It’s a haunting passage that many of us are inclined to rewrite.
After reacquainting ourselves with the Matthew 15 passage this past Sunday, many of us are still unsure about it. A Gentile, a non-Jew, is in need. Her daughter is possessed with a demon and she has learned that Jesus of Nazareth is nearby. Desperate to get help for her daughter, she cries out to Jesus for help:
“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David!”
The Bible tells us that Jesus does not answer her cries.
Surely, we imagine, Jesus simply didn’t hear her. Jesus wouldn’t willfully ignore someone, would he? But she keeps crying out and the reader grows uneasy. The disciples soon get involved: “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”
Upon hearing the dismissive action of his followers, Jesus springs into action. He condemns the hard-heartedness of his disciples and praises the woman for her faithfulness. The woman’s daughter is healed, and we move on to another healing story.
Wrong. Jesus does no such thing. In the real version found in the Bible, and not in the fantasy that we might be tempted to craft instead, Jesus doubles down in his annoyance with the woman and tries to shoo her away like a dog. And we, 21st century readers, are stunned and perplexed by Jesus’s very un-Christlike response to a woman who is crying out for mercy.
The most straightforward reading of this story is unpalatable at best, and flat-out offensive at worst. Jesus doesn’t want to help a non-Jew. He tries to ignore her. When she persists, he likens her to a dog that’s nipping at its master’s heels.
It’s important to note, however, that the story does have a happy ending. The woman is persistent and clever. Jesus concedes that she has great faith. The woman’s daughter is healed, and Jesus begins to reach out to the Gentiles in future accounts.
But this story! Goodness gracious. It certainly leaves a bitter taste in our mouths and raises questions about what kind of Jesus we follow.
Not everyone has been dismayed by this story, though. If you scratch beneath the surface of biblical commentary and scholarship, you’ll find that many think that it’s plausible to downplay the offensive nature of this passage. What is their argument? Many scholars believe that Jesus wasn’t being offensive here. He was simply seeking to test the woman’s faith. By ignoring her, and by seeming to agree with his disciples that she should be sent away, Jesus is trying to test the woman to see what lengths she will go to in order to press her case and get mercy for her daughter. Jesus, some scholars will argue, always intended to heal the woman. He was just seeing if she would play the part of the persistent widow and not give up when she encounters resistance.
Perhaps this is how the story played out. Maybe this is what Jesus intended all along. I suppose that it’s possible that this is what this passage means.
But does that pass the sniff test?
I know which version I prefer. I want a story where Jesus is kind, gentle, all-powerful, and hospitable to everyone he meets. I desire a Jesus who is quick to hug and is ever-cheery.
“My Jesus would never want to send someone away. My Jesus would never have a reason to change his mind.”
The problem presents itself when the text does not support my thinking, or the fantasy that I’ve created for Jesus.
So, we find ourselves at a crossroads as we seek to make meaning of a difficult text. What are we to do?
None of this is even remotely new. The broad narrative of Jesus’s life and ministry reveal that even when he was alive, Jesus was misunderstood and confusing to those whom he encountered. Jesus defied people’s expectations for who the Son of God was to be. Of course, centuries of thoughtful reflection and study on the accounts of Jesus in the canonical texts have but deepened some of these questions about who Jesus was. The thousands (yes, thousands) of manuscripts that help to make up our New Testament reveal that scribes and scribblers through the ages frequently sought to soften and domesticate hard passages. The practice of Biblical Textual Criticism helps us to deal responsibly with the ‘differences’ and ‘modifications’ that have been made to the message. One of the rules in textual criticism is to acknowledge that when a passage reads differently among ancient manuscripts, the harder version is probably the original. Thus, the more difficult rendering of a text is the one closest to the truth because we have a tendency to soften the tough stuff and to blunt the edges of things.
The story of the Canaanite woman, then, becomes a good test-study for us. It’s a hard passage where Jesus doesn’t come off looking like the Jesus we’ve crafted in our heads. We may be tempted to reconstruct the story in such a way that removes the tough elements. In fact, and in all truthfulness, this is our default mode. We read scripture the way we want to read it. Even more compelling, we simply may not read the passages of scripture that we don’t want to hear.
That’s all well and fine, but it won’t yield much fruit in our lives if we choose to worship a God of our own creation. A manicured god doesn’t require faith. It requires careful stage-crafting and management. The more daring, more faithful posture may be to read and experience God in scripture with our biases openly acknowledged and to leave space for us to be personally challenged.
Remember, y’all. If Jesus can change his mind, then so can we.