took my breath away. I’m repeating the whole quotation again here because it’s so thought-provoking: “No one, not even Jesus, and possibly not even God, understands the infinitely expandable dimensions of God's open arms. In the face of Jesus' initial silence and the hostility of the disciples, the woman's persistence begins to change Jesus' attitude to outsiders. Where he declared to the disciples ("Go nowhere among the Gentiles...but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel," Matthew 10:5-6), [expressing] his own understanding of an exclusive mission (‘I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ Matthew 15:24), it is this anonymous woman [slave] proselyte who changes his mind…[H]e surely would have read and reflected upon both the narratives of Joseph's reconciliation with his brothers and Elijah's vision. However, Jesus changes his mind during the course of Matthew's Gospel. At the great commission of Matthew 28:16-20, he commissions the disciples to ‘make disciples of all nations.’ “ St. Paul, on the other hand, in the second reading (Romans 11:1-2a; 29-32), seems to have got it: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that God may be merciful to all.
Only in this instance does Jesus clearly refuse to heal, and only here does the insistence of this Gentile mother change his mind. She’s identified as a "Phoenician/Canaanite woman," a slave proselyte. The Mishnah's regular use of the word to identify a slave proselyte provides the most reasonable explanation for Matthew's designation, particularly in light of 1) the servant/slave language which Matthew inserts into Mark's shorter version; 2) the psalm-like language of prayer which the woman uses, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David", “Lord, help me (vv. 22, 25), and "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the masters' tables" (v. 27); 3) addressing Jesus as "Son of David"; 4) the position of "kneeling, falling down, or worshiping" = proskyneo, a verb occurring frequently in Matthew to describe the respectful attitude of outsiders to Jesus.
Matthew identifies the area of Jesus‘ meeting with the woman as “the region of Tyre and Sidon”. The Roman province of Syria had incorporated the former Phoenicia. Tyre encompassed the tribal areas of Asher, Dan and Napthali. It was a Gentile area, although  a certain Jewish presence remained. Matthew says that the woman “came out’, so perhaps they met at the border. The woman is a Canaanite, part of an indigenous population supposedly destroyed by Joshua because of idolatry, but who remained in the land. Interestingly, Matthew includes in Jesus‘ genealogy several other Canaanite women: Rahab, the Jericho prostitute, and Tamar (Genesis 38). Though unnamed, this woman seems to represent for Matthew a figure who anticipates the later mission to the Gentiles.
We have no idea if the woman was married or was a single mother. Nor do we know the name of her daughter. An interesting question is: might the daughter have been right there as her mother pleaded with Jesus? Might this have added to the tone of the woman’s insistence: “my daughter is tormented by a demon”? It would make all the more puzzling and poignant Matthew’s observation that “he did not answer her at all”. One could also question whether the disciples‘ words, “Send her away”, are literal or possibly have the opposite meaning: “Free what she asks”. In the latter case, the disciples could be seen as compassionate intercessors, rather than as people lacking in mercy.
Jesus‘ non-response, then response, is, at best, disconcerting to modern minds, almost reminiscent of the kind of Church policies which have turned off and driven away so many faithful believers at times. The woman, with great respect, really puts the pressure on Jesus: she calls him “Lord” three times; she gets down on her knees, possibly at eye-to-eye level; she begs him, “Help me!” To which Jesus replies: “It isn’t right to take children’s bread and give it to dogs.” Harsh! No way around it, even if one tries to interpret Matthew’s word kynarion = puppy literally, though “dogs” wasn’t a common insult for Gentiles, contrary to many who say otherwise. Despite Jesus‘ response, the woman counters, with great dignity, acknowledging that Jesus has the position of superiority, while at the same time holding to her urgent request. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters‘ table.”   
At this point in the story, Matthew doesn’t give us any further specific details about how Jesus responded: with facial expressions, possible surprise, a smile and a twinkle in his eye, etc. He simply reports: “Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.”  Jesus was very truly human, part of a specific culture and society which had both typically acceptable and taboos practices and policies. Can we be surprised that Jesus, just as you and I and others so often do, came up against these conflicting situations? Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius (395-423), a Roman grammarian and Neo-Platonist philosopher, was also author of the Saturnalia, written for his son, Eustathius. It was a collection of historical, mythological, critical, and grammatical discussions. In it he includes the poignant story of an old soldier who finds himself in danger of losing a law case publicly, and requests from Emperor Augustus that the latter would appear for him in court. Instead, Augustus assigns an attendant to act as counsel. The soldier strips his sleeve, displaying his battle scars, and shouts: “When you were in danger at Actium, I didn’t look for a substitute, but I fought for you in person.” The Emperor, duly chastened, got his point and appeared on his behalf in court. 
In this time of critical social, financial, economic, and spiritual upheaval in so many places around the world -- Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia and Kenya, England, and here in the United States -- multitudes are crying out, “Help me!” Aside from simply being intercessors for their causes and care, will you and I also become responders in whatever way we can, or will we settle for being dispensers by referral?

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